It's a little known fact that disc brakes were invented for use on the first regular or 'Safety' bicycles, as they were known in the mid 1800's. The original high wheel bikes that they had before then were hard to get up on, hard to stay on, hard to pedal, hard to stop, but people loved them because it still beat walking. So when the modern type bike was first introduced it took the world by storm as they were actually fun to ride, and it wasn't an 8' fall to the ground. Right around the same time as the Safety came another stunning innovation, the freewheel. This enabled those who were, how can I put this politely... rotund, portly, thermally endowed to enjoy bicycles, mainly because you didn't have to pedal the dang thing all the time. The freewheel had a slight drawback, they were tough to stop. All bikes up till then were fixed gear and you stopped by slowing your pedaling. The first freewheel bikes were stopped using leather, more specifically shoe leather, precisely, you put your feet down and pushed hard against the ground. This worked for a while until the Great Downhill Challenges of 1858. Humans, being competitive types will find ways to race anything. How else do you explain db racing? It started innocently enough as a drunken bet at a State Fair between two guys as to who could go the fastest down the Big Hill, as it was known. It was later renamed Suicide Hill to reflect the events more accurately. Through out the summer of 1858 these races grew and grew till they became the Indy 500 its day. Generally they would find the steepest hill around and just pedal as fast as they could down it. As you could image the carnage was impressive, as the event would last for days until no one was left standing. A lot of shoe leather was consumed in the process and the term Hot Foot officially entered the American lexicon.
One young contestant of these affairs, an immigrant son of Irish and Kyrgystani parents, by the name of Hiram Disc (the original spelling of his name is lost in the mists of time, but I'm betting it was hard to spell and equally hard to pronounce) was having a tough time of it. While cooling his feet in a local stream after a particularly hair raising run, he spun the tire of his bike lying next to him and idly grabbed the wheel between his fingers; stopping it. It was truly a Eureka moment as he yelled and jumped wildly into the air. After giving his blistered feet sufficient time to recover from the landing, he immediately went to his home and cobbled together the first disc brake. The results were impressive. Now he could go down the hill at absolute top speed and not have to start braking until the bottom. He would be the hero of the races. At least that was the theory. The oak blocks he used as pads caught fire and lost all braking power just seconds before he slammed through a pasture fence, flew off of a small mound and in what is widely regarded as the first time anyone caught 'Air' on a two wheel conveyance, landed in the aforementioned stream. He was so traumatized by the ordeal that he gave up on bicycles altogether, immigrated to Fiji and became a monk.
Hiram's technical sketches were stolen by a rich dilettante asbestos mine owner, Gustav 'Free Ride' Disc (no relation). He changed the brake pads to asbestos, put them on the market and was soon rolling in it. All this came to a screeching halt (figuratively) when he was sued by the family of 1860 presidential hopeful Abe Simpson (running on an anti gambling platform), who was tragically killed when the now named Disc brakes on his bike failed, plunging him into the Mississippi River where he was paddled to death by riverboat casino. Gustav, now bankrupt, promptly went insane and was invited to be the chairman of the board of the same law firm that sued him. There have been many conspiracy theories that hide manufacturers and tanneries were behind the whole thing, but nothing was ever proved.
So the next time you're cooling your heels in a nice stream at about mile 17, take a moment to say a silent thank you to the mechanical genius of Hiram Disc, truly, a man of our times.
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Thread: Disc Brakes: a tribute