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.
(Herlihy 2004, Phantom, left; Wikipedia Commons, Penny Farthing, right)
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 systems. Instead of driving the front wheel, the pedal and crank connected to a chainring 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. Evolution of 1870s Penny Farthing to 1890s Rover Safety Bicycle
(Lueger, Otto, Lexicon der Gesamten Technik , 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 1890s, so that the rider could pedal and coast (Herlihy 2004). In Europe braking was accomplished by the use of a hand brake. In the USA, the preference for braking was to use the backpedal or coaster brake.

The inventor of the coaster brake in the USA has been the subject of much speculation. During the 1890s many different versions of coaster brakes were used in bicycles and most of them were never patented. During this era, modifications to the coaster brake were quite common. As an example, the Wright Brothers developed a coaster brake for use on their bicycles but they never applied for a patent. This surely was not entirely their invention, but instead, it probably was a variation of an existing design custom-made for their bikes.

The earliest documents for the invention of the coaster brake can be found in the archives of the US Patent Office and the courts. Questions can be raised as to whether the patent owners are the actual inventors, but besides company advertising, this is all that seems to be part of the historical record.

The first patent for a backpedaling brake was by Daniel Stover and William Hance in 1889. The patent was actually for a whole bicycle and not just the brake. The brake on the bicycle is quite different than the later hub models. It has a freewheel and a mechanism sometimes call a spoon that rubs against the rear tire below the bottom bracket (figure 3).
Bicycle drawing of 1890s bicycle
Figure 3 Stover and Hance Bicycle Patent Image, 1889
(Photo: US Patent Office, 1889; Modified by Doug Barnes)
The following quote is from the 1889 patent of Stover and Hance bicycle.
In every machine of this class it is necessary to provide some sort of a brake and means for pressing it against the rim of one of the wheels. The principal element of the brake-operating mechanism has heretofore been a hand-lever, But as the first movement when it is desired to stop the machine is naturally the reversal of the motion of the cranks of the driving-sprocket, we have embodied in this machine a brake mechanism adapted to be operated by such reversal of the crank motion. The mechanism referred to is two similar ears formed on the rear face of the standard of the oscillating frame (above bottom bracket). The brake whose upper end lies between and is pivoted to said ears operates a concave lever on lower end in close proximity to the rim of the wheel. (US Patent Office 1889. Slightly modified for clarity)

Stover and Hance may have invented a later model that was inside the rear hub, but the references to this brake are rather vague and undocumented.

The drawback of this invention is that having a spoon-like mechanism rubbing on the rear wheel is not very practical in wet or snow conditions. Also, this brake was more practical before the widespread adoption of the pneumatic tire in the 1890s. The rubbing of the mechanism on a pneumatic tire would wear it out prematurely. Thus, this friction brake was replaced by internal rear hub brakes that are still quite common today.

Willard Farrow is often thought of as the inventor of the coaster brake. The main reason for this is due to a court case brought by Farrow against the Eclispse Bicycle Company in 1897. The case was argued before various lower courts and the US Supreme Court in 1905. Farrow alleged that Eclipse Bicycle violated an agreement to pay him for his coaster brake invention. The reason for the case was that Morrow had applied for a patent in 1896 which read as follows. 
My invention relates to brake mechanism for bicycles or like vehicles; and its primary object is to provide novel and effective means for applying braking friction directly to the hub of the driving-wheel of the bicycle in contradistinction to employing a brake-shoe adapted to contact with the wheel-tire, which latter means of braking has been found objectionable, if not impracticable, with wheels equipped with pneumatic tires or other tires the material of which is easily abraded by the wearing contact of a brake-shoe therewith. US Patent Office 1890a)

The argument of Willard Farrow during the case challenged the validity of an 1896 patent application by Alexander Morrow of Eclipse Bicycle Company on the grounds that it was very similar or almost identical to his invention. Farrow argued that Eclipse Bicycle Company should pay him royalties on the brakes produced under the new Morrow patent because it was his invention.

Figure 4. Alexander Morrow Patent, 1889
(Photo: US Patent office, 1900; Modified by Doug Barnes)
Eclipse Bicycle Company countered by saying that the invention by Farrow was anticipated by a device patented by Stover and Hance, a patent that the Eclipse company had purchased (Figure 4). They also argued that the new Morrow patent was quite different than the invention by Farrow. The new coaster brake was alleged to significantly improve upon the invention by Farrow. In Morrow’s 1896 patent application he states:
By the use of my improved mechanism … the rider after alighting may readily push the machine backward by hand without applying the brake. To set the brake, a positive pressure on the pedals is required. Hence, when no pressure is applied, the bicycle may be freely run backward by hand the brake not impeding such movement. (US Patent Office, 1900, Slightly modified for clarity)
Eclipse Bicycle acknowledges that the Farrow invention is before the coaster brake developed by Morrow, so Farrow may well be the inventor or the hub-based coaster brake. However, many inventors were modifying similar coaster brakes during the same period. There are many patent applications during the 1890s and early 1900s for different variations of the coaster brake. A search of the US Patent Office website did not reveal a patent by Farrow but there is documentation of a patent in the Supreme Court case. The ruling in the US Supreme case was against Willard Farrow and for the Eclipse Bicycle Company.

The 1890s was a time of significant improvements in the bicycle and it is not surprising that many inventors were applying for and obtaining patents for different variations of the coaster brake. Also, some inventors did not even bother to apply for a patent but still used them in their bicycles. For instance, the Wright Brothers began offering their version of coaster brakes as an option on the Van Cleve model in 1897.

The conclusion is that the first invention of the coaster brake is very difficult to ascertain as inventors kept improving the design with new iterations. Morrow also became a major brand of coaster brake purchased by many bicycle manufacturers. He applied for and received numberous patents for his refinements over many years. On the other hand, Farrow seemed to turn his attention to non-bicycle inventions after the court ruling.

On the heels of the invention of the safety bicycle and rediscovery of the freewheel, Henry Townsend applied for a coaster brake US patent which would later be transferred to New Departure of Bristol, Connecticut (figure 5). The seeds of the commercial success of the coaster brake were now well established. 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 5. New Departure Model D Coaster Brake First Produced in 1930s.
(Dave’s Vintage Bicycles. A Classic Bicycle Photo Archive. Accessed 2018)
Henry Towsend patented a coaster brake that solved many of the teething problems experienced in the earlier versions of the coaster brake. His model also had great implications for the commercial bicycle industry.

The patent Henry Townsend first applied for in 1898 wasn't approved until 1907. 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 be 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 6) 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 6 Wright Brothers Van Cleve Safety Bicycle, Middle 1890s
(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 were 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 bicycles (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 motorbikes or autocycles (figure 7). 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 7. Vintage 1930s Schwinn Motorbike modified for Repack Course, 1977
(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 by 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.

A Simple and Reliable Enduring Invention

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 the history of bicycling.

References

Advertisement Gallery. 2018. "New Departure Coaster Brakes: New Departure Finest Coaster Brake 1940," Advertisement Gallery. Accessed 2018.

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. 2004. Lexicon 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.

Supreme Court of the United States. 1905. “Eclipse Bicycle Company (Appellant) versus Willard M. Farrow.” US Supreme Court October Term, Appeal from the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, Filed June 4, 1904, Washington, DC. Reproduced from Harvard Law Library, Cambridge, Ma.

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.

US Patent Office. 1900a “Back-Pedaling Coaster Brake, A. P. Morrow” Patent 641,983. US Patent Office, Application March 30, 188, August 1, 1896, Washington, DC.

US Patent Office. 1900b “Back-Pedaling Coaster Brake, A. P. Morrow” Patent 646,302. US Patent Office, Application March 30, 1889, Washington, DC.

US Patent Office. 1889. “Bicycle: Daniel C. Stover and William A. Hance,” Patent 418,142. US Patent Office, Washington, DC.

8 comments:

  1. Bendix Two speed kickback is going back into production.

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  2. Thee WitchdoctorJuly 3, 2019 at 6:17 PM

    The coaster brake was invented by Willard M.Farrow and sold to the Eclipse Manufacturing Co. Other than that, I truly enjoyed your article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. After a bit of research, I will revise the article. Thanks for the information.

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    2. After search through the patent records and the Supreme Court Case, I have updated the post to include information on Willard Farrow.

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  3. Charles R ParmeleeAugust 31, 2019 at 4:38 PM

    My interest in the history of the coaster brake came also from disassembling a brake that needed cleaning and greasing. What an amazingly simple - yet complex - elegant mechanism. It appears that I correctly guessed that the invention came in phases - first the free-wheel mechanism - the brake coming later as an additional feature.

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    Replies
    1. This is an amazing invention from 150 years ago that still is in extensive use.

      You may be interested in my video on how they work.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inO1ba3hwqQ

      Delete
  4. http://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/653286. I do believe that the back pedal brake/coaster brake was first patented by my great-great grandfather in 1889.

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    Replies
    1. I have updated to post to include the Stover and Hance patent.

      Delete