Waltham's Contributions to the Fastest Wheels on Earth

By Amy Green, Ph.D. & Historian: Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Raleigh advertisements provide a window into the world of bicycling, as the sport took the world by storm in the 1890s.  The ever modernizing world ushered in a clock-ordered society, exemplified by time-discipline in the factory.  This time-based form of constraint was transformed into an exciting discipline by new leisure activities like horse and bicycle racing:  speed was a virtue; clocking time assessed athletic ability; and breaking records raised athletes to heroic status.  Time challenged the competitor and entertained the spectator.   Pictured here is A.A. Zimmerman, a feted cycling superstar, a three-time American national champion, who won over one-thousand races during his career.[1]

Perhaps as compelling in this ad are the two marginal figures on the grassy berm, a proper Victorian couple (note how each rider is fully covered, from top to tail) watching Zimmerman zip by in his racing shorts and sleeveless shirt.   This Raleigh advertisement may feature Zimmerman, but it’s directed to the middle-class consumer,  the leisure rider, both men and women, for whom the bicycle provided an efficient way of traveling, surpassing the horse, and furnished a new type of entertainment in the form of touring, 

More radical in its impact on society was the lady’s bicycle. Great debates swirled around the appropriateness of the bicycle for women; but, with the rise of feminism and the suffragette movement during this period, female riders overcame the belief that cycling debased women and led to immorality    The bike afforded women an outlet for exercise; it engineered physical freedom as bloomers were adopted for safe riding, worn often under a skirt used as concealment.  It allowed women freedom to travel long distances and to join other men and women in the social experience of touring.  In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said that “the bicycle had done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”[2] Women not only biked for business and pleasure, but they joined clubs and participated in races, just as men did.  Bicycle racing became such an obsession for the public at large that cycling garnered more attention than America's national pastime, baseball, during the latter years of the nineteenth century.  Even Arthur Conan Doyle preached the virtues of the bicycle in the Scientific American Magazine:

‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work
becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having,
just mount a bicycle and go out for spin down the road, without
thought on anything but the ride you are taking.’[3]

Arthur Conan Doyle captures the essence of the modern leisure movement, a happy counterpart to the doldrums of work, and everyday life.

As early as 1878 (May 24th), the first recorded bike race in the United States took place in Boston’s Beacon Park.  By 1897, four hundred factories in America produced two million bikes, while car manufacturers only assembled four thousand cars. So automobiles had yet to eclipse the bike as a favored mode of transportation. “For a decade … [bicycling] was all anybody wanted to talk about.”[4]  The cycling heroes, who raced on newly laid oval tracks were paraded through cities.  Racers “hurled themselves against the unknown of terrestrial velocity,” and scientists tried to explain these speeds and feats of fitness, to no avail.   Dubbed the ‘“scorcher,’” the cyclist (in short sprints at least), was the fastest thing on earth, displaying new forms of athletic daring and dexterity.[5]

Waltham, Massachusetts not only rode the wave of the bicycle craze, it created its momentum as well.  When Waltham opened its oval track in 1893, it established one of the fastest dirt tracks in the area, where many world records were set.  It was the first track in Massachusetts devoted solely to bicycles, while other tracks were used for both bicycle racing and horse racing too--as tracking times with a stopwatch first emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century with the four-footed dynamo.

As one Smithsonian curator wrote, “speed had become a virtue” in America.[6]  And this is nowhere more true than at bicycling parks, where speed not only gave rise to cycling superstars, but transfixed audiences around the country.  The Waltham park could seat nine thousand people, and boasted a covered grandstand, “flanked by bleachers on both sides.”[7]  And when it opened on Memorial Day in 1893, the organizers had to deal with an overflow crowd.  Fifteen thousand spectators showed up!  Around the track, spectators were crowded six people deep.  Others found viewing on nearby hillsides, and on top of the neighboring Waltham hospital on South Street.  And soon, the installation of electric lights allowed for nighttime racing.[8]

In Christopher Klein’s blog about the park, he quotes The Boston Globe’s response to the new Waltham race track:

‘There may be more beautiful spots within 10 miles of the State House than the one in which the new Waltham bicycle park lies. But it would take a week’s hunt to find them. The track sits among the hills in a sheltered valley like a jewel in a brooch, and the view from the grandstand is charming, and looks away to a low range of wooded hills.’[9]   

In this instance, the Globe writer evinces a romantic strain, lauding the track, with inflated prose, for its park-like setting--a valley with wooded hills, “charming” to the eye.   Racing becomes background to this writer’s (and the nation’s) increasing desire for untrammelled, outdoor spaces, away from the city.  Yet, the two are not unrelated.   America’s surge across the landscape atop highwheelers, for example, was part of an outdoor recreation movement that included other sports such as baseball, cricket, tennis, roller skating, polo, hunting, and many more.[10]  This new enthusiasm for rugged, outdoor activity did not emerge in a vacuum. It was, in part, a response to the constraints of new urban life, the factory and its authoritarian structure and the home and its Victorian imperatives.

During the height of the bicycle craze in Waltham, crowds between ten thousand and fifteen thousand flocked to watch the racers, both solo and tandem.  Many of these racers rose to fame on the seats of Orient bicycles, manufactured locally in Waltham by Charles Metz.  Orient bicycles, produced at the Waltham Manufacturing Company, were some of the most popular and state-of-the art machines available for racers and leisure riders.  In an overview of bicycle racing as the sport of the moment,  one historian refers to the Orient as one of the “hot, fast bicycle names.”[11]

Before narrating Charles Metz’ contributions toward bicycle production and innovation, it’s useful to have some background on the origin of the bicycle itself.  By all accounts, it began with German inventor Karl Drais.  In 1818, he created a machine with two wheels a steering column, and a padded seat. The running machine was known in English as the Draisine (an eponymous name).[12]  Farmers would cross fields, using their legs and feet to propel the machine forward--faster than walking.  Also referred to as the velocipede, many from Europe and America rode this novel machine,  but found it impossible to keep their balance on rutted roads.[13]  

While the Draisine’s popularity was short-lived, it captured the public's imagination, indicating an incipient demand for two-wheeled propulsion.  After the Draisine, French inventors designed a velocipede which many consider to be the forerunner of the modern bike.  Either Pierre Michaux or his son Ernest attached pedals to the front wheel, using cranks to convert more energy to the machine, while lifting the cyclist's feet off the ground.  As importantly, this velocipede was the first to be mass produced, made possible by shifting from wood to cast iron.  Known as the “boneshaker,” it also made for a very painful ride on rutted, dirt roads. Designed in the early 1860s, the “boneshaker” found itsconverts among leisure riders and racers, but it did not survive this decade.[14]  

In 1870, the high-wheeled “Ordinary” arrived on the scene (also known as the Penny-Farthing). While awkward and dangerous to mount and dismount, with its fine-tuned gear ratio, rubber wheels, and relative lightness, it was one of the most comfortable and swiftest rides thus far.  Despite the risks, these were the first bikes to be pedaled cross-country and to be raced for speed records around the globe.[15] In fact, Charles Metz joined the ranks of bicycle enthusiasts and in 1885 became the highwheel champion of New York State, at the State Fair, in Syracuse.[16]

Born on October 17, 1863,  Charles H. Metz was the son of a “high-grade mechanic,” involved in “contracting and building business” in Utica, New York.[17]  An autodidact (only schooled through the sixth grade), Metz, according to one biographer,  apprenticed to his father in carpentry.[18] He would later take a job at Orient Fire Insurance Company; and, while he left this business after a few years, he recycled the Orient name for his own line of bicycles in Waltham, Massachusetts. His love of the bike, combined with his talent for mechanics, inspired him to go into the bicycle business.  As early as 1883, he served as an agent for Columbia bicycles, in his hometown of Utica.   Even before he opened up his own factory in 1893 (The Waltham Manufacturing Company, Rumford Avenue), he worked as a designer, making parts for Union Cycle Company in Newton Highlands.[19]  

His mechanical background, combined with his experience as a racer, motivated Metz to design lightweight, high performance racing machines, and amateur bikes, as well.  By this point the “safety bicycle” replaced the highwheelers, and boasted wheels of the same size, pneumatic tires, and chain power distribution, not so unlike bicycles of today.[20]  The opening of the Metz factory coincided with this wave of bicycle mania, and Metz produced everything from elite racing bikes, to tandems, to “Dainty” bikes for girls and boys.[21]  

His invention of a stronger and lighter fork crown, and the production of lighter sprockets by removing unneeded metal through circular cutouts, helped to improve the performance of racing bicycles, and“led to speed records,” and great success for his teams and bicycles.[22]  One model included the “Major Taylor”[23] bar extension, a drop handlebar, and smaller wheel, all designed to enable the rider to tuck in elbows, bend over, decrease height, and thereby reduce wind resistance.  These ‘Mile-A-Minute’ models weighed just over twenty pounds (lightweight even by today’s standards) and paid tribute to Charles Murphy, who clocked a mile in minute in 1899.[24]  

Murphy, a short distance racer, pulled off a daring and nearly life ending stunt by drafting (reducing air resistance by following another vehicle in its wake) behind a locomotive steaming at sixty miles a hour.  He managed to match the pace and, after several tries, clocked a mile in under fifty-eight seconds on June 30, 1899.[25]  On this last effort, he crashed into the rear coach of the train, and had to be lifted up bike and all into the back compartment.[26]  He earned a nation-wide reputation for this both daring and perhaps foolish endeavor. Afterall, he nearly reached seventy miles an hour on that ride--imagine the fascination with a bicyclist who rode faster than a train:  “Men and women were said to have fainted at the news” of Murphy’s performance.[27]  

While Murphy did not race on an “Orient” bike, several acclaimed racers of the period did: “Frank (Dutch) Waller won several six-day endurance contests and the twenty-four-hour title.”[28]  Fred Drew, another racer, was heavyset and became an “effective advertisement,” for the “strength of the Orient Wheels.” Other famous racers included Jimmie Michael, Harry Elkes, and Major Taylor; the latter two I will discuss below because of their preeminence in the world of racing.

Harry Elkes, (born in Glen Falls New York, 1879),  was “a physical marvel,” so proclaimed the Chicago Tribune in 1900.  On December 22, 1900, he won “the hardest six-day race ever run in the country.”[29]  During this highly competitive trek, one cyclist “met his death,” another became dangerously ill, and Elkes’ partner could barely walk afterward.[30]  Just five days after this race, Elkes set a new indoor record for the mile, pacing behind a motorcycle, he clocked the mile at 1:36. On May 30th, 1903 (four days before retiring), Elkes, at the Charles River park in Cambridge, crashed into a motorcycle pacer, injuring two others, and killing himself in the process. Nearly a year before (June 12th), Elkes broke the hour record by an entire mile (shattering the previous 41 miles, 250 yards),  setting an unassailable world record.[31]

Another Orient rider of great acclaim faced not just the time barrier, but the race barrier, as well. His records are only surpassed by his willingness as an African-American to compete in races throughout the country. Of course, he was barred from the South.  Major Taylor raced Orient bikes for the Metz Waltham Manufacturing Company, and between 1897 and 1900, he was the fastest sprinter if not the fastest rider in the United States.  His unparalleled sprinting ability allowed him to shoot past the field into a winning position, a great crowd pleaser, and probably one of the reasons he was allowed to race at all.  Not only did he face regional prejudice but other racers tried and were at times successful in injuring him during a competition.  Once someone attempted to choke him to death at the finish line.  That Major Taylor raced for Orient bicycles granted him ephemeral status and legitimacy in a violently racist world.

Orient bikes may have made an even greater name, with its famous riders and lightweight machines, had Metz not shifted to car manufacturing.  The American Manufacturing Company produced approximately one hundred thousand bicycles between 1893 and 1902.   But by 1909, the Metz Company (car manufacturing) was incorporated, and Charles Metz would soon become its president.[32]   Though one might be saddened by Metz’ departure from the bicycle scene in the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century, bicycling as a whole declined, and the only vestige of this amazing age was the child’s bike and trike. The adult recreation and racing bicycle would enjoy a resurgence over half a century later during the recreation revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Several factors influenced the bikes decline in the early twentieth century:  the monolithic rise of the car for everyday use and racing during the first two decades of the twentieth century; the rise of basketball and football as new spectator sports and severe cuts in bike production during the Great Depression.[33]

At 23 feet in length and 305 lbs., Charles Metz's "Oriten" was built purely for promotional purposes. It is on exhibit today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

At 23 feet in length and 305 lbs., Charles Metz's "Oriten" was built purely for promotional purposes. It is on exhibit today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Augustus_Zimmerman

[2] http://www.angelpig.net/victorian/cycling.html

[3] Peter Nye,Hearts of a Lion: The History of American Bicycle Racing, W.W. Norton & Company, New      York and London, 1988, pg. 33.

[4] Todd Balf, Major: A Black Athlete, A White Era, and the Fight to be the World’s Fastest Human Being, Crown Publishers, New York, pg. 2.

[5] Major, pg. 2

[6] http://americanhistory.si.edu/ontime/

[7]  http://hubtrotter.blogspot.com/2009/06/when-waltham-was-hub-of-cycling.html

[8] http://hubtrotter.blogspot.com/2009/06/when-waltham-was-hub-of-cycling.html

[9] http://hubtrotter.blogspot.com/2009/06/when-waltham-was-hub-of-cycling.html

[10] Frederic L. Paxson, “The Rise of Sport,”  The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Sep., 1917), pp. 143-168.

[11] Todd Balf, Major: A Black Athlete, A White Era, and the Fight to be the World’s Fastest Human Being, Crown Publishers, New York, pg. 2

[12] Or, in German, the Laufmaschine 

[13] Velocipede was a term used for human powered two-wheeled machines of any type, until supplanted by the term bicycle around 1869.  See, http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_69_2.html

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Michaux, Barton, Samuel M.,  “The Evolution of the Wheel: Velocipede to Motocycle,” The Sewanee Review 5 (1), 1897.

[15] http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_69_2.html

[16] Daniel U. Holbrook, “The Metz Company of Waltham: A Contextual History,” (Senior Honors Thesis, Brandeis University, 1986), p. 69.

[17] Edmund L. Sanderson, “Waltham Industries: Am Collection of Sketches of Early Firms and Founders,” (Pamphlet, Waltham Historical Society in cooperation with The Waltham Chamber of Commerce, 1957.), p. 78.

[18] “The Metz Company,

[19] Sanderson, “Waltham Industries,“The Metz Company of Waltham, “ pg. 78.

[20] “The Metz Company,” pg. 69.

[21] Orient Cycles Catalogue,Providence Albertype Co., Providence, Rhode Island, 1897, pp. 5, 12, 14, 15, 18-19.

[22] “Metz Company,” pp. 68-70.

[23] Marshall Taylor was one of the fastest cyclists of the era.

[24] “Metz Company,” pg. 71.

[25] http://www .bikereader.com/contributors/woodland/murphy.html

[26] Hearts of Lions, pp. 29-32

[27] Hearts of Lions, pg. 32

[28] “Waltham Industries,” pg. 79.

[29] Six-day races were run continuously around a velodrome track!  Towards the end of these races, cyclists fell of their machines, hallucinated, etc.  These were very dangerous endeavours risking the health and life of the competitor.

[30] http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1900/12/24/page/8/article/harry-elkes-a-physical-marvel

[31] The Automobile Review, June 15, 1903, pg. 232.

[32] “Waltham Industries,” pp 79-81

[33] Hearts of Lions, p. 13