[In America] …the chainless had a checkered history that is still largely undocumented. The bevel-gear version was invented twice, in 1893 in France by the Metropole firm and in 1892 in Springfield, Massachusetts, by S.A Grant. Grant assigned his patent rights to a new firm organised by a group of investors in Hartford, the League Cycle Co, who had their bicycle on the market by 1893. The bevel gears had to be machined to exacting tolerances and it appears that League could not do the job in-house, contracting the job to the Leland & Faulconer machine shop in Detroit, at that time acclaimed as the best precision machinists in the nation. (Henry M Leland would go on to found the Cadillac Motor Co). It seems that League could not afford Leland & Faulconer’s work and the firm folded in late 1894 or early 1895 and was bought up by Pope, who kept the Grant patents and threw away the rest.
Industry insiders apparently believed that the Colonel would re-introduce League’s chainless as soon as the bankruptcy paperwork was settled. [But a] …subsequent two year delay seems to have resulted from both design and fabrication problems.Norman Clarke, who was president and owner of Pope’s successor firm, the Columbia Manufacturing firm had several Columbia shaft-drives and noted that hey “always got out of adjustment” …The Metropole L’Acatene did not appear to share this problem.
In late June 1897 the Pope firms slashed the prices of all their bicycles, with the flagship models cut from $100 to $75 …Three weeks after the big announcement, Albert Pope and A.G Spalding sailed off to Europe. George Day, Harry Pope, Henry Souther and Hayden Eames were already there looking over automobiles, but the fact that the Colonel and Spalding were taking William Redding, Pope’s patent lawyer, raised a few eyebrows. “It is not the habit of either Colonel Pope or Mr Spalding to start away on an expedition accompanied by an expert in patent matters,” one New York newspaper noted. “Some move is to be made which will have direct bearing upon the cycle business throughout the world.” The trip did not move the world, but Pope did buy the rights to the French Metropole company’s L’Acatene (chainless) bevel gear system, which he combined with the League shaft-drive system he acquired in 1895. On the same trip he purchased an alternative to the bevel gear system using angled roller bearings from a British concern …Pope introduced his Columbia chainless bicycle in the fall. It cost $125, fifty dollars more than his best chain-drive bicycle.
– Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry, by Bruce D. Epperson, pages 167/8
The first European bevel geared bicycle was the French Omega, also known under the brand name L’Acatene of the Metropole company, dating from 1893. The Acatene-Metropole was on the market from 1896 onwards and influenced the British market when Humber marketed it in 1897 under licence from Acatene-Metropole.
Both American and British inventors patented chainless bicycles but, despite their revolutionary design, the American ‘League’ Chainless and the English Quadrant were not popular enough in their respective countries to warrant full-scale manufacture. France’s Acatene was therefore the first chainless bicycles to go into full production, followed by the FN in Belgium.
The League was beset with problems and it was not until Colonel Pope of Columbia purchased the American rights to the bevel-gear patents of both Quadrant and Metropole that he was able to create a satisfactory American chainless bicycle, which became his most promoted model.
Female versions of the Metropole Acatene were marketed under the Acatene, Metropole and Velleda names. The company’s most famous advertising poster (below) combined its promotion of the Acatène Metropole bicycle with that of the American G&J tyres. It showed the Germanic priestess Velleda who, like Boadicea in England, was a legendary leader of an uprising against the Romans. Both were immortalized by the Roman historian Tacitus.*
The bird of prey next to her is carrying chains in its talons, and the Latin motto ‘Vae Catenis’ or ‘Woe to Chains’ is displayed in the sun above its head.
As well as the amusing anecdote of Velleda throwing off her chains (of the Roman Empire) to ride a chainless bicycle, this was a powerful statement of freedom for women at the turn of the century. But it was not purely an advertising gimmick. Emancipation at the turn of the century was truly epitomised by ownership of a bicycle.
Velleda ‘Model 207’
Beve-Gear Chainless Model with Integral Front Brake
26″ Wheels (26 x 1 3/8″ Tyres)
Frame No 14778
I had a lot of fun researching this wonderful machine from the turn of the century. Advertising in the late 1890s reflected the public’s fascination with esoteric subjects, but it was an inspiration for the Metropole company to resurrect the legendary female power-figure Velleda to promote its ladies’ chainless.
The few Metropole catalogues at my disposal feature a variety of loop frame styles, but only the Velleda Model 207 in the 1899 catalogue reflects the distinct frame curvature and curved bridge of the bicycle featured here. A similar integral front brake was used by the Gladiator company at this time (part of the 1897 merger of French Humber, Clement, Gladiator, Metropole), so I’ve based my estimate of its year of manufacture on these two points.
The machine itself is in excellent all-round condition. The front plunger brake works as is, but should have a small rubber pad fitted where it meets the tyre. The brake lever uniquely pivots behind the handlebar, its linkage entering the headstock from a slot behind the stem. The handlebar grips are period reproductions from America; it would have originally had wooden grips, but those fitted are much more practical for riding.
METROPOLE ACATENE: 1903 GENT’S CHAINLESS v 1899 LADIES’ CHAINLESS
KIPLING GARDENS, ROTTINGDEAN, E.SUSSEX
This Acatene was photographed in Kipling Gardens, Rottingdean. I’m a child of the 1950s so I grew up with Kipling’s Just So Stories. By the sixties, however, his writing was considered too old-fashioned for the school curriculum, and he subsequently went out of vogue. I wonder how many youngsters today realize that The Jungle Book was written by Kipling, not by Walt Disney? Despite many of his stories and poems not being ‘politically correct’ for 21st century sensibilities, he nevertheless remains popular around the world, and Kipling Gardens has become a pilgrimage spot for international visitors interested in British literature.
Apparently, despite a fondness for cars, Kipling did not drive, but rode a bicycle. He wrote ‘Captains Courageous’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ while living in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the USA. As a result of a feud with his neighbour and brother-in-law Beatty Balestier, who forced Kipling’s bicycle off the road with his carriage, Kipling returned to England in 1896 to avoid the embarrassment of a high-profile trial. He moved to Rottingdean the following year.
Because vehicles and machinery featured strongly in his early writings, at a time when they were still considered novelties, Kipling became an unofficial ‘poet laureate of engineers.’ His story entitled ‘.007’ was about railway trains that had personalities and spoke. Not everyone liked this new idea: according to a contemporary reviewer in MacMillan magazine:
Here all Mr. Kipling’s mania break loose all at once—there is the madness of American slang, the madness of technical jargon, and the madness of believing that silly talk, mostly consisting of moral truisms, is amusing because you put it into the mouths of machines…. It is no doubt true that machines have their idiosyncrasies, their personalities even; a bicycle can be nearly as annoying as a horse. For once in a way it may be good fun to push the fancy a little farther and attribute to them sentient life, but Mr. Kipling has overdone the thing.
With his keen interest in both cycling and engineering, the development of the bevel-gear chainless bicycle from 1897 onwards would undoubtedly have fascinated Rudyard Kipling, and I feel certain he would have examined one personally. As he lived in Rottingdean from 1897, he could easily have visited the local Humber agent – the Brighton Cycle & Motor Co, 9 Marine Parade, Brighton.
VELLEDA: PRIESTESS & HEALER
A pagan priestess led one of the greatest tribal European revolts against Rome. The Batavian Insurrection was a rising of tribes at the mouth of the Rhine. The Romans called them Germaniae, but historians think that they were primarily Celtic. Their popular discontent with imperial rule reached the breaking point in the year 70 CE. Tacitus wrote that the Batavians identified ‘the women of the Germaniae’ as the driving force behind the revolt. Veleda, a priestess of the Bructerii acted as the tribal oracle in ‘a lofty tower.’ This unmarried woman possessed political and diplomatic authority, and guided battle strategy in conjunction with the chieftain Civilis. ‘As arbiters between us we will have Civilis and Veleda; under their sanction the treaty will be ratified.’
Tacitus, Historia, 4.65 *
Initially, the name Weleda was used as a title of distinction, similar to the name Caesar, the designation of any powerful leader. Weleda only later became a personal name. Velleda was its French variant.
The most famous Weleda was a priestess of healing and a well known historical personality who lived at the beginning of the Christian era. She is mentioned several times in the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus.
Weleda lived near the famous sanctuary of the Extern Stones on the banks of the river Lippe, in what is Germany today. She belonged to the tribe of Brukturers. Although she was renowned as a priestess of healing, she was also revered as a prophetess. Multitudes came from distant places for her help and advice. Her blessing was sought for contracts and agreements; she was even asked to mediate disputes.
Under her influences, the Brukturers joined with other Germanic tribes and they were among the few to repel the Roman invaders from the south. Only after a long period of machinations – of cunning and bribery – were the Romans able to isolate the Brukturers from their allies and finally to conquer them. Peace was established, but the Romans so feared the influence Weleda had over her people that they took her to Rome as a captive. There she received honourable treatment and while still captive died in Rome in about 80 A.D.