Bicycle, American Star, metal / leather, made by H. P. Smith Machine Co., Smithville, Burlington County, New Jersey, USA, 1885-1890, designed by George W. Pressey, Hammonton, New Jersey, USA, 1881
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.
The American Star is said to have been the only major American innovation in the design and configuration of the bicycle. It was patented in 1881 in the United States of America by George W. Pressey, and made by the H.P. Smith Machine Co. of Smithville, 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 All were superseded by the Rover safety bicycle introduced in 1885 with its diamond-shaped frame similar to today's bicycles.
Adams, Donald G. "Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles", pp. 94-7
Information supplied by Paul & Charlie Farren
Information supplied by John Pinkerton
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry
The American Star was patented in the United States of America by George W. Pressey of Hammonton, New Jersey, U.S.A., in 1880. It was put into production under licence by the H.B. (Hezekiah Bradley) Smith Machine Co. of Smithville, Burlington County, New Jersey, a manufacturer of wood working machinery the following year. In 1889 Smith even patented a steam powered tricycle.
The name "American Star" was derived from the double star-shaped spoke pattern on the earliest models. The front wheel diameter was about 18 inches, while the rear wheels went from 42 inches to 60 inches. Initially the American Star was slow to gain acceptance. Customers initially complained about the non-adjustable spoke riveted into the rims, very heavy frame of solid steel and the lack of a brake. The 1882 model made improvements and eventually American Star bicycles featured all the refinements of the ordinary (penny farthing) bicycles with hollow frames and rims, tangential spokes, and improved saddles.
The American Star was touted as a safe alternative to the penny farthing by eliminating falls forward over the front wheel. However, the lack of weight over the small front wheel caused the bicycle steering to become loose over gravelled surfaces tending to throw the rider sideways instead. Also, the spring in the axel drum could not be made strong enough to lift the foot at the end of the power stroke so the foot had to be lifted after each stroke, which made the bicycle tiring on long rides. It was also the only bicycle of the period, other than the Eagle, which permitted the rider to stand on the levers for an extra push going up hills and consequently won numerous hill climb events and timed races. Furthermore, because of the adjustability of the treadles in the drive mechanism to the leg length, the bicycle did not need to be made to measure and could be ridden by anyone in the family. An alternative leverage mechanism was provided that allowed the leverage of the treadles to be altered. When kicked forward, this mechanism lengthened the leverage thereby affecting a "low gear", or kicked backwards shortening the lever into a "high gear". American Star bicycles were available in six models.
Nothing is known of the history of the bicycle other than that it was donated to the Museum by Bennett & Wood Ltd, via Mr A. H. Bartrop, Production Manager, Joynton Ave, Zetland, NSW, in 1965.