During the COVID-19 pandemic the demand for bicycles greatly increased as more and more people turned to them as a safe way to get out of the house for recreation and exercise and as an alternative to public transportation. This interest in bicycling calls to mind a letter that Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) wrote to his sister Katharine in 1892 during another bicycling boom. The cycling craze of the 1890s followed the development of the safety bicycle, one with two wheels that were roughly the same size and a chain-driven rear wheel instead of the earlier penny-farthing with the high front wheel. This made the bicycle a practical and popular mode of transportation for both men and women. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville, best known for inventing the first practical airplane in 1905, were avid participants in this trend.
Wilbur Wright’s account of a very hilly roundtrip bicycle ride that he and Orville took from Dayton to Miamisburg, Ohio, “to see the place where grandfather Wright first settled when he came West” exudes enthusiasm and enjoyment. He provides details about the road conditions, how far they went and how long it took, but tells the tale of their adventure in a light and entertaining manner, complete with literary and historical allusions.
The most charming part of this letter are the amusing drawings that he adds to accentuate how they “climbed and then we ‘clumb’ and then climbed again” the “classic heights of Runnimede” and how they “came down a flying.” He notes that “I had to foreshorten the top of the hill when I came to the writing instead of continuing up about four feet past the north east corner of the paper.”
Soon after this letter was written, the Wright brothers turned their pastime into a business. They opened a bicycle shop to repair, rent, and sell bicycles and, in 1896, they began manufacturing and selling their own bicycle designs. In time they used profits from their Wright Cycle Company to fund an even bigger flying adventure. This one involved trips to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and another form of transportation – the airplane.
Learn more about the adventures of Wilbur and Orville Wright through the online collection Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress