The Father of the Bicycle Industry

Tuesday, 21 June 1881 - Coventry, England

I took the early morning train from Kenilworth back to Coventry today. I went straight to my time machine, disguised as a huge wooden crate in a currently empty warehouse. I didn’t bother to get a hotel, for I’m only staying the day. I left my luggage there and changed into my black frock coat and top hat I had been storing in the machine just for this occasion. I have to attend a funeral today.

James Starley
If you will remember on Twitter I had commented last Friday that a James Starley was to die that evening? I was not allowed to stop it, and couldn’t anyway. This was no matter of shoving someone out of the way of a train. Poor Starley had cancer and in 1881 there is no cure. The doctors had found the lump just last December. By Easter he was bed ridden. His death came as no shock to anyone. No one wanted to see him die, but they all must feel a sense of relief that he is no longer suffering.

As is the fashion of the day, the funeral was held four days later. The mood of Coventry is subdued. Many mourn the loss, while the more cynical wonder what the loss of the brilliant James Starley will mean to this town. Hundreds lined the street to watch the passing funeral procession, as four black horses pulled the long dark hearse.

I had a devil of a time squeezing into the church where the memorial service was held. The speaker unfolded the rags to riches story of Coventry’s favorite son. James Starley was born on a farm in Sussex in 1830. He however had an inventive mind that loved to tinker. In another age he would have died a farmer who had built a better mousetrap (which young Starley apparently did with an umbrella rib and a willow branch) but this is the industrial age and it needs engineering geniuses.

Starley ran away as a teenager to London and got a job as a gardener. In his spare time he tinkered with watches and gadgets. He even fixed and improved his employer, John Penn’s, expensive sewing machine. Penn introduced him to Josiah Turner, a partner of Newton, Wilson and Company who had manufactured his sewing machine. Turner got Starley a job at the factory, until he discovered the young man was building his own vastly improved sewing machine. Turner talked him into starting their own company in Coventry in 1861.

James Starley's "Queen of Hearts" Sewing Machine
The new sewing machine, named “the Queen of Hearts,” was a big hit. Starley kept tweaking it, coming up with many improvements that others copied. Then he saw his first bicycle. It was a velocipede from France, nicknamed the Bone-Shaker for good reason. Inefficient, uncomfortable, it was little more than a curiosity, Starley saw huge potential and started producing them in 1868.

Velocipede aka Bone-Shaker
Of course, Starley’s bicycles did not stay bone-shakers for long. Bicycles didn’t have chains then, so one had to peddle furiously. Starley decided increasing the front tire would give more momentum. And thus Starley invented the “Penny-Farthing.”

Penny-Farthing bicycle
The Penny-Farthing was more efficient, but it was difficult to ride. It seemed only young athletic men, wishing to impress girls, raced about on them. Starley wasn’t satisfied with it though, and kept trying to develop what he called a “safety bicycle.” He improved the spokes, the tires, indeed he had dozens of patents. He was constantly reinventing the bicycle.

Why there was a need for the Safety Bicycle
Then Starley made a breakthrough when he devised “differential gears” and perfected the chain drive. This led to the “Salvo,” with two huge tires and small wheels to stabilize it. Even Her Majesty could ride one of these (and she did!)

James Starley on his "Salvo" bicycle
Then James Starley was struck down by cancer at the tender age of fifty. All right, life expectancy in England in 1881 is only about 45 years. Still it is far too soon to take away a man who’s life work was not done.

Fortunately his family will carry on the business. And in four years his nephew, James Kemp Starley, will finish his uncle’s dream, creating the Rover. This safety bicycle is the model we think of today as the bicycle. It will revolutionize bicycling by making it available to just about everyone from young ladies riding in the park to working-class men making deliveries or riding to work.

James Starley has been called the Father of the Bicycle Industry. He may not have invented the first bicycle, or the final version, but without all his innovations, James Kemp Starley may never have invented the safety bicycle--at least not in time for the 1890s, the Golden Age of the Bicycle.

The Rover Bicycle
Others will take James Starley’s differential gears and use them to create automobiles. They are still found in hovercars in our own 27th century, allowing cars to land and drive to their parking spots. It is no coincidence that Coventry will also become the birthplace of the British automobile industry.

There is already talk of making a monument to James Starley. It will be very showy in true Victorian fashion. However I think the James Starley Building on the campus of Coventry University is a more fitting memorial to an inventive genius.

Starley Memorial erected 1884
James Starley’s contribution to Coventry’s growth can not be emphasized enough. When its watch industry was all but snuffed out by foreign imports in the 1880s, bicycle manufacturing took up the slack, and then branched off into the automotive and aeroplane industries. This why Coventry University was so keen to have me record the funeral of one of her most important citizens. James Starley will indeed be missed.

James Starley’s story by legendary British Cyclist Horace William Bartleet

More about James Starley’s Sewing Machines

Penny Farthings On the Road
Apparently in the future, brave men will still ride Penny-Farthings to impress ladies

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