The origin and invention of the Bowden Cable is open to some dispute, confusion and popular myth. The invention of the Bowden cable has been popularly attributed to Sir Frank Bowden, founder and owner of the Raleigh Cycle Co who, circa 1902, was reputed to have started replacing the rigid rods used for brakes with a flexible wound cable. There appears to be no current definitive reference for this.
The Bowden mechanism was invented by Irishman Ernest Monnington Bowden (1860 to April 3, 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), and the invention was reported in the Automotor Journal of 1897 where Bowden’s address was given as 9 Fopstone Rd, Earls Court. The principal element of this 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 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 freewheel 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. 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 ‘E. M. Bowden’s Patent Syndicate Limited’. The syndicate included, among others, R. H. Lea & Graham I. Francis of Lea & Francis Ltd, and William Riley of the Riley Cycle Company. The Raleigh company were soon offering the Bowden Brake as an accessory, and were quick to incorporate the cable into handlebar mounted Sturmey-Archer (in which they had a major interest) gear changes. Undoubtedly this is why E. Bowden and F. Bowden are sometimes confused today.
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 sheath, in the early post war period this gave way to plastic.
After Starley’s famous design of the Safety Bicycle, and Dunlop’s marketing (not invention) of the pneumatic tyre, E.M. Bowden Patents Syndicate Ltd was responsible for one of the most important innovations in the history of cycling (and motorcycling) – the first effective rear brake kit. It was introduced soon after the freewheeel hub (1897) made an efficient brake necessary on bicycles and was immediately adopted (or adapted) by every cycle manufacturer.
c1900 BSA Fittings Machine
Bowden Rim Brakes: thumb lever front; cable operated rear
This BSA Fittings Machine is in good working order. Cosmetically it has a fine layer of rust which could be rubbed down to provide a bare metal finish. It has all the BSA fittings you would expect on such a bicycle, including the ‘snail cams’ on the rear axle, and the chainwheel and steering head display the BSA logo. It’s not possible to accurately date a BSA Fittings bicycle, as they were sold by BSA in parts for local cycle shops to assemble and retail, and could have been sold some years after manufacture. This chainwheel design was used from 1899 to 1904, and the brakes are typically early 1900s.
Brakes were still mostly experimental around 1900, and this set up is typical of the various configurations available before rod brakes were introduced and became the industry standard. The combination seen here provides one of the most effective braking arrangements available at the time.
The Bowden thumb lever, as its title suggests, is pressed down with the thumb to pull the brake stirrup up onto the rim. The handlebar lever for the rear brake is connected by Bowden cable to the rear Bowden rim brake. The Bowden was the first brake of its kind, setting the design for future cycle braking technology. They were only used on bicycles for a few years before being adapted for use on the new-fangled motor bicycles. Rear Bowden brake fittings are not universal due to the variety in design of rear seat stays, so this example would have been supplied to BSA to sell as an option on their fittings bicycles.
BOWDEN BRAKE HISTORY
E.M. BOWDEN’S PATENTS SYNDICATE Ltd
BSA FITTINGS BICYCLES in the BOER WAR
These are the best known photos of a BSA Fittings Machine with Y pattern chainwheel, illustrating the work of the Royal Engineers during the Boer War.
This type of BSA Fittings Machine subsequently became the BSA Mark 1 military bicycle (below)