Shelby Tube In The Smithsonian: Lindbergh and The Wright Brothers

This story begins and ends with bicycles, yet it’s really about aviation and Shelby’s steel mill, so, how does that work?

Quite simply, the whole reason there is a steel tube plant in Shelby is because in 1890 people were crazy about bicycles.

After decades of watching cyclists spinning around the streets balanced way up on high wheel bikes, there was suddenly a new “safety bicycle” with two balanced wheels.   These new bikes were simple enough that kids could master them, so everybody wanted one and the bicycle industry exploded.

On the left – 1887: J.J. Tischler, captain of the Richland Ramblers, shows off his high wheel bicycle;
On the right – 1895: Richard and Rick pose with their newfangled Safety bicycles.

To truly appreciate this story there is one other critical factor that must be understood: when 1890 was experiencing the incredible boom in bicycles, there was nowhere in America that made seamless steel tubing. 

Each of those “safety bicycles” required nearly 20 feet of steel tube to construct its frame.  There were dozens of steel mills around the nation, but not a single one of them had the machinery or technical know-how to make steel tube in one continuous piece. 

That started in Shelby.

All American bicycle factories used seamless steel tube bike frames—but each of those frames came to them pre-fabricated, and they all came from England.

So, in 1890 a bicycle maker from Toledo went to England to learn the secrets of how seamless tube was actually made, and when he brought the process back to America, his buddy convinced him to set up shop in his home town: Shelby, Ohio.   Within a few months the Shelby Steel Tube Company was cranking out 12,000 feet of seamless tube per week.

All of that tube was turned into bicycles.

The plant built in Shelby was nearly a replica of the Hudson & Gay plant in Birmingham, England, who sold them the secret process for making seamless tube. The first equipment used in Shelby was made in England, but subsequently the essential parts were recreated by the Mansfield Machine Co.

By 1896, The Tuby had 700 employees turning out 1.5 million feet of seamless steel tube per month. Nearly all of it was used for bicycles, but as years developed they focused as well on high-pressure pipes for steam locomotives and other mechanical uses.
The plant had been constructed with funding raised by the people of Shelby and by 1900 it had become so profitable that the company paid its stockholders dividends of up to 116% !

The Wright Brothers

It is common knowledge that American flight originated with the Wright Brothers, and it doesn’t take much research to discover that their famous groundbreaking flights left the ground in planes made of spruce wood, which was quite a bit lighter than steel.

So how could Shelby Steel Tube figure into the story of the Wright Brothers?

Before they were experimenting with airplanes, Orville and Wilbur made a living building bicycles, and when they opened their own manufactory in Dayton they were proud to advertise that their bikes had frames that were hand-made.  In 1895, when they invented their best-selling “Van Cleve” model, they obtained their materials from the biggest and best seamless steel tube plant in America, only 130 miles up the road, in Shelby.

The Wright Brothers’ cycle shops changed locations in Dayton according to their growing prospects, and one of the sites was actually picked up in 1937 and moved to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village museum so as to preserve it for future generations.

This photo taken in the Wright Brothers’ bike manufacturing shop shows Orville himself assembling a bicycle frame with Shelby seamless steel tube.

This is an actual Wright Brothers bicycle–one of only 5 known to still exist– kept at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. What you’re seeing here is Shelby seamless steel tube in the immaculate state of its intended use.

Smokestacks and Smoke

The Steel Tube industry blossomed in the U.S. in the 1890s with a handful more factories in the East and South, but Shelby clearly led them all in size and production.  In fact, years later after the company acquired other mills around the nation, and then merged into the United States Steel corporation, the generic term for all seamless steel tube, no matter where or by whom it was made, was Shelby Tube.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Shelby plant was one of many factories combined into what was called “as near a perfect monopoly on the seamless industry as ever occurred.”

That was when disaster forced a reckoning: in 1908, the Shelby factory burned down.

If that wasn’t catastrophic enough, US Steel decided they would move the Shelby operations to other plants, and they walked away from Richland County leaving scorched ground on the banks of the Black Fork.

Out Of the Frying Pan, Into the History Books

It looked like a sad end to the Shelby legacy, but the ground wasn’t even cold yet before neighborhood folks were organizing plans and raising capital, and within a month of the fire the citizens of Shelby had launched a whole new enterprise.  Inside of a year they relit the fires of a wholly reconstructed foundry.

There were two primary changes that this brought about.  US Steel was kind enough to give over the ash-covered factory site, but they made it clear that the new company could not compete with their former partners by manufacturing the same kind of tube any more; nor could they use the Shelby name any longer because there were Shelby Tube plants in other cities.

So in 1909, the new complex opened as Ohio Seamless Tube Company, making different kinds of tube for different kinds of uses.

And that’s how the Shelby plant came to experiment with revolutionary new alloys to create tubing that weighed less than ordinary steel.

And that’s why, in 1927 they were the only steel mill in America that was manufacturing the SAE 1020 mild carbon steel tubes that engineers in San Diego wanted for an experimental new aircraft they were building.

The airplane builders got their specifications from Charles Lindbergh who called his creation the Spirit of St. Louis.

In 1919 a prize of $25,000 was offered to any aviator who could fly non-stop across the Atlantic between New York and Paris, and there were many who failed in the attempt before May 20, 1927. That was the day when Charles Lindbergh took off from Long Island in this custom built, single-engine, single-seat plane called the Spirit of St. Louis.

The welded frame fuselage of Lindbergh’s plane, fabricated with Shelby Tube, is displayed here in a model kept at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

The kind of hero mania accorded Lindbergh in the generation following his triumph was equally devoted to his plane.

The Spirit of St. Louis is on permanent display flying through the Smithsonian Institution. This atrium is part of the National Air & Space Museum.

There are few events in American history of the 20th century that compare to the frenzy of excitement the nation thrilled to when Lindbergh made the first successful flight across the Atlantic in 1927.   Although he undertook the flight alone, the entire nation swelled with pride as everyone—from kids to elders—all shared the accomplishment very personally: as if each of them could sense they were taking part in the dawning of a new era.

There were actually people in Shelby, however, for whom that pride was very close to home and well deserved: they knew the Spirit of St. Louis had a fuselage built of welded trusses made of SAE 1020 mild carbon steel tubing.  And in 1927, there was only one place in America where that was manufactured: The Ohio Seamless Tube Company on West Main Street in Shelby, Ohio.

The spirit of American achievement was made of Shelby steel.

Inside the Tubey in the 1940s: straightening pipe.

This postcard dated 1909 shows the revised and renewed plant generated by the people of Shelby.

Inside the Machine Shop of the original building: taken in 1892.

Back to Bikes

At the very beginning—as soon as the Tuby started feeding seamless steel tubing into the American bicycle industry in 1891—it was quite natural that they try their hand at actually cranking out bicycles as well.  So in 1892 they founded the Shelby Cycle Manufacturing Company.

The making of bikes went on in Shelby—off and on—under various names and organizations until 1953, and gloriously accomplished the work of transforming ordinary Shelby Tube into memorable American popular culture any kid could appreciate.

But in 1928—at the height of the Lindbergh mania—Shelby Cycle completely cornered the market in ultimate kid glamour when they found a way to combine bikes, planes, and Lindbergh into a quintessential collector’s item: the Lindy bicycle.

Thank You!

Some of the images in this article are from the collections of the Shelby Museum of History, Mark Hertzler, the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum, and Bobby Shelby.

Post Script:

The former Ohio Seamless Tube Co. today is part of ArcelorMittal, a multinational steel manufacturing corporation headquartered in Luxembourg City.

Post Script 2:

From Lindbergh’s own account of the famous flight:

I went to San Diego to place the order and remained in California during the entire construction of the plane.

The personnel of the Ryan Airlines at once caught the spirit of the undertaking, and during the two months of construction the organization labored as it never had before. Day and night, seven days a week, the structure grew from a few lengths of steel tubing to one of the most efficient planes that has ever taken the air.

From “We” by Charles Lindbergh, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927.

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