Sturmey Archer hub gear
You don’t need to know how it works, you just need to know it works
At the very beginning of the last century, just as the Boer War was winding down to its bitter end and Britain and the Empire were still mourning the death of Queen Victoria, an engineer from Hulme in Manchester and a cycling journalist from Coventry were applying for patents for a revolutionary new device — an enclosed three-speed gear system built into a rear bicycle hub.
First produced in 1902, the original hub gear gave a variation of minus 20 per cent (first gear) and plus 25 per cent (third gear) to your original gearing. The Nottingham company that was formed to make and sell the new device was formally called The Three-speed Gear Syndicate, Ltd., but it was to become known worldwide by a shorter, snappier title as the two patent holders, John James Henry Sturmey and James Archer, donated their surnames to the cause.
The first patent application, number 15368, dated 02/08/1901 and attributed to James Archer, Cycle Engineer, set out its stall in the first paragraph: “This invention relates chiefly to the driving gear of a velocipede and its object is to provide a mechanism by which the rider may have the option of using three different gears or speeds, ‘low’, ‘high’ and ‘normal’, and a free wheel as desired, so constructed and arranged that a rider may change the gears while riding.”
Simple and clearly explained, but that’s where the simplicity ends. Read on a bit further and you get bogged down in interminable passages of detailed technical descriptions that you’d need to be a qualified engineer to decipher. And don’t take one apart unless you have the patience and dexterity of a watchmaker.
Fortunately, given a little regular maintenance (topping up the oil, keeping an eye on cable tension and keeping the cable itself running free), there’s no real reason to take one apart as they’re very reliable in normal use.
For nearly 100 years production of Sturmey
Archer hubs continued at the Nottingham works, with five and seven-speed versions following the original three-speeder. Production passed the two million mark way back in 1980 — a good proportion of which are still going strong. The original factory’s long gone now though, and production shifted to Taiwan in 2001.
Sturmey Archer: revolutionary mechanism that changed cycling