The modern bicycle design—with its diamond frame, chain drive and wire-spoked wheels—has changed very little since its inception in the 1800s.
But there was a period in history when engineers were busily trying to outdo each other by inventing the best, the most comfortable, convenient, sophisticated, lightweight and affordable bicycle.
“I love the engineering of the 1880s because it was such out-of-the-box thinking,” said Gabriel Chrisman, a local bike mechanic and Victorian-era historian. “A lot of these engineers, you’d give them a white piece of paper and tell them to come up with a better bicycle, and they’d come up with something.”
Chrisman has spent his life studying the technology and innovation of the 19th-century, specializing in the creation of the bicycle, which is still a hugely important part of modern life, though relatively unchanged from its original design.
Now, he has been contracted by a TV company to create a handmade replica 1880s “safety bike,” which will be featured in a new period drama on HBO.
Chrisman and his wife Sarah are easily recognizable and well-known around Port Townsend. The couple specializes in late 19th-century history and culture and bring elements of Victorian life into their everyday lives.
Their 19th-century home is appropriately decorated with Victorian furniture and art. Sarah Chrisman can often be seen riding around town on a Victorian bicycle in her Victorian-era clothing in between writing fiction and nonfiction books about the Vicotian era. Gabriel, who is an archivist and librarian, operates his own hand-built bicycle business called Victorian Cycles. From time to time he rides his 19th-century “ordinary” bicycle—with one large wheel, and one small—on the ferry to his job at the Coupeville Library.
Chrisman has been a bike mechanic and bike shop manager for more than 20 years, but recently started his custom bike-building company.
“What I always really wanted to do when I was working at bike shops was actually be able to build bikes,” he said. “Part of what I love about bikes is just how approachable they are mechanically. You can see how everything works. You can see how everything is put together. I really wanted to be able to take that one step further and be able to make all these parts and see what I could do by hand.”
He started Victorian Cycles as a side business to build historic bike replicas, focusing mainly on bikes from the 1890s.
Over time, he had been approached by various TV companies to make 1890s bikes as props. But in February, HBO producers approached him about making a “safety bike” from the 1880s.
“I said, ‘Well I haven’t done one before, but I certainly would love to give it a shot,’” he said.
He sent old drawings from 1880s catalogues and photos from museums on which he would base his bike design to the studio, and since then has been at work in his shop building a frame by hand and assembling parts he had either made himself or had to track down from specialty makers across the state and world.
Most people have not heard of the “safety bike,” which upon first glance looks a lot like a modern bicycle.
“It has the same general pattern as a modern bike,” Chrisman said. “Two wheels the same size, a chain drive to the rear wheel and front-fork steering.”
But at the time, the bike was labelled a “safety bike” because it offered a safer bike-riding option, when the popular “ordinary bike” had one large wheel and one small.
An ordinary bike is what most people see featured in Victorian period dramas. It was nicknamed the Penny Farthing bike because of the difference in size between the two wheels.
“The engineers were trying to offer an option for people who might look at the ordinary bicycle and think it’s not safe,” Chrisman said. “Mostly an older market and people who wanted to be a little closer to the ground.”
But while the safety bike looks more like modern bicycles, it still took quite a while before people moved away from the ordinary bike, due to its popularity and the fact that pneumatic, or air-filled, tires had not yet been invented.
With tires made of solid rubber, the ride on both a safety and ordinary bike was quite bumpy, because there was not very good shock absorption.
“Part of the reason to have the big wheel is that it would roll over the bumps easier and it gave you a smoother ride because it would absorb some of the shocks,” Chrisman said. “Shrink the wheel down to an ordinary size and it’s still a pretty rough ride.”
Not only that, but safety bikes were heavier, more expensive to make, and people were used to sitting at the taller height, because the normal form of transportation was on horseback or by carriage.
“The guys who rode ordinary bicycles, they looked down on these, literally,” Chrisman said. “They called them ‘dwarf bicycles.’”
But once air-filled tires came into play and a diamond frame was invented, people eventually moved to the modern design of bicycles.
“Many designs were tried and manufactured, either to greater or lesser success,” Chrisman said.
The bike is just one example of how the Victorian era was full of creativity and innovation, which is why Chrisman has spent years delving into historical research of the bike’s creation.
Chrisman made this safety bike replica in just four weeks, with a deadline to deliver it to the TV company’s studio by the end of March. It will be ridden by extras on the show, set in New York City.
He uses a lot of the same techniques as would have been used in the Victorian era, not only because it is easier to achieve the right look, but also because he enjoys the experience of being able to hand-fit parts together.
For most of his historical replicas, he builds custom bikes for his clients. But the TV studio let him have the freedom to create the safety bike in the best way he saw fit.
“That was really exciting,” he said. “I was basically producing my own dream bike.”