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 by every cycle manufacturer.
The development of Bowden wire was stepped up in WW1, as it was used in aeroplanes, tanks and submarines for throttle control and gun triggers. As a result, Bowden brake technology also developed fast. I’m not sure when they introduced their first drum brakes: Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing’s excellent book ‘Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History’ explains that what may have been the first drum brake for a bicycle was patented by W.R Mortimer in 1881, though they did not catch on at that time, and that the British Hub Co launched drum brakes in Great Britain in 1926.
I had always assumed drum brakes to be a 1920s innovation; however, in 2012, I bought and sold two 1922 Monet Goyon Velocimane tricycles, both with a cable-operated Bowden drum brake in the front wheel (PLEASE CLICK HERE) and was surprised when the Monet Goyon Club mentioned that they were introduced in 1917; an advert claimed for that year shows a Monet Goyon invalid carriage with drum brake. Louis Renault patented automobile drum brakes in 1902 (though they were apparently used in a Maybach car in 1900). So I wondered if perhaps the first serious production of bicycles with drum brakes was in France?
This Velo Porteur ‘Goods’ appears to be an early adopter of the drum brake; it is the same Bowden brake used on the Monet Goyon Velocimane, only in the rear wheel rather than the front. I found no information regarding the age of this machine, but the fact that it has inch pitch chain would suggest an early model.
For many years, I was still unsure if Bowden drum brakes were developed before or during WW1, until I recently found the article below, from 1907, where Bowden announce the introduction of their new hand-operated hub brake suitable for both front and back wheels…
1910 Velo Porteur ‘Goods’
with Inch Pitch Chain & Bowden Drum Brake
Rear Wheel: 28″ (700 x 45C)
Front Wheel: 22″ (550 x 42)
Dedicated carrier bicycles – i.e. ‘low gravity’ models with smaller front wheel – were not used as extensively in France as they were in Great Britain. The reason is that the ‘velo porteur’ that became popular in France was merely a normal bicycle with an accessory front carrier rack that fitted over the handlebars, and the triporteur commercial three-wheeler was more popular for transporting heavier goods. It’s an interesting machine in its own right, but I added this example to the collection because of its two interesting features: inch pitch chain and rear Bowden drum brake.
BOWDEN BRAKE HISTORY
E.M. BOWDEN’S PATENTS SYNDICATE Ltd
BOWDEN DRUM BRAKE
M. Maherrault, 32, Rue Greffier, Le Mans, Sarthe, France. Makers of ‘Cycles Good’s’ et marchands en gros des pieces.They were listed post-WW1 and up to WW2, but not after that.
BOWDEN WIRE LTD