Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 138,099 pages of information and 223,032 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
The Life and Inventions of James Starley
I have frequently been asked “who invented the bicycle?” I have always had to reply that no one man was personally responsible for the creation of the cycle, as we know it to-day, but that many clever brains had contributed to the gradual evolution of the machine, from the dandy horse of 1818. All the progressive steps in the improvement of the bicycle can be traced, dated, and their originators identified. It has been my hobby to conduct much research work in this connection, and to trace and locate many of the mechanical advances and mistakes which mark the progress of the industry. For it must not be forgotten that, particularly in mechanical matters, we learn a lot from our own mistakes (which we are apt to deny) and the errors of others (which we are quick to point out).
Of the names and personalities which have helped to compile cycle history none stand out so prominently as that of James Starley; and if any man has a right to the proud title which I have adopted as the heading of this article, Starley is that man. To give a list of his inventions would fill an issue of the Irish Cyclist and Motor Cyclist, and it would make but dull reading, but I propose to select and describe certain of the most interesting improvements which his fertile imagination evolved.
It has often been said that mechanical genius is hereditary, and this was so in the case of James Starley, who inherited habits of industry, as well as a good name, from his grandfather, John Starley, who married a Miss Elizabeth Mitchell, and went to live at Albourne, Sussex, about 125 years ago. Of his marriage there were four sons, John, Leonard, Luke, and Daniel, also four daughters. John Starley was a farmer, and displayed great ingenuity in over-coming any difficulty which he encountered in his business. He died in 1849, and his youngest son, Daniel, then carried on the farm till his death a few years later.
Daniel had one daughter and four sons, the youngest of whom was our subject, James Starley, born on 21st April, 1830, in an old cottage, which I believe still stands, about a hundred yards from the London Road. Here he lived till he was four years old, when his father moved to Woodbine Cottage, opposite the London Road.
He went to school at Spring House, where history records that he was considered a dull boy. After two and a half years there he left and went to the National Schools at Hurstpierpoint, where he remained till 1841, when he started work on his father's farm. He was more at home here, as he could handle a plough, and soon showed those marvellous powers of observation which were later to be so useful to him. As an instance, he noticed that rats had made a regular pathway behind the pig-sties, and, having no trap, he told his brother John that he would contrive something to catch the rodents, which he did in a very primitive form. Taking the steel rib of an old umbrella, he ground one end to a sharp point and secured it to the branch of a willow tree by a piece of string, placing a lever so that when a rat trod on it the skewer was released. John ridiculed the idea, saying that he would eat any rats which were caught. The first morning after the trap was set James got up early to see the result of his experiment, and soon returned to John's bedside with a rat on the skewer, saying: "Here's your breakfast, John." With this, his earliest invention, he ridded the place of the vermin.
Throughout his life James Starley was never at a loss for means, however crude, of carrying out his ideas. If the means were not at hand, he made them, and some of his best ideas were forced upon him by circumstances. He never appeared to work out an invention; he just set to, and made what he wanted. Soon after the rat episode he was sent to Newtimber with a horse and cart for some lime; on the way back one of the axles broke. Young Starley took the horse out and rode it home, returning with another cart; he emptied out the lime, removed the other wheel, and managed to stand the empty and wheel-less cart on its tail-end with the shafts pointing skywards; then he backed his second cart against it, bound both together with ropes, attached the horse to the tops of the shafts and started him. As the horse stepped forward the cart came down with the damaged one on its back (so to speak). He shovelled in the lime and drove off home with the two loose wheels tied on behind, an early instance of carrying 'spare wheels.'
Starley continued to work on the farm, always displaying great presence of mind when anything untoward occurred, such as an implement getting out of order. Thus things went on till 1846, when, one day, he was told by his father to cart some mould from one part of the farm to another. James apparently thought this job somewhat infra dig. About midday he returned home, packed his scanty belongings into a handkerchief, and without even saying "good-bye," started, like many another, for London, that goal which the rustic mind then — as now — pictures as paved with gold.
He stayed one day at Little Horsted, where his brother William was at gardener to Sir Humphrey Moon, and then proceeded on through Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge to the bottom of River Hill, where he earned a shilling for helping to push a heavily-laden cart up the hill. He arrived at Lewisham foot-sore and hungry, and with only a few pence in his pocket.
Next morning he obtained work on the farm of a Mr. Wyatt, a strawberry grower. At the end of his first day's work, Starley was seen by his employer to be walking lame, his feet being tender after his long tramp. Saying "We want no cripples here," the boss told the foreman to pay him off, and he was given 2s. 3d.!
He obtained lodgings at 6 Avenue Road, Lewisham, and later got work at Wilmot and Chawdey's nursery, near the old church. After working here for three months, he wrote to his brother John asking him to come up and see him. On the following Sunday John and his father went up by train and spent the day with James, who showed them the Ravensbourne stream, Blackheath and the old palace at Greenwich, and saw them off again from Deptford Station.
After remaining here for two years, Starley obtained a situation at John Penn's, the engineers, as under gardener, the head gardener being a Mr. Greencheals. Here he showed more than ever that aptitude for mechanics which was afterwards to be of such service to him. Part of his duty was to wheel his employer to the works in a bath chair, and while waiting for him Starley had access to the works and obtained his first knowledge of engineering methods. About this time he took to cleaning the watches of the workmen, and though he had large hands, being a big man, he could handle the delicate mechanism of a watch with wonderful nicety.
It was here that he constructed what was jokingly called his "duck-balance." Finding that the opening by which the ducks passed out to the river Ravensbourne, which ran alongside the fowl yard, was used by rats, he set to work to devise a means of stopping the rats without interfering with the ducks. His brother John described the device as follows:—
"At the front of a hole in the fence, large enough for a duck to get through, he had at the end of a lever a flat piece of wood, large enough to cover the aperture. This lever and board was something like an axe in shape, with a hole at its farthest extremity, and some little distance from that another hole. Attached by the second hole was another lever which, at its farthest extremity, had a platform on to which the ducks could get by means of an incline leading up to it.
"Between the platform end of the lever and its other end, where it was attached to the first lever, and nearer the platform, was a fulcrum joint, the whole being so balanced that when the duck got on to the platform it was slightly depressed, and the cover of the aperture was raised. This enabled the duck to pass through, when it was gently closed again, the platform being continued through the hole, and the incline being made on the other side, the same end was gained from the outside, as the weight of a rat would not move it, though the weight of a duck would."
After carrying out this ingenious idea, and while at the same place, Starley invented a number of things in rapid succession, amongst others a self-rocking basinette, a clever window-blind, and an adjustable candlestick, and worked in his leisure time repairing pianos, knife-cleaning machines, clocks, etc.
He left Penn's in September, 1859, and went to Newton, Wilson and Co, of Holborn, London, who were sewing machine manufacturers. While in their employ he made some alterations in a double chain-stitch machine, which were much appreciated. This led him to try his hand at improving these machines, and he soon made himself complete master of their mechanism, so much so that, early in 1861, he produced what has long been known as the "European" sewing machine, designed to stitch round the edges of cuffs or the bottoms of trouser legs after they were made up.
This machine was made at home in the evenings after he left work, in a little back room where he had made a lathe of rude construction. Mr. Josiah Turner, who was engaged with the same firm, took great interest in Starley's work, and often visited him at his house.
On May 14th, 1861, Starley left Newton, Wilson and Co., and with Turner and an American named Salisbury went to Coventry to embark in the sewing machine trade. They rented part of the premises of a Mr. John Newark, on the site now occupied by the Swift works, but they did not succeed.
However, the introduction of a new business to the old city attracted attention, and a number of gentlemen of position who had the welfare of their fellow-citizens at heart saw the opportunity of finding employment for the watchmakers, who were having a bad time. A company was formed, and the services of Messrs. Turner and Starley were retained. Operations were commenced in Little Park Street, whence the company migrated to King Street. These premises were soon outgrown, and a new factory was obtained.
Here were manufactured under Starley's superintendence, invented and patented by him, the "European," "Godiva," "Express," and "Swiftsure" sewing machines. The company became the European Sewing Machine Co, then the Coventry Machinists Co, and is now known as Swift of Coventry.
It was about this time that Starley's youngest son, John Henry, met his death from drinking some spirits of salts and zinc which his father had obtained for some experimental work. This sad event preyed on Starley's mind, for he was very fond of his children.
About the year 1865 Starley constructed a four-wheeled velocipede with suspension wheels.
Three years later, in the winter of 1868-9, Rowley B. Turner, a nephew of Josiah Turner (who had become the manager of the E.S.M. Co.), came over from Paris with an iron-tyred wooden bone-shaker, of a type which was then very popular in France. The company agreed to make similar machines for Turner to sell in France, and altered their articles of association to permit of this new work to be undertaken.
Starley immediately began to improve the French machine. Being a large and heavily built man he was unable to mount by a running vault, as the more nimble young Turner did (Turner was a gymnast), and the first improvement he made was the addition of a step depending from the backbone. Thus was introduced the method of mounting which remained the vogue as long as the 'ordinary' lasted.
Starley reduced the size of the rear wheel and increased the height of the front wheel, giving us the graceful 'ordinary.' He evolved the long scroll spring, extending in front of the head, which was a feature of the 'Gentleman’s' bicycle. He made footrests on stays projecting in front of the wheel, and replaced the massive malleable bracket, in which the handlebar turned, by a light gunmetal fixture which was standard for many years.
When he had reduced the back wheel to about 20 ins., he further lightened the rear part of the machine by removing one blade of the fork, and securing the wheel on a pin fixed at only one end to the extremity of the backbone. This made the wheel easily detachable for cleaning. Jack Keen afterwards copied this on his racing bicycles.
Shortly after Starley produced a crank capable of being adjusted to various throws while the machine was in motion, giving a long crank for hill-climbing and a short throw for level roads.
Then he coupled the front wheels of two 'ordinary' bicycles together by a straight bar with a kind of universal joint, making a tandem bicycle. As both riders had to steer, this was very difficult to ride, and was not commercial.
In August, 1870, he patented his 'Ribbon' wheel. This was at first spoked with narrow brass ribbons, which afterwards gave way to flat steel, and then to wire spokes. Two spokes were made of each piece of wire, the ends being secured at the hub flanges and passed through an eye on the V rim; the wheel was tensioned by a cross-bar fixed to the hub spindle, from the ends of which short adjustable rods ran to the rim.
Soon after this, Starley left the company and, in conjunction with William Hillman, started on his own account in St. John's Street, Coventry.
After some time this partnership was dissolved, and Starley continued to make the "Europa" sewing machine and the "Ariel" bicycle, the latter embodying the first centre-steering head, which (evolved by Starley) had superseded the 'socket' type as used on the original boneshaker. He was then joined in business by a (William) Borthwick Smith , at St. Agnes Lane, Hales Street, from which they moved to Ariel Works, Spon Street, where, in 1874, Starley patented his tangent wheel.
He had previously replaced the heavy cast brass pedal with a wooden one covered with rubber and having a steel bush or sleeve. At St. Agnes Works he built the famous 7 ft. 'Ariel,' a 6 ft. wheel being first built, followed by a 7 ft. one. The front wheel was driven by connecting rods hinged to the fork and carrying pedals some inches above the centre of the wheel.
This machine was also remarkable as containing the first instance of stayed forks. These were almost identical with the forks used on De Dion motor tricycles thirty years later, and similar to modern motor cycle forks, without the springs. William Starley mounted and rode the 7 ft. Ariel immediately it was finished, and rode it at the Whit Monday meet at Leamington.
In 1874 James Starley patented an expanding hub, in which all the spokes, of exactly the same length, were secured, the flanges then being separated on the spindle, so giving all the spokes an equal tension. The same year he patented a lady's 'ordinary,' the wheels of which were not in line, the rider driving the front wheel by two levers on a fulcrum on one side of the wheel. This machine was not practical, and it was never put on the market. Variations of this were a convertible bicycle, and a machine to carry two riders, one each side. Another invention was the recessed hub-flange, whereby a long bearing could be obtained without an unduly wide tread.
Business increasing, the partners moved to new premises, Trafalgar Works, Crow Lane. Meantime, Starley saw an opening for a machine suitable for people who were too timid or not sufficiently agile to mount the bicycle. His son William Starley, now living in Birmingham, suggested adapting the lever-driven lady's bicycle, bringing the rider lower, and adding a third wheel. The result was the Coventry lever tricycle, patent No. 4478, 1876.
This proved an immediate success. It was originally steered by a handle to the small front wheel, the left fork of which was connected to the right fork of the rear wheel. The handle was soon replaced by a rack and pinion, chain driving was added, and the machine afterwards became famous as the Rudge Rotary.
Meanwhile, in 1877, Starley added another large driving wheel, making it a four-wheeled machine for two riders, seated side by side. This was known as the Convertible Sociable, and was ridden by William Starley and his father. It was improved by Starley, the small rear wheel being removed, and each rider pedalling independently, so driving the side wheel nearest to him.
It was while riding this machine with his son that the need for a differential gear became manifest. They were going uphill, and Starley senior adjured "Bill" to "wire in" This the hefty youth did, but as the power applied was only effective to his own driving wheel, it tended to push the steering round. In half a minute Starley said: "Get off. I have it."
They pushed the machine to the top of the hill, had tea at a village, and returned. That was on a Saturday, and William Starley remembers it so well that he could point out the spot today. At 6 a.m. on Monday his father called William to get up, while he went to a brass founders (Willdig and Hatton), and within an hour "Bill" was working on the castings — two bevel wheels and one pinion. These were put on a short piece of 0.75 inch steel, a bicycle crank, cut in half, and, turned to 0.5 inch, formed the stem to carry the pinion. The boss of the crank fitted in between the two bevel wheels. Starley caught the 8 a.m. train to London to see his patent agent, and the invention was protected forthwith,
Thus was evolved the differential gear, used to-day on practically every tricycle and every motor car. The tricycle on which James Starley is shown on above was hurriedly made to try the differential, and was the first machine to be fitted with that epoch-marking device. The rear wheel was quickly dispensed with, the steering (rack and pinion) wheel was placed in front, and the tricycle was christened the 'Salvo.'
Orders came rolling in. Agents were appointed all over the country, and it was in 1880 when Miss Roach, daughter of the Newport, I. of W. agent, Mr. Roach, was riding a 'Salvo' that the tricycle came under the notice of Queen Victoria, who commanded the young lady's presence at Osborne House, with the result that Her Majesty ordered two tricycles. This was in December. They were despatched in January, 1881, Starley accompanying them to Osborne.
In 1876 Starley patented a brake for the rear wheel of an 'ordinary.' A roller was applied to the tyre by revolving the handlebar and tightening a cord; then if the cord broke, as it frequently did, the roller automatically applied itself hard on.
In 1877 he protected a spanner with a 'tumbling piece' at one end to take nuts of various sizes, and a tricycle with all three wheels in line. Another invention was a bath chair, propelled by a rider who sat behind and pedalled. This he designed to meet the requirements of some scientific gentlemen in London. This was the last machine which James Starley actually rode, being driven about Coventry by his son William till a few weeks before his death.
In November, 1878, Starley's inventive brain conceived the idea of a tricycle which could be folded for storage purposes, and he designed and patented the 'Compressus,' which was built on royalty by Starley and Sutton.
His last patent, taken out in the spring of 1881, was an improved folding tricycle, which was marketed by Singer and Co as the 'Challenge.'
A few months after introducing the 'Salvo,' Starley was requested to design a machine for riders who had lost the use of their legs. He at once turned his attention to this unique requirement, the result being a hand-lever machine, steering from the right-hand lever. An additional steering handle was provided to enable the rider to dispense with the levers when descending hills.
Another idea, which occurred to him after a muddy ride on a 'Salvo,' was a wheel-washer. This took the form of a metal water-trough with a roller at each end, in which a segment of the wheel could be immersed and rotated on the rollers.
In concluding this brief narrative of one who did such great work in the mechanical world, and did it without ostentation, I must add a word or two about his quiet and unobtrusive domestic life. He was mild in disposition, religious, and never forced his opinions on any matter. Though he was the possessor of many patents, he was always ready to listen to the remarks and suggestions of others, even when — as was generally the case — they did not possess a tithe of his ability. Even their criticisms were listened to without annoyance.
It was about Christmas, 1880, that the first symptoms of the disease which carried James Starley off appeared. He took to his bed at Easter, 1881, having discovered a lump on his right side, which, having been studying cancer in an encyclopaedia, he rightly diagnosed. He consulted Sir James Paget, who told him he might live three months. He died on 17th June, 1881, sensible to the last, saying good-bye to his wife and family.
Thus passed a man who gave his ideas freely to his fellows, for Starley made comparatively little money by his inventions. His memory will be long and affectionately regarded by the world which he benefited. To remind later generations, a monument has been erected to his memory. It stands on the green as one enters Coventry from the railway station, was subscribed for by the citizens of Coventry, and unveiled by the Mayor on 8th November, 1884.
On March 22nd, 1853, James Starley was married to Miss Jane Todd, at the Union Chapel, Lewisham. There were four sons, James, John Marshall, William, and Joseph Henry, and two daughters: all were born in Lewisham.
The name of Starley is still prominent in the cycle industry. The late John Kemp Starley, who produced the 'Rover' safety in 1885, was the son of James Starley's elder brother John, to whom I alluded in the early part of this article.
To James Starley's son, William Starley, we owe the present 'Starley axle,' which is still made by the Abingdon-Ecco Co and used on nearly every modern tricycle. This was patented on 25th April, 1892, to overcome the difficulty of getting the four bearings of a tricycle axle exactly in line and perfectly adjusted. Starley's axle runs in a tube or casing, made in two halves, with a ball bearing at each end of each half. M. Clement bought the French patent, and was the first to apply it to a motor car, in which capacity it is known as the 'live axle.'