1850: The Start of a Pioneering Bicycle Manufacturer’s Life Journey

March 21, 1850

Trailblazing bicycle manufacturer Albert H. Overman was born in Fulton County, Illinois. Early on in life, he developed a strong interest in the mechanics of transportation. Overman said in an 1897 interview with the New York-based World newspaper, “I have all my life been engaged in experimental work connected with man-propelled machinery, even as a boy made wooden wheeled machines for that purpose.”

Overman, who graduated from Illinois State Normal University (now known as Illinois State University), left the Prairie State in 1881 and made his way east to New England. In 1882, he launched Overman Wheel Company in the community of Chicopee Falls (part of the present-day city of Chicopee) in southwest Massachusetts’ Hampden County.

This enterprise was one of the earliest bicycle manufacturing companies in the United States. Overman Wheel Company ultimately achieved considerable renown for producing high-quality lightweight bicycles in their entirety rather than just partially. The company’s innovations in this regard included the extensive use of testing equipment to better gauge everything from bicycle power output to tire elasticity. At the height of its operations, the company employed approximately 1,400 individuals working in a total of five buildings at its factory in Chicopee Falls and manufactured about 80,000 bicycles on an annual basis.

One of Overman Wheel Company’s pioneering and most popular products was the Victor Bicycle, which made its debut in 1883. This means of mobility was the first three-wheeled bicycle to be built in the United States. At that time, three-wheelers were widely regarded as a safer alternative to the era’s high-wheel bicycles. The Victor Bicycle was also notable for its interchangeable components, something that allowed owners to make minor repairs and modifications without having to pay professional mechanics for such work.

Another one of the Victor Bicycle’s claims to fame is that it was the first bicycle to have all of its metal parts made from steel. In addition, this bicycle was one of the first to have hollow pneumatic tires.

By the late 1880s, Overman Wheel Company helped the lead the way in the production of safety bicycles in the United States. This two-wheeled bicycles had been introduced in England earlier in the decade, and they were likewise marketed as being safer than the high-wheel version. The safety bicycles built by Overman Wheel Company became a huge sensation. The safety bicycle is now the type of bicycle most commonly used across the globe.

By the mid-1890s, Overman and his company had begun encountering some rough patches from which they never fully recovered. The company was significantly undercut by lower-priced competitors and, in 1897, nearly went bankrupt. The financial woes did not go away, however, they were arguably made even worse by a fire at the company’s plant in 1899 that resulted in major damages. The following year, Overman sold his bicycle manufacturing operations to Stevens Arms & Tool Company there in Chicopee Falls.

By this stage of his life, Overman was focusing more on automobiles anyway. In 1901, he formally launched Overman Automobile Company. This enterprise was not profitable as a stand-alone business, though, and it merged with the Locomobile Company of America in 1904.

Overman spent his final years in retirement in the town of Westmoreland, New Hampshire. He died at this home there on July 30, 1930, at the age of 80. A little over two weeks later, Overman’s passing was reported by a newspaper published in the city of Holyoke in Hampden County. The Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram also highlighted his longtime prominence in that region of the Bay State.

This newspaper noted, “Word has reached here of the recent death of A.H. Overman, who as head of the Overman Wheel Co. of Chicopee Falls, filled a large place in the industrial life of this vicinity for a period of some 20 years, reaching back from a time some 30 years ago, and who was well known in this city.”

Image Credit: Public Domain

Additional information on Albert H. Overman is available at https://www.newspapers.com/image/3135628 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overman_Wheel_Company

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