James Starley (1831-1881) was an inventor and manufacturer who is widely considered to be the father of the bicycle industry. His inventions and refinements made the bicycle practical for widespread use. Starley also contributed to the improvement of the sewing machine.
James Starley was born April 21, 1831, into an agricultural family. His father, Daniel Starley, was a farmer in Albourne, Sussex, England. When he was nine years old, Starley began working on the family farm, but, dissatisfied with farming, he set off on foot for London in 1846. There, he found work as a gardener and put his spare time to use cranking out inventions, including the adjustable candlestick, a one-stringed window blind, and a mechanical bassinet. He married Jane Todd on September 22, 1853, and had three sons, James, John Marshall, and William.
Sewing Machine Advances and Bicycle Prototypes
Around 1855 Starley got a job with Newton Wilson in London, where he worked on sewing machines. Within a few years, he moved to Coventry to work as foreman of the Coventry Sewing Machine Company. Starley spent the next dozen or so years working out improvements to the early sewing machine, including his own invention, "The European." His inventions, many of which were patented, survive in the workings of modern sewing machines.
In 1868 Starley saw his first bicycle, a French velocipede. Bicycles had been around since 1818, but the earliest two-wheeled, rider-propelled machines were rudimentary, requiring the rider to use his own feet to move the wooden monster along. The bicycle Starley encountered had cranks attached to the front wheel, which the rider could use to propel the machine. These early bicycles weighed as much as 160 pounds and had solid rubber tires and ball bearings.
Foreshadowing their future success in bicycle design, development, and sales (of which the Coventry region would eventually become a national leader), the Coventry Sewing Machine Company became the Coventry Machinists' Company in 1869 after worker Rowley B. Turner convinced management to produce bicycles. The company manufactured 400 bicycles for sale in France, but the outbreak of the Franco-German War made such export impossible, and so it turned to England for its market. Thus, Starley shifted his creative inventing energy from sewing machines to bicycles, seeking to improve the machines, first aiming to reduce the massive weight and clumsiness of the velocipedes, which had earned the nickname of "boneshakers." Within a few years, Starley had invented the "C Spring and Step Machine," or the Coventry Model, and secured his place as the father of the modern bicycle.
The Coventry bicycle featured a curved spring seat, a mounting step, and a small hind wheel. Next, Starley developed a bicycle with a smaller still rear wheel and large front wheel, both fashioned from iron and wire spokes. This creation was tagged the "penny-farthing," after England's smallest and largest copper coins. Its major improvement was a gear that turned the wheel twice for every revolution of the pedals, cutting the riders' work in half.
Bike Advances and the Masterpiece
Improving further on his initial designs, Starley invented the Ariel bicycle. After leaving the Coventry Machinists' Company in 1870, he went into business for himself and began producing his Europa sewing machines and Ariel bicycles. Historians consider the Ariel, a lightweight all-metal bicycle first sold in 1871, to be the first true bicycle. It was the first self-propelled two-wheeler to use pivot-center steering, which gave the bicycle the ability to turn, a leap in technology from the forward and reverse movements that limited the earlier wooden machines.
Next, Starley introduced what was to be his most significant contribution to bicycle advancement. His Tangent bicycle, introduced in 1874, was the first to feature alternating spokes. Starley's original wheels arranged the spokes in a straight line. Alternating spokes connected the spokes to the hub at an angle, easing the stress on individual spokes and making the wheels far stronger than earlier models. Starley's tensioned spoke wheels are found, virtually unmodified to this day, on nearly every contemporary bicycle. The Tangent bicycle weighed in at about 50 pounds, although 21-pound custom-made racing versions were soon available.
In 1876 Starley produced the Coventry Tricycle, a successful new invention that featured a double-throw crank, chains that drove the bike's wheels, and a rack. Combining all of his previous advancements into one four-wheeled machine, Starley next produced the Salvo which many of his contemporaries believed to be his creative masterpiece.
Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley "went on to design the Rover Safety Cycle, which has formed the basis of the shape of the bicycle ever since," wrote Anthony Hopker in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. The Rover, introduced in 1885, featured a triangular frame, equal-sized wheels, and chain drives. Manufacture of the Rover launched Coventry into the forefront of bicycle production. Starley's sons, James, John Marshall, and William, carried on the family business as Starley Brothers, a cycle manufacturing outfit.
James Starley died on June 17, 1881, in Coventry, Warwickshire. Among his lasting contributions is the reputation of Coventry as the cradle of bicycle production. Since 1884 the community has displayed a granite monument to Starley featuring his profile, carvings of two of his bicycles, and a statue of Fame on top. The site of his factory is now home to the Museum of British Road Transport.
By the 1970s Starley's statue had fallen into disrepair. Starley's nose and Fame's arms were broken off. Further, vandals attacked the statue during a renovation project. Townspeople mounted a campaign to save the memorial, calling in descendants of the original Victorian-era craftspeople for consultation and considering a proposal to move the statue to a more prominent location near Starley's original factory. "When you think of what Coventry used to produce," Coventry resident Edna Walker told Hopker, "it's so sad that their work is not being appreciated."
In 1999 the town of Coventry launched a campaign to commemorate the most important people in the town's 1,000-year history, soliciting nominations from towns-people. Starley's 57 votes ranked him the third most important native, behind Sir Frank Whittle, who invented the jet engine, and Provost Howard, who ran the Coventry Cathedral, but ahead of eleventh century heroine Lady Godiva and Coventry native William Shakespeare, who garnered only 14 votes.
The Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford University Press, 1922.
Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1995.
Bicycling, June 2000, p. 62.
Coventry Evening Telegraph (England), February 10, 1999, p. 10;February 21, 2000, p. 17.
"Bicycle" and "Starley, James," Britannica.com, 2001.
The Bicycle Industry in Coventry, www.coventry.org.uk, 2001.