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Spring Wheels

November 6, 2011

What’s old is new again.  Here is a video of a bicycle made in England this year, with spring wheels.  More info further down the page. 

Ron Arad Two Nuns Bicycle from paul denton on Vimeo.


While we were visiting the WAAAM Museum this summer, the Velo fellows walked past a million things.  But this set of wheels caught my eye.DSC00037

The tag reads:  “Very early (circa 1910) Akerman airplane wheels which were found in a barn in Ohio.”  I stopped and stared at them, as the decaying neurons in my mind recalled seeing photos of these in some old books… 


The quest for a comfortable ride on a motorbike goes back a long way.  Moderns have swingarms and telescoping forks, but in the old days there were a multitude of methods devised to get some springs between the rider’s rear and the tarmac.   We’ll skip over the 1907 BAT with its sprung subframe of the seat & footboards, or the monoshocks on the 1913 Flying Merkel and NSU, and just look at some sprung wheels.  The Triumph Sprung Hub is a common example.  With springs between the axle and the tire, some amount of suspension was afforded.  But of course there were limits!  Just a small amount of travel was possible, and the device was heavy, wasn’t adjustable, etc.  But it did work. 


triumph sprung hub 

Triumph sprung hub 1947

An alternative make of sprung hub was this Clamil, from the early 1950’s in England.

Clamil Sprung Hub

But let’s go back further, and see that neat invention of Ackerman’s:  The Spring Wheel.  If you have built a hot rod or maybe raced a go cart, you’ll be familiar with his name, and the principles a previous Ackerman(n) laid out for proper steering geometry back in 1818.  Yep, 1818.  Not yet for use in motorcars, but horse buggies and early steam vehicles.Indian


These wheels used spring steel straps in place of the wheel spokes to provide some spring action.  They were brought out in 1917, with a few photos and paragraphs in the magazines that fall.  From the Floyd Clymer Historical Scrapbook #6, (buy the set of 6 if you can find them all.  Cheap and full of good stuff!)  Here is the article:scan0003

There were two styles, the heavy and light sprung wheels.  The light wheels are in the next image, which are similar to those used on the early airplane back at the museum.  You’ll see that in addition to the Spring Wheels, this bike has the Indian rear suspension, with leaf springs place between the seat an the rear axle.



Ackerman patent 1324440

One of Ackerman’s patent drawings.   This one shows one of the spring elements of the wheel.

1897 Ackerman

Ackerman’s 1897 car.


landing gear

Now these wheels may seem like a modern idea for 1917 airplane or motorbike or modern even for a 2011 bicycle, but we can go back quite a bit further still.  Remember, when anybody claims that something was the FIRST in automotive history, it is always possible that even older technology pre-dates the claimed invention.  And so it goes with Spring Wheels.  Before Ackerman, there was a 1904 Rex that rode across England with spring wheels and rigid tires.  And before them, inventors had laid out Spring Wheels in the 19th century.  The oldest known patent for such a wheel goes all the way back to 1810.  That is TWO HUNDRED AND ONE YEARS AGO… 


Everything old is new again.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    November 6, 2011 9:05 pm

    Very cool post. Thanks for making it!

    How do you suppose they true an Ackerman wheel? Or were the speeds and roads of the time such that it wasn’t necessary?

    • November 6, 2011 10:31 pm

      I’m not sure. Possibly by use of pry bars, hammers and heavy handed technicians? They are basically sheetmetal strips, so they might take some straightening with force. But as they are springs, there would be some difficulties there. For the motorbikes, I’m not sure if they ever equipped any bikes other than the two Indians in their advertisements. I’ve never come across any photos or stories of them on the road.

      • Somer permalink
        November 7, 2011 4:47 am

        Wow ! A new one on me!

  2. November 7, 2011 12:59 am

    Hi Pete,
    thanks for this post, i never saw either any other bikes than those Indians but these wheels are so … Art Déco to me , wish i could find one to put on my wall.
    Hope you’re going well, my best

  3. November 7, 2011 2:23 am

    i have never seen anything like that before pete. my mind is imagining the springs in those wheels in compression and then in tension and i think that its an amazing concept. compare the compression stage in a standard spoked rim to these ….it has to be better in the “sprung” situation….its not simply relying on the rim strength in the compression stage…. ie…less buckled rims maybe?…..

  4. November 15, 2011 9:30 am

    Hi Pete,
    the Munich Science Museum has a wall of sprung wheel experiments…I’ll send you some photos!

    • November 15, 2011 9:33 am

      cool. I know that there are a million of them in the patent literature, going back 200 years. And new ones coming up even in the past few years. send the pics, I’ll post them as an addendum.

  5. November 17, 2011 9:22 am

    One of the best and most interesting posts yet. Thanks Pete! -JZ


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