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June 08, 2017

A Hamilton County Wheelman – Lucius M. Wainwright

A Hamilton County Wheelman – Lucius M. Wainwright

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Now that the nice weather is here, it’s a good time to take advantage of the county bicycling trails. Of course, this is nothing new – In 1896 there was an article in the Indianapolis News on the best way to get from Indianapolis to Noblesville by bicycle, which even included a map.

Bicycles have been enormously popular for a long time and one Noblesville man’s relationship with them went from riding to racing to manufacturing, creating a company that still exists today.

Lucius Wainwright was born in 1860, the son of William A. Wainwright.  He became fascinated by bicycles at an early age.  There was a “velocipede” in Noblesville by 1868 which he may have seen.  He not only acquired his own bicycle, but he began to sell them in 1879.

He organized the Indiana chapter of the League of American Wheelmen soon after its creation in 1880.  He experimented with riding the large tricycles of the era, but they didn’t have as much potential as two-wheelers.

Wainwright was racing in the 1880’s, and while he was good, he was not spectacular.  He also did trick riding at street fairs and amusement parks.  His friends referred to him as “Lew”.  At one point he and friend did a bicycle run along the railroad tracks from Noblesville to Indianapolis and back in one day.

He organized the Central Cycle Company in 1891 to manufacture bicycles.  Among other things, he developed a one-piece pedal crankshaft, the kind that is standard today.  The company made Ben Hur brand bicycles, which were named to capitalize on the famous Lew Wallace novel. The trademark showed an image of the chariot race from the book.  The bicycles became nationally famous.  A New York Times article from 1895 says the bikes were specially favored by riders.  They weighed only 21 pounds – which was light for the era – but could handle riders up to 220 pounds.

The company experimented with other products like pneumatic-tired horse racing sulkies.  These were used by people such as Marcus Hare.  Despite the success of the company, a bad business connection caused it to fail in 1897.  Wainwright went to work at the Federal Manufacturing Company and eventually rose to manager.

In 1905, Wainwright took over a company that had been started in 1890 to make bicycle parts – Diamond Chain.  They manufactured “roller-block” chains, and were not only used on bicycles, but also motorcycles, early automobiles, and airplanes.  (The company had supplied the chains used in the first Wright brothers’ airplane in 1903.)  Under Wainwright’s guidance, the company became the largest chain manufacturer in the US.  This was very important during World War One when German-made chains were not available.

The company thrived and is still an important Indianapolis manufacturer today.  Eventually, Wainwright retired and passed the company on to his son.  He died in 1931 and is buried in Crownland Cemetery.