A Short History of the Bicycle Coaster Brake - Doug Barnes

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Short History of the Bicycle Coaster Brake

The coaster brake has been in constant use on bicycles for over a century, but it seems to get no respect. Compared to other bicycle components such as wheels, derailleurs, shifters, rims or tires, the bicycling community does not pay much attention to coaster brakes. The probable reason is that they are found mostly on low cost bicycles. Despite this lack of respect, coaster brakes are still sold in high volumes in the USA and throughout the world. In addition, they were a key invention during the 1890s, an era when innovations defined the modern bicycle.

The enduring popularity of the coaster brake is because of its simplicity and reliability. Capturing this sentiment, one advertisement by Pure Cycles describes one of its models as follows. “Featuring a hands-free coaster brake for easy stops, swept-back bars for a comfy, upright ride, and a steel frame to soften the road, this bike is perfect for quick errands, slow rolls, and all of those late-night party rides.” In fifty or sixty years this bicycle might come out of a basement or garage ready to ride with perfectly functioning coaster brakes. My curiosity about coaster brakes was piqued when recently I assembled, greased and reassembled an over 40 year old Bendix 70 model that was on a Columbia bicycle. As a result of this project I decided to take a closer look at the origins of the coaster brake.

Era Before the Coaster Brake

Prior to the invention of the coaster brake, many bicycles had front wheel pedal drive systems. The cranks and pedals connected directly to the front wheel. For stopping a bicycle in the 1870s and 1880s, the rider would either use handbrakes or simply resisting pedaling. The hand brakes of the time were getting better, but with poor quality rims combined with heavy bicycles, stopping could be an adventure. The resistance method of stopping involves reversing the direction of pressure on the pedals in the same way as some fixed gear bicycles today. The “gearing” in such a direct drive front wheel system was determined by the size of the wheel. The larger wheel covered more ground in one pedal stroke and therefore was faster than a bicycle with a smaller front wheel. The reason for the advent of the high wheel bicycles was to achieve greater speeds.  As an example from the 1870s, the high wheel Penny Farthing could attain higher speeds than the more moderately sized Phantom bicycle (figure 1).

Two vintage bicycles--Penny Farthing and Phantom
Figure 1. The Phantom and the Penny Farthing Bicycles in the 1870s.
Source: Herlihy 2004; Wikipedia Commons, Penny Farthing
Note: Photos are Phantom bicycle (left) and Penny Farthing (right) from 1870s
The next development in bicycle technology was the safety bicycle. At that time the chain drive system was rapidly replacing the system of direct drive system. Instead of driving the front wheel, the pedal and crank connected to a chain ring at the bottom of the bike and transferred power to rear sprocket by the use of a chain. This allowed bicycle makers to reduce bicycle wheel sizes to more reasonable dimensions. On a single speed, the gear ratios could be customized to the bicycle simply by varying the size of the front chainring or rear sprocket. Having similarly sized wheels made the bicycle easier and safer to mount and dismount, and hence the name safety bicycle. The high wheelers became virtually extinct in the 1880s.

During the 1880s the safety bicycle underwent many technological improvements. In fact, the invention of the coaster brake was preceded by a number of bicycle innovations in the 1880s and 1890s. These included the refinement of the safety frame, adjustable spoke wheels, pneumatic tires, freewheels, sprockets and chain drive systems for transferring power from the pedals to the rear wheel. Most of these inventions took place in a relatively short period of time.  Along with others it was a nephew of John Starley—the inventor of the modern bicycle wheel—that over several years came up with a bicycle that looks familiar even today. In 1986 he had put together a bicycle with the same sized wheels and a steering mechanism similar to today’s forks. This was called the Rover Safety Bicycle (figure 2). According to David Herlihy (2014), the safety bicycle spurred the bicycle industry into an “international industry with bustling factories servicing the demands of a broader population that looked toward the bicycle not only for recreation but also for utility.”

A high wheel bicycle and a saftey bicycle late 1800s


Figure 2. Bicycle evolved from hard to ride Penny Farthing to Rover Safety Bicycle. Source: Lueger, Otto, Lexicon der Gesamten Technik (Dictionary of Technology), Deutche Verlags Anstalt, Stuttgart,Germany 2004.

The Coaster Brake Invention in the 1890s

Several key inventions took place in the 1880s and 1890s that would make the safety bicycle similar in appearance to bicycles today. This included the use of better rims, the pneumatic tire and the bicycle freewheel which allows a bicycle to coast. The bicycle freewheel was patented by William Van Anden in 1869. During the same time period A. Boeuf introduced another version in France. In the 1870s the freewheel was considered too complicated and prone to failure, so very few manufacturers used them on their bicycles. The freewheel eventually was introduced to the safety bicycle in both Europe and the USA in the late 1890s, so that the rider could pedal and coast (Herlihy 2004).

On the heels of the invention of the safety bicycle and rediscovery of the freewheel, Henry Townsend applied for the first coaster brake US patent. He later transferred the rights to produce the brake to New Departure of Bristol, Connecticut (figure 3). The coaster brake seems to have been simultaneously invented by several people including James Copeland (Pope Manufacturing) and William Robinson of Brooklyn, New York (Wright Aeroplane Company 2018). They all filed patents in 1898. 

Coaster brake on green background
Figure 3. New Departure Advertisement for Model D Coaster Brake first Produced in 1930s Source: Dave’s Vintage Bicycles.  A Classic Bicycle Photo Archive. Accessed 2018.
Henry Townsend seems to have applied for the first coaster brake patent in 1898. The 1907 patent approval of Townsend’s invention states, “A further object is to provide a driving, coasting. and braking mechanism for bicycles, and similar vehicles, such mechanism being controlled by the rider through the pedals, being of simple form and arrangement, sufficient and certain in action, and being so constructed that it can readily incorporated in bicycles already made or can be embodied in bicycles during the process of manufacture.” (US Patent Office 1907) Townsend transferred the patent to New Departure, a company which produced some of the first high quality mass produced coaster brakes.

During the 1890s bicycles enjoyed a surge in popularity, especially among women, that was a direct consequence of easier to use bicycles that included coaster brakes. The Wright Brothers in the 1890s produced both men’s and women’s bikes (figure 4) before they turned their attention to first flight. Many of their bicycles featured coaster brakes, the newest technology of the time. The Wright Brothers produced their own version of the coaster brake (McCullough 2016), which appeared extensively in their bicycle advertising. 

Vintage bicycle on display in museum
Figure 4 Wright Brothers Van Cleve Safety Bicycle,  Middle 1890s.  Source:National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio 

The Mountain Bike Era in the 1970s

This coaster brake also has a unique place in the history of mountain biking in the 1970s. The durability and ease of use of the coaster brake was noticed by a remarkable group of bicycle enthusiasts during the 1970s in Marin County California. The riders included Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Tom Ritchie all who went on to redefine bicycling as an off-road sport. This group of innovators took to a fire road near Pine Mountain which is in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. They created both a downhill race and a new breed of bicycle (Penn, 2010). The course and the race were eventually given the name of Repack. Initially they took old balloon tire 40-50 pound bicycles to ride down Pine Mountain. The Schwinn Excelsior was the model of choice due to its sturdy frame and heavy weight. This was a general term that was used by the riders for all Schwinn models called motor bikes or auto cycles (figure 5). Most of these bicycles came with coaster brakes. A 1938 Schwinn bicycle catalog identifies the brands as either New Departure, Morrow or Musselman. On those early runs, by the bottom of the mountain the coaster brakes had heated up and eviscerated the grease. As a result they had to repack the coaster brakes after every ride, and consequently the location was named the Repack Course. 

Early mountain bicycles from the 1970s
Figure 5.  Vintage 1930s Schwinn Motorbike modified for Repack Course, 1977 Source: Charlie Kelley’s Website, accessed 2018.
The brakes were soon modified to include motorcycle drum brakes. In fact, the bicycles frequently broke after every descent and the Repack Course. The riders would take the bikes home and modify them. The Repack Course became the testing ground for the development of the mountain bicycle. As reported by Robert Penn (2010).
The name of the race, ‘Repack’, even came from the act of fixing a bike. ‘Back in the day coaster brakes—you know the kind you operate by pushing backwards on the pedals—were the most popular,’ Charlie Kelly said. ‘You packed the brake hub with grease to keep them smooth. In a race, the grease heated up so much it just boiled out, leaving a contrail of black smoke behind the bike. When you got to the bottom, it howled so hard you had to go home and relpace that hub again with grease.’
Eventually, the early Repack riders began building their own frames and components to take the abuse of riding in the mountains, and the mountain bike revolution was born (Allen 1991). The popularity of the sturdy mountain bike quickly became a favorite for bicyclists riding on pothole infested urban streets. This group of motley 1970s riders racing on a rural mountain fire road precipitated the birth of a whole new bicycling industry.

Coaster brakes are simple to use, but in terms of stopping power, as evidenced on the Repack course, they do not match other forms of brakes. Coaster brakes heat up due to the friction between the pads and the inside of the hub and this reduces stopping power. However, with hands cramping from riding on rough terrain without suspension, the early Repack Course riders appreciated even gentle braking by using the pedals. The Repack riders eventually went on to develop better brakes for mountain bikes. However, the early hair raising rides combined with repacking the brakes after every race still live on today in the name of the course and in mountain biking history. 

Conclusion

Coaster brakes are still used on less expensive cruiser style bicycles today. They often come with a very inexpensive front brake to back up the rear coaster brake. With the development of the disk and better hand brakes, the use of coaster brakes has declined on more expensive bicycles. The coaster brake drawbacks are that fine control of stopping is difficult and braking power declines due to overheating on long downhills. However, they still remain popular on cruiser style bicycles because of their low cost, reliability and simplicity. An invention that has lasted more than 100 years and is still in use on many bicycles today deserves a more prominent place in history of bicycling.

References

Brown, Sheldon. 2018 “Bicycle Coaster Brakes” Sheldon Brown’s Technical Bicycle Information Website. www.SheldonBrown.com. Accessed 2018.

Herlihy, David. 2004. Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kelly, Charlie. Mountain Bike Hubsite. Website accessed 2018

Lueger, Otto, 2004Lexicon der Gesamten Technik (Dictionary of Technology), Deutche Verlags Anstalt, Stuttgart,Germany.

McCullough, David. 2016. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Penn, Robert. 2010. It's All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels. New York: Bloomsbury

Seymour, Allan. 1991. The Pioneers of Mountain Bicycling. Pamphlet Created for Interbike. Aneheim, California.

US Patent Office. 1907. “Driving and Braking Mechanism For Cycles” Patent Application No. 850,077. Original application filed October 10, 1898, Serial No. 693,117. 

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