What Would an 1895 Wright Brothers Bicycle Cost Today? - Doug Barnes

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What Would an 1895 Wright Brothers Bicycle Cost Today?

The answer of course is priceless.  However, this does mean we can't try to find a comparable price today based on exchange rates or purchasing power.

Economists have two ways of calculating past values in today's dollars. The first technique is to use an inflation index to adjust past monetary values to those of today. The second is to estimate the percentage of income required to purchase an item and then translate that into a similar value today. Over long time periods both of these methods are imprecise. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to compare the two methods for estimating the value of a Wright brothers bicycle in today's dollars.

Price of Bicycles in Today's Dollars

I became interested in this because I’m reading the history of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough. In the book McCullough mentions that the Wright Brothers sold a bicycle assembled by them for $65. This was no doubt the van Cleve model, as the St. Clair model was a bit less expensive at about $40. While $65 does not sound like much, the value today would be about $1,870 while the St. Clair would be valued at $1,220. This wasn’t a cheap purchase during those times when the average wage rate was between $1.00 and $2.00 per day. Since only 5 Wright Brothers bicycle are known to exist, today if you could find one, the price would be even higher.

McCullough may have unearthed this figure from a bicycle that is sitting in the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio (figure 1). The note at the bottom right of the photograph reads, “Women’s bicycle purchased from the Wrights in 1895 for $65 by a relative of the donor Eula Baker.” The purchase of this ladies bicycle came right in the middle of the bicycle boom of the 1890s when women began cycling in larger numbers. The bicycle fit in perfectly with the emancipation movement that was taking place around the same time. This was made possible by the invention of the “safety bicycle.” The safety bicycles look remarkably similar to bikes today. A good description of this period can be found in The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff.

Figure 1. Women's Wright Brothers Bicycle purchased in 1895
(Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio)
The Wright Brothers had two different lines of bicycles-the St. Clair and the Van Cleve. The Van Cleve was the most expensive. According to a 1900 catalogue, this bicycle came standard with a number of common bicycle parts of the times (figure 2).

Page from old Wright Brothers bicycle catalogue
Figure 2. Bicycle Manual for the Van Cleve Wright Brothers Model, 1900
(Source: Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company Website)
The base price in the catalogue is $47, so perhaps there was a price drop due to competition from 1895 to 1900. If the payment was not made promptly, the price would rise to 50. The $47 Van Cleve model had the following standard features (table 1).
Table 1. Standard Feature of a Wright Brothers Bicycle, Late 1890s
(Source: Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company Website)
The St. Clair bicycle was less expensive that the Van Cleve model. The St. Clair looks remarkably like a fixed gear bicycle that you could purchase today (figure 3). The note at the bottom of the picture reads, "A Rare Wright Bicycle: Only five bicycles manufactured by the Wright brothers are known to exist. This one, a model called the St. Clair, was built in 1898. Less expensive than the Van Cleve, the St. Clair sold for $42.50."

This model is on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and is on loan from The Henry Ford, a museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The exhibit on the Wright brothers at the Air and Space Museum is extremely popular and besides the bicycle it has a full model of the Wright brothers first flight airplane.

Figure 3. Wright Brothers Bicycle at Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC
(Photos: Doug Barnes)

Influence of Bicycle Mechanics on First Flight

For the Wright Brothers the bicycle played two main roles in the development of first flight. The less obvious one is that the profits from the bicycle shop funded virtually all of the research and development for the first powered airplane. The Brothers spent the summers repairing and selling bicycles. This was a very successful business that took them away from their work on airplanes. However, during peak season working in the bicycle shop was essential for financing the research and development for the first flight. This included long stays in Kitty Hawk, NC for testing and revising their glider models that would eventually provide the foundation for powered flight.

The bicycle mechanic skills learned by the Wright Brothers served them well in designing and making adjustments to the first airplane. The wings were held together with wires that followed the principle of spokes. By tightening and loosening the wires the Wright Brothers could reshape the wings in their many glider trails. A bicycle chain was used to attach the motor to the propellers. Most of the tools used to construct the first power flight were bicycle and woodworking tools. The constant tinkering with bicycle tools led to the First Flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina on the outer banks in December 1903. It should be remembered that bicycles are a product of the industrial revolution just as much as the airplane.

Another factor in the development of the first powered airplane was that bicycling is like flying close to the ground. The Wright Brothers were used to the feel of a bicycle, making small adjustments to maintain balance. As a consequence, they might have reasoned that flying would be no different. Just as a bike rider controls cornering by shifting weight through slight adjustment of hips, the vagaries of the wind could be dealt with by a skilled pilot making adjustments to keep the aircraft stable in the air.

The declining sales of the bicycle brands created by the Wright Brothers reflect the change in their interests from bicycles to airplanes (table 2). They sold a high of 95 bicycles in 1898 and sales declined to only 3 in 1904. Their obsession with flying was in full throttle by 1904, one year after the first powered flight in December 1903.

Table with the sales of Wright Brothers Bicycles
Table 2. Sales of Wright Brothers Branded Bicycles, 1897-1904
(Source: Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company Website)

Bicycle are Much More Affordable Today

The price of bicycles in the 1890s was a big purchase, requiring one or two month’s wages for an average worker. Progress has been made in the last 100 years in reducing the price and improving the quality of bicycles. Today quality bicycles can be purchased for $400 and in big box stores they are even less at $100 to $200.

The quality of even the cheapest bikes is better than those in the 1800s. No doubt the bicycle boom of the 1890s would have been even bigger if people could have purchased a quality bicycle for $12.00, the inflation adjusted value of $350 in 1895. Even more interesting is that a Van Cleve Bicycle cost one or two months of an average person's income in 1895. Today the purchase of a $350 bicycle would be between one and two day's of average US median income.

It’s remarkable that the Wright brothers bicycles look similar to those we ride today.  From just before 1820 through 1900 the basic structure and components of the bicycle evolved from being a two-wheel scooter without pedals (the Draisine), to a front drive high wheelers (such as the Penny Farthing) and finally to bicycles that we would recognize. The development of the pedal bicycle started in the 1850s and evolved through the 1890s to define the modern bicycle. Of course the bikes today are lighter and have many refinements, but the essential components of frame, wheels, brakes and gears are similar. Today these legacy two wheelers in museums remind us that the bicycle is part of the modern day industrial revolution and no doubt soon will be enhanced to fit in with the 21st-century digital revolution.

References

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. 2017. Consumer Price Index (Estimate) 1800-Present. Access 2017. https://www.minneapolisfed.org/community/teaching-aids/cpi-calculator-information/consumer-price-index-1800. This series was generated from the Handbook for Labor Statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Guroff, Margaret. 2016. The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Long, Charles, ed. 1960. Wages and Earnings in the United States: 1860-1890. Princeton University Press, Princeton Nj. Accessed 2017. http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2500.pdf

National Museum of the US Air Force. 2017. "Wright Bicycle" National Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton Ohio. Accessed 2017. 

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. 2017. “1900 Van Cleve Catalogue.” Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company: A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation. Accessed 2017.

1 comment:

  1. I too am reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I have learned a lot. Too bad about Lt. Selfridge...

    ReplyDelete