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Birth of the Indian "Motocycle" focuses on Middletown, Connecticut

There was a time in American history when people defined themselves as sophisticated, financially comfortable and suitably fashionable by doing one thing – riding a bicycle.


Horses were unpredictable and high-maintenance. Train travel often was cramped and slow. The bicycle, though, provided freedom of movement for independent explorers before automobiles arrived on the scene. And Middletown, Conn., with its factories and skilled workforce, was a hub of innovative activity as bicycles evolved into motorcycles. Inventors and engineers in the area pushed the boundaries to produce motorized bikes and other vehicles, and Middletown was buzzing.


It all started with the bicycle craze of the 1890s, which spurred tremendous growth in the industry, and urbanized areas, such as Middletown, benefited because of their paved roads and population of middle- and upper-class citizens. The League of American Wheelmen, a national bicycling governing body still in existence, had a membership based concentrated in the mid-Atlantic states and New England. Massachusetts residents especially loved to ride bicycles, counting two times as many L.A.W. members as 26 other states combined.


Isaac Potter, L.A.W. president in the 1890s, estimated in 1896 that 250 bicycle factories were operating in the United States and the industry was valued at $75 million with more than two million riders. Bicycles were being built lower to the ground, and inflatable tires replaced wooden wheels.


“Once the bicycle was safe and comfortable, the riding fad erupted,” Gary Allan Tobin wrote in the Journal of Popular Culture in 1974.


By 1900, the U.S. census noted 312 bicycle factories producing more than a million bicycles annually by the end of the 1890s.


Middletown was in the thick of the action. The Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company expanded its operations from Massachusetts and operated a factory on land that is now part of Wesleyan University. The Keating Wheel Company worked out of a groundbreaking facility on Johnson Street in Middletown that was the first factory in the country to run on electricity using generators from Thomas Edison’s newly created General Electric Company.


Today the all-brick, two-story factory, which measures 1,000 feet in length, is known as the R.M. Keating Historical Enterprise Park and many locals remember its days as the Remington Rand complex where signature noiseless typewriters were manufactured.


Author R.K. Keating notes that the former Keating Wheel Company factory, still standing on Johnson Street in Middletown, is “one of the last existing bicycle/motorcycle/automobile factories in the U.S. that can trace its origins back to the Gilded Age and to the threshold of the horseless age.” Photo courtesy Nick Keating.


The original owner, Robert M. Keating, was a Massachusetts native and innovator, and a former pitcher for the 1887 Baltimore Orioles (which later moved to New York and became the Yankees franchise) who patented baseball’s first rubber home plate.


And just up the river, Pope Manufacturing in Hartford, run by Albert Pope, was producing the popular Columbia bicycle and later got involved with early automobile production.


The 1890s and early 1900s marked a tremendously innovative time in the area. While bicycle production ramped up to meet growing interest, these engineers, mechanics and riders continued to fine-tune existing designs and create prototypes that ushered in new types of bicycles and even motorcycles while also working on various electric and gasoline-powered automobiles.


“The folks in Middletown heard the nascent roar of internal combustion earlier than most others living in cities and towns across America,” says New Hampshire author R.K. Keating, author of a highly detailed biography of his distant relative Robert M. Keating, titled Wheel Man. “For a city of its size, Middletown can lay claim to the production of bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles on a scale that is historically impressive.”


Robert M. Keating was a skilled inventor and engineer who owned multiple patents related to his motorcycle prototype. His name has largely been lost to history as a pioneer in the motorcycle industry. Photo courtesy R.K. Keating


Middletown attracted some remarkable cycling inventors and athletes. Professional racer and manufacturer Louis “Birdie” Munger ran the Worcester Cycle factory producing the acclaimed Royal Worcester bicycle and the Birdie Special. One of his employees was Marshall “Major” Taylor, a machinist at the factory who lived in Middletown for a brief time while he skyrocketed toward international racing fame as an African-American champion known for breaking barriers and records.


“He was…the most hated, the most admired, the most controversial, the most talked about, quite simply, the most famous bicycle racer in America,” bicycle historian Andrew Ritchie wrote in his biography of Taylor. “He had become the most prominent black American athlete, and one of the most celebrated black Americans.”


Taylor is honored in Worcester with a boulevard bearing his name and a statue outside the city’s public library.


Munger also employed engineer and custom builder Oscar Hedström, who began producing motorized pacers, which were bicycles fitted with small gasoline engines, used in popular bicycling speed races to split the wind and reduce the drag for cyclists. Similar pacers, featuring electric motors, had been used in France for several years. Another designer, Russell Frisbie (cousin of the famous creator of Bridgeport’s Frisbie Pie), also worked with Hedström on the motorized pacers.


Middletown’s cycling crowd was interconnected. Frisbie and Munger both had done contract work for Keating Wheel Company, whose head man also was deep into production of motorized bikes, seeing them as the next step to allow riders more freedom to explore greater distances from home without punishing the body.


Hedström, meanwhile, connected with George Hendee, himself a bicycle manufacturer, racer and promoter in Springfield, Mass., where he produced the popular Silver King, Silver Queen and American Indian bicycles.


Constant innovation was in their blood, but business realities also intervened. After an explosion in popularity, the bottom fell out of the bicycle industry in the late 1890s when too much inventory flooded the market, driving down prices and profits, coinciding with a widespread economic depression. Many bicycle manufacturers declared bankruptcy and fell by the wayside. Others scrambled to forge partnerships to stay afloat.


The Keating Wheel Company and Worcester Cycle suffered badly. Keating continued to work on his motorcycle prototypes and advance into electric delivery-vehicle design and production. Worcester Cycle all but shuttered its factory, which Hedström and Hendee used for their own motorcycle experiments.


George Hendee, a champion bicycle racer and promoter, operated the Hendee Manufacturing Company in Springfield, which became known for producing Indian Motocycles, one of America’s iconic brands used in racing, leisure riding and the military. Hendee is on the 1901 Indian. Photo courtesy Indian Motorcycles.


Keating, a brilliant inventor, was making tremendous strides and “was awarded eight patents related to his motorcycle before Hedström filed his first,” R.K. Keating wrote.


Everyone likely heard about each other’s developments through the close fraternity of local bicycle men. “If there were a desire to work with and learn from one another, the opportunity was certainly there,” Keating noted.


As 1900 dawned, Keating and Hedström/Hendee were competing to produce the most reliable motorcycles in an emerging American market. Keating had the upper hand because his factory was stilled equipped with the machinery and parts to produce multiple motorcycles, while Hedström, working out of a toolroom in the abandoned Worcester Cycle factory, had only his prototype.


Keating, the author, paints an interesting picture of this unique moment in motorcycling history with Keating and Hedström riding down Main Street on motorcycle test runs before heading back to their respective shops to adjust and fine-tune.


“For motorcycle enthusiasts, it would have been a remarkable time to be in Middletown, Connecticut,” he wrote.


Keating’s motorcycle, with a longer wheelbase and the motor incorporated into a customized frame rather than attached to a regular bicycle frame, earned glowing reviews from the cycling press when introduced in the spring of 1901. But he continued to suffer from financial problems and lack of marketing acumen.


“Keating had a winning product mechanically, but without a business plan and the means to implement it, the 1901 Keating would go nowhere,” Keating wrote.


The 1901 Keating was an engineering success as a motorcycle, but Robert M. Keating lacked the financial resources and business plan to popularize it long term. Photo courtesy Nick Keating. Motorcycle owned by Brian Keating.


And that’s where Hedström and Hendee separated themselves. Hedström finished his prototype shortly after Keating unveiled his motorcycles. After a few test rides around Middletown, Hedström shipped his bike up to Springfield by train where Hendee, the bicycle racing celebrity, astutely scheduled a public unveiling during lunch hour on June 1 outside the Hendee Manufacturing Company. To show off the bike, Hedström rode it up a notoriously steep hill of loose gravel on Cross Street, known to exhaust anyone pedaling a bicycle.


Hedström’s prototype thrilled the onlookers and press members, exhibiting impressive power and scaling the hill for 350 feet with speed to spare. The deal was sealed. Hendee had a winner on his hands, and he committed to manufacturing what became the iconic Indian “Motocycle” – without the “r” – which became the best-selling motorcycle in America.


Oscar Hedström shows off his Indian “Motocycle” prototype outside his workshop in the former Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, which stood on land now part of Wesleyan University. Courtesy: From the Indian Motocycle Museum Collection, Archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts.


The public exhibition “has since been recognized as a seminal event, not only in Indian history but in the history of the American motorcycle,” R.K. Keating wrote in his book.


Keating’s attempts to keep his factory running on shoe-string with motorcycle production and some bicycle assembly finally caught up with him. Though the 1901 Keating sold more than the Indian, the Hedström/Hendee motorcycle was getting all the industry attention. Keating lost his factory on Johnson Street and moved to 79 Hubbard Street in Middletown by 1904. He owned 14 patents related to the manufacture of gasoline motors and motorcycles, but he no longer had the manufacturing infrastructure to keep up with Hendee’s operation. Keating hung on for a couple of years and transitioned into marine engine production, but by 1906 he declared personal bankruptcy.


Oscar Hedström, with his 1901 prototype, helped make Indian one of the most popular motorcycles in the first half of the 20th century. Photo courtesy Indian Motorcycles.


By 1914, Indians and Harley-Davidsons were as synonymous with motorcycle production as they are today. Keating had been bypassed, but he wanted to reclaim at least a piece of what he believed was his. He reformed The Keating Wheel Company for the express purpose of filing patent infringement lawsuits on four patents related to his coaster-brake mechanism, clutch, battery-powered ignition and engine-speed control.


When faced with litigation, Hendee settled quickly in 1914, though terms are unknown. Keating targeted Harley-Davidson in 1917, and the Milwaukee-based giant made it easy for Keating because their frame decal listed patents that belonged to Keating. He used the settlement money to fund his fledgling valve company in Springfield, which never took off. Five years after his final patent infringement victory, Keating died of advanced colon cancer.


As R.K. Keating noted, “Keating’s successful patent infringement suits against the two leading manufacturers of motorcycles in the country offered a bittersweet validation of his legacy as an important innovator during the early days of the motor age, a legacy that has unfortunately been lost over time.”


***


Keating Wheel Company Still Rolling


While the Keating Wheel Company is long gone from Middletown, its name and mission live on in Plainfield, New Hampshire. For more than 40 years, Brian Keating restored vintage motorcycles under the company name. Now his son, Nick, is going back to the company’s roots, working on modern bicycle prototypes based on the original Keating design.


The Keatings own about a dozen Keating bicycles from the 1890s, and Nick is working with several American companies to create prototypes for a racing bicycle and, in the future, a cruiser bicycle for everyday use.


“I want to use as many American-made parts as possible,” said Keating, who works with Providence bike-builder Max Pratt, owner of Pratt Frameworks. “[Keating Wheel Company] has a hidden history and it’s cool to bring that back, to tell the story and renew the brand.”


The learning curve has been a long one as Keating works to create a physical prototype by late spring. Meanwhile, Brian continues his remarkable work refurbishing classic motorcycles for clients and himself. His collection includes an old Keating motorcycle, too.


“This is kind of a passing of the torch as we’re going back to the bicycles,” Nick said.


Learn more about the Keating Wheel Company (both old and new) at www.keatingwheelcompany.com.