Who invented the derailleur?

Who invented the derailleur?

Whether it’s the telephone, the steam engine, the social network or even the derailleur, the ‘who invented’ question is almost unavoidably contentious, is usually functionally useless, but is always endlessly fascinating. It begs the questions ‘what do you mean by invent?’ and ‘what do you mean by derailleur?’ and on and on.

So who invented the derailleur?

  • The first, and best, candidate, much favoured by the French, is Jean Loubeyre of Paris. He indisputably patented a 2 speed derailleur device called ‘La Polyceler’ in 1895 (French Patent # 245,148). Jean Loubeyre seems to have been a manufacturer of bicycle brakes, so would have been well able to manufacture and sell such a device. It is often claimed that a bicycle equipped with La Polyceler featured in the 1896 catalogue of the Compagne Générales de Cycles, a Paris-based bicycle manufacturer.

    However there are problems with this story. I have never found a copy, or even a copy of a copy of a copy, of the 1896 catalogue of the Compagne Générales de Cycles. There are no known photos of La Polyceler, there are no known reviews of La Polyceler, there are no known adverts for La Polyceler or for bikes using it. There aren't even any known small ads for people selling second hand bikes equipped with La Polyceler. In the decades immediately after 1895 it is hard to find any mention at all of La Polyceler, even though there were dozens of articles about derailleurs and geared transmissions. La Polyceler is then suddenly rediscovered in the 1920s as the proof that the whole idea of the derailleur was the product of Gallic genius.

    I suspect that Jean Loubeyre did not manufacture his patented design in any quantity or even at all. Although fork-type derailleurs continued to be developed and were a serious part of the derailleur market from 1930 to the 1950s, Loubeyre's design, which uses fixed sprockets, without any freewheel, was a bit of a dead-end with little real influence.

  • The second candidate, the patriotic Brexit-British-Bulldog choice, is Edmund Hodgkinson of London, whose first patent for his ‘Gradient’ derailleur system dates from 1896 (UK Patent 1896 # 1,570). The Gradient was a system where, unlike modern systems, the chain remains straight and the cassette of sprockets is moved from side to side. Hodgkinson went on to take out a couple of further patents that refined his design and he definitely put his device into production. The Science Museum in London has an example.

    But, by 1904, Edmund Hodgkinson had given up the struggle of manufacturing his amazing device and sold his patents to Terrot of Dijon, France. In Britain, his derailleur system just couldn’t compete with the brand new, and fantastically fashionable, Sturmey-Archer hub gears. Terrot, however, went on to develop Hodgkinson’s designs and produced systems derived from Hodgkinson’s ideas until the 1930s. However, the concept of keeping the chain straight and shifting the sprockets never became mainstream and, yet again, the Gradient turned out to be something of a technological cul-de-sac.

  • The third candidate, the posh choice, is Charles Montague Linley of London, a serial entrepreneur who seems to have specialised in manufacturing high-tech bicycles for the rich, titled and discerning. He used the brand name ’The Whippet’. In 1894 he patented an expanding chainwheel that is interesting, if only because it included a chain tensioner consisting of a pulley wheel on the end of a sprung arm. In 1899 he patented the ‘New Protean’, a system with a two speed freewheel and a fork type derailleur (UK Patent 1899 # 18,240). He even incorporated shifting ramps on his freewheel in a early anticipation of Shimano’s Hyperglide.

    Charles Linley certainly manufactured his system, however he was also driven out of the market by the Sturmey-Archer hub gears, and closed his business in 1905.

    The Whippet New Protean did have some lasting influence. Just as older people in Britain refer to vacuum cleaners as ‘Hoovers’ and ball point pens as ‘Biros’, so, in France, derailleur bicycles were often referred to as ‘Whippets’ up until the 1930s. And, as mentioned above, fork type derailleurs continued to be developed and were a serious part of the derailleur market from 1930 to the 1950s.

  • However none of these three esteemed inventors can really claim the title of ‘Father of the Derailleur’. That title belongs to Paul de Vivie of St-Étienne, an inveterate tinkerer who wrote prolifically under the pen name ‘Vélocio’. De Vivie was instrumental in setting up the Touring Club de France (the French equivalent of the UK Cyclists Touring Club) and campaigned relentlessly first for multiple gears, then for more and wider gears and finally for the derailleur as a more flexible and robust system that the epicyclic hub gear. He led a group of disciples called l’École Stéphanoise (the St-Étienne School) who liked to ride their prototype multi-geared machines up the Col du Grand Bois - a local steep hill with a handy pub at the top.

    One Joanny Panel was a close friend of Paul de Vivie and a member of l’École Stéphanoise. He decided to turn one of de Vivie's many prototypes into a practical, manufacturable item. The result, in 1912, was a derailleur that he called ‘Le Chemineau’ (‘The Tramp’).

    The ‘Le Chemineau’ moved the chain sideways across a sprocket cluster, like a modern derailleur, had a guide pulley and tension pulley on a sprung arm, like a modern derailleur, and was operated by a cable pulled by a lever, like a modern derailleur. It was manufactured in some volume and was widely used. Joanny Panel’s Le Chemineau set the tone for derailleurs for decades to come.