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British Industrial History

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Bowden Cable

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The Bowden mechanism was invented by Ernest Mornington Bowden (1860 - 1904) of 35 Bedford Place, London, W.C. The first patent was granted in 1896. (English Patent 25,325 and U.S. Pat. No. 609,570) although its origin has been the subject of myth and dispute. The invention of the Bowden cable has been popularly attributed to Frank Bowden, founder and owner of the Raleigh Cycle Co who, c.1902, was reputed to have started replacing the rigid rods used for brakes with a flexible wound cable. Although this may or may not be the case, it is recorded that Frank Bowden (on behalf of Raleigh) had joined the syndicate that was exploiting E. M. Bowden's patent.

The principal element of this mechanism was a flexible tube (made from hard wound wire and fixed at each end) containing a length of fine wire rope that could slide within the tube, directly transmitting pulling, pushing or turning movements on the wire rope from one end to the other without the need of pulleys or flexible joints. The cable was particularly intended for use in conjunction with bicycle brakes, although it had the potential for other applications.

The Bowden Brake was launched amidst a flurry of enthusiasm in the cycle press in 1896. It consisted of a stirrup, pulled up by the cable from a handlebar mounted lever, with rubber pads acting against the rear wheel rim. At this date bicycles were fixed wheel, additional braking being offered by a 'plunger' brake pressing on the front tyre. The Bowden offered extra braking power still, and was novel enough to appeal to riders who scorned the plunger arrangement, which was heavy and potentially damaging to the (expensive) pneumatic tyre. The problem for Bowden was his failure to develop effective distribution networks and the brake was often incorrectly, or inappropriately fitted, resulting in a good number of complaints being aired in the press. Its most effective application was on those machines fitted with Westwood pattern steel rims which offered flat bearing surfaces for the brake pads.

The potential of the Bowden cable and associated brake was not to be fully realised until the free-wheel sprocket became a standard feature of bicycles, over the period 1899-1901, and increasing numbers of applications were found for it, such as gear change mechanisms. Importantly in 1903, Hendee developed the twist-grip throttle using a similar cable for his 'Indian' motorcycles. Its lightness and flexibility recommended it to further automotive use such as clutch and speedometer drive cables.

It is reported that "on 12th January 1900 E. M. Bowden granted a licence to The Raleigh Cycle Company of Nottingham", whose directors were Frank Bowden and Edward Harlow. At this signing they became members of the E. M. Bowden's Patents Syndicate Ltd. The syndicate included, among others, Richard Henry Lea and Graham Ingoldsby Francis of Lea-Francis, and William Riley of the Riley Cycle Co.

The Raleigh Cycle Co was soon offering the Bowden Brake as an accessory, and were quick to incorporate the cable into handlebar mounted Sturmey-Archer (which Raleigh owned) gear changes. Undoubtedly this is why E. Bowden and F. Bowden are sometimes confused today.

An unpublished typescript exists in the archives of the National Motor Museum, written by the son of one of Bowden's employees that attempts to claim the invention of the cable for his father to the point of suggesting that it was never applied to bicycles before 1902. Although this is easily disproved by reference to 'Cycling' or the other UK cycle press through 1896-7, it serves to remind one of the attempts made to rewrite cycle history through priority claims. In this narrative a flexible cable brake for cycles was separately 'invented' by George Frederick Larkin, a skilled automobile and motorcycle engineer, who patented his design in 1902. He was subsequently recruited by, and worked for E. M. Bowden until 1917 as General Works Manager.

George Larkin is known for his invention of the flexible cable brake for cycles, which was patented in 1902. E. M. Bowden's device was initially a failure because it was too flimsy, incapable of transmitting the required power. The Bowden Mechanism was not developed in connection with a cycle brake as there is no record of the cable having been associated with the cycle industry until 1902, when George Larkin's invention was patented.

During Larkin's employment with Bassett Motor Syndicate his duties included the assembly of motor cars and motor cycles, and a major difficulty was the assembly of the braking systems which at that time comprised steel rods, not easily adaptable to the contour of the chassis. He designed a flexible cable brake and approached S. J. Withers, Patent Agent, to have the design patented. Withers noticed the similarity of Larkin's idea to the Bowden Mechanism and introduced him to the Bowden Syndicate, who agreed to manufacture and market the invention with the proviso that it should be patented jointly in the names of the inventor and themselves. Within a few months, Larkin, then aged 23, was engaged as Motor Department Manager with E. M. Bowden's Patents Syndicate, and he was appointed General Works Manager on 1 May 1904.

Early Bowden cable, from the 1890s and first years of the twentieth century, is characterised by the outer tube being wound from round wire and being uncovered. Each length is usually fitted with a brass collar marked 'BOWDEN PATENT', (this legend is also stamped into the original brake's components). More modern outer tube is wound from square section wire. From c1902 the cable was usually covered in a waterproof fabric sheaf, in the early post war period this gave way to plastic.

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