1892/ 1893 Safety bicycle with Swift chainwheel
and unusual chain adjustment
26″ Wheels with solid tyres
This bicycle was restored in the 1970s. It has a small frame size and smaller wheels than most bicycles of the early 1890s, making it suitable for a shorter rider. It’s ready to ride.
There are few surviving bicycles from the early 1890s. And catalogues of the time are equally scarce. This rare machine looks like the 1893 Swift illustrated below …except that it has an elaborate chain adjustment system at the rear drop outs.
It’s a very interesting feature and one that I’ve never seen before. In my opinion it was an experimental feature that was in production for only one year, most likely obsolete by the time it was introduced and maybe not even making it into a catalogue. In the history of the evolution of the bicycle, this is one small detail that has got lost in the annals of time.
THE EVOLUTION of CHAIN ADJUSTMENT on EARLY BICYCLES
Chain adjustment on bicycles changed from the bottom bracket to the rear dropouts between 1889 and 1992. You can see one of the earlier designs above (on my 1887 Humber), where the chain is adjusted by a slider below the bottom bracket. Another common method on the first safety bicycles was adjustment by a bolt in front of the bottom bracket (below on an 1888 Swift)
I’m not sure who first invented the idea of chain adjustment at the rear drop outs in the late 1880s, but it was such a good idea that it is still used today. There were various patents covering slightly differing designs (below), but by the mid-1890s it became the industry standard and all bicycles used that method.
All this makes the chain adjustment on this biycle unique (below). It was an experimental system, brought in at a time when new ideas could generate as much financial return through patents as building and selling bicycles. However, the level of innovation was so high at this time that your wonderful new idea was also likely to be superseded by somebody else’s new idea soon after.
That is what happened with this chain adjustment concept: the slider system used on the bottom bracket on earlier bicycles was tacked onto the rear of the chain stays. But by the time it was produced, better methods had already been invented and it immediately became obsolete.
1891 SWIFT CHAIN ADJUSTMENT
The reason that I have not described this bicycle as a Swift is that the company had already developed chain adjustment at the rear drop out, as seen in the announcement below in their 1891 catalogue. So I think this safety bicycle was built by another company using similar components, which was a common practice at the time – if their bicycle looked similar to one of the top manuafacturer’s bicycles, it obviously gave them a sales advantage.