American Star Bicycle Will Robertson pedals down the steps of the United States Capitol in 1885


The American Star Bicycle a veritable all rounder – first try some Down Hill riding MTB style then mount up for Bicycle Polo.

Cycling has long been associated with the Star. The United States Playing Card Company, creators of the Bicycle Joker cards also produced the star deck. Campagnolo even got in on the act manufacturing high flange – Sheriff  Badge – style hubs.

John Stout on an American Star Bicycle

John Stout on an American Star Bicycle

So what’s this got to do with Will Robertson and J M Stout skilfully pulling off  early urban trials manoeuvres on the steps of American public buildings, both rode star bicycles. Stout is even known as the champion “fancy star” rider of the world, an early version of Danny MacAskill. Smith was riding an American Star bicycle down the steps of the Capitol building as a demonstration of the bike’s stability over the standard penny farthing. Invented in 1880 by G. W. Pressey the bikes were manufactured by H. B. Smith Machine Company of Burlington County – New Jersey in the town of Smithville. Apart from demonstrations of stability the bikes were also used for bicycle polo, a sport which has seen a recent renaissance with riders choosing fixies over tall bikes. The bike’s name is derived from the “Star Crossed” arrangement of the spokes.

This unusual bicycle features the reverse arrangement of the well-known penny farthing design in that the small wheel is at the front and the large one at the back. It is propelled by a system of treadles and is called the American Star. It was an attempt to make the penny farthing a safer and steadier machine and was achieved by the rider sitting further back over the rear wheel which meant that falling forwards over the handle bars, called a header, was prevented. This advantage was illustrated in publicity generated when Will Robertson, riding an American Star bicycle, rode down the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in 1885, a feat never contemplated by penny farthing riders, as well as playing mounted polo. The American Star also had the advantage that it could be ridden very fast as both feet could be pushed on the treadles simultaneously, an advantage in riding up hills and starting off in races.

Will Robertson on an American Star Bicycle

Will Robertson on an American Star Bicycle

The American Star is said to have been one of the major American innovations in the design and configuration of the bicycle. The other  notable American bicycle innovation of the day was the the single tube tire.  The American Star bicycle was patented in 1881 in the United States of America by George W. Pressey, and made by the H.B. Smith Machine Co. of Smithville, Burlington, New Jersey, in the late 1880s.

This bicycle became popular in America but did not do so well in Europe dominated by the British-built dwarf penny farthings like the Kangaroo, whereas the dwarf penny farthing did not have the success in America. All were superseded by the Rover safety bicycle introduced in 1885 with its diamond-shaped frame similar to today’s bicycles.1

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Excerpt from the Builder and Wood-Worker, September, 1881. via Endless Sphere   THIS new candidate for popular favor is the invention of Mr. G. W. Pressey, of Hammonton, N. J., and, as may be seen from the accompanying illustration, is radically different in construction from the old and “accepted” style of bicycle. Mr. Pressey has based his new departure upon the principles of health, safety and convenience and an examination and test of his new plan bicycle, as compared with the older styles, will be convincing as to the soundness of these principles and the advantages of the new system. Among these advantages may be summed up the following: The carrying wheel is held firmly in line by the frame, so the push of the rider does not throw it out of its course. The small steering wheel being in front, serves as a brace to prevent the momentum of the rider throwing him forward when the wheels are stopped or partly stopped by any obstruction, so it can be ridden safely even over logs six or eight inches in thickness. It steers and can be turned quickly, as the push of the rider does not affect the steering wheel, while in turning, a brace is formed on the outside of the circle. It is easily mounted or dismounted. The step being at the side near the saddle, the rider steps easily to and from his seat, instead of climbing up from behind as he must do with the crank machine. There is no bone shaking, both wheels being furnished with fine elastic springs, which add much to the comfort of the rider. It is easy to handle and control, and can be used by ladies in ordinary costume, while the machine is adjustable to the size of the rider, and the latter does not have to fit the machine as in the case of the old styled bicycle. All other bicycles are propelled by cranks turned by the foot, a method of propulsion now out of use in all kinds of machinery; the hand is fitted to turn a crank, the foot is not. If one tries to turn a grindstone by putting his foot on the crank, he will find the experiment a failure. On a six inch crank, a bicycler must make a muscular motion of 37 1/2 inches in order to bear down on his crank an average of less than 4 inches, full power. This is a waste of motion no bicycler can afford. The “American Star,” by the use of levers and clutches, has a continuous power, which turns the wheel entirely around with the same motion and exertion required to move the crank one-half around the old machine, enabling the rider to go faster and easier with the same amount of labor, at the same time giving independent action of the levers, the rider pushing with one foot or both, at pleasure, or setting with foot resting on pedals, which do not move unless he moves them. The name of “Star ” is given this bicycle on account of the peculiar arrangement of the wire spokes, which form a double star at the center. By this arrangement the twist of the hub, caused by the pressure of the foot on the crank or lever, is held by the tensional strength of the spoke, which is about 1,000 pounds; while, in the old wheel, the hub is mostly held in place by the bending strength or stiffness of the wire, which is only five or six pounds; the new wheel gaining by this arrangement a strength more than thirty times as great.

The claims are neither fictitious or imaginary. At the recent Boston Bicycle Parade and Meet, in which some half dozen of “American Star” bicycles were exhibited, the great efficiency and practical merits of the new machines were plainly demonstrated to the thousands of bicyclists and visitors who were present, amply proving that the claims made for them are substantiated in actual service.

At this exhibition the new machines came into actual competition with their many rivals, and the result so clearly evinced the superiority of the “American Star,” even over the best of its predecessors, as to disarm criticism and to banish prejudice. The world moves on and the new invention of Mr. Pressey only proves that in mechanical science and genius America leads the van. The “Star” needs but to be introduced to give it the popularity it deserves, and the manufacturers, the H. B. Smith Machine Co.. ware rooms 925 Market street, Phila., will be glad to give all needed information and to receive orders for the new season now opening. 2

Want to know everything about the American Star and much more about bicycles click the link to Endless Sphere

May 1889 American Star Advertisment for their 39 x 24 model

American Star Bicycle Advertisement

American Star Bicycle Advertisement

H B Smith Machine Company American Star Bicycle

H B Smith Machine Company American Star Bicycle

1. Adams, Donald G. “Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles”, pp. 94-7

2. From Endless Sphere and – The Builder and Wood-Worker, September, 1881


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