James Starley: Facts About the Victorian Inventor

Here are some facts about James Starley.

  • James Starley was born in the Sussex village, Albourne, in 1830.

  • When he was nine years old, he started to work on his father’s farm.
  • He invented ingenious ways of catching rats on the farm, using parts from an umbrella and willow branches.
  • When he was a teenager, he moved to Lewisham, London. He found work as a gardner, but made extra money by mending watches and inventing things to solve problems.
  • One of his early inventions was a device that allowed a duck to pass through a gap in a fence, but stopped rats from following it.
  • James Starley fixed his employers sewing machine and then improved its design, and this led to him getting a job with Josiah Turner, a partner of the men who had manufactured the sewing machine.
  • Around 1860, James Starley and Josiah Turner started their own company, the Coventry Sewing Machine Company.
  • By 1868, the company was producing bicycles. It soon became one of the key companies at the centre of the British bicycle industry.
  • With William Hardy, James Starley made a version of the penny-farthing.
  • The company’s most famous bike was the Ariel, made from all metal and released in 1870.
  • James Starley was constantly looking for ways to make his products better and more efficient. He invented the tangent spoke wheel, differential gears (used the manufacture of cars today) and he came up with ways to perfect the bicycle chain drive.
  • He married Jane Todd and they had a son called William Starley.
  • James Starley died in Coventry in 1881. He was 51 years old.
  • His son and nephew, John Kemp Starley, carried on making bicycles after James’ death. John Kemp Starley went on to make the Rover Safety Bicycle.
  • James Starely is sometimes known as “the father of the bicycle industry”.
  • Starley’s factory in Coventry is now home to the Museum of British Road Transport.
  • In a 1999 vote, James Whittle was voted the third most important person in Coventry’s history.
  • There is a statue of James Starley in Coventry.

What next? Discover facts about some other famous Victorians.

Penny Farthing: Facts and Information

Here are some interesting facts about the penny farthing.

  • The Penny Farthing was the first machine to be called a bicycle. Its name came from its large front wheel and smaller back wheel, which resembled the largest and smallest coins of the time.

  • It was popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Because the Penny Farthing, or high wheel bicycle, was expensive to make, it was usually only purchased by wealthy young men.
  • The front wheel often measured just over 2 metres in diameter. The machine had solid rubber tyres, a cast iron frame and pedals attached directly to the wheel hub.
  • The larger front wheel and small back wheel supposedly made the machine easier to ride. However, many riders found it difficult to get on and off the bicycle, and there were many injuries.
  • Some riders even died from falling off the bicycle, because of its height. When coasting downhill, riders had to take their feet off the pedals and put them over the handlebars.
  • The bicycle was designed by a British Victorian inventor, James Starley. In 1878, the Columbia bicycle factory opened in the United States, and the machine became popular there.

Penny Farthing

  • The Penny Farthing lost much of its popularity in the late 1880s when Starley’s nephew invented the Rover Safety Bicycle. Its most noticeable feature was a saddle much closer to the ground.
  • Around the same time, John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. This new technology meant that smaller machines with smaller wheels could be ridden safely and comfortably.
  • Today, several US cities have the Penny Farthing bicycle as their symbol. It also featured in one of the most famous television shows ever, The Prisoner.
  • In 2006, Joff Summerfield spent over two years riding around the world on a Penny Farthing. The national Penny Farthing championship races are held every year in Tasmania, Australia.