John Keen was born at Broadway, in Worcestershire,England on February 25th 1849. In his day Keen was perhaps the best known bicyclist, professional or amateur,in the world. He began his career building and racing his own velocipedes in 1869.
Keen's pleasant demeanor and reputation for fairness earned him the sobriquet "Happy Jack" . He became a leading designer and manufacturer of bicycles in England during 1870's. John Keen is credited as being one of the principle pioneers that brought the wood-wheeled velocipede along to become the graceful ordinary or high bicycle. Not only is Keen known for many early innovations to bicycle design but he also competed at the highest level . Keen incorporated many of his ideas into his own cycles. His "Eclipse" bicycle was considered to be the state of the art. Many racing men, contemporaries of Keen, rode his "Eclipse" to victory.
The English cycling press from 1871 onward chronicled a multitude of cycling victories by John Keen. Known for a particular racing posture and style Keen rode upright when most hunched over the handle bars of their machines. Keen would conquer his opponent with a burst of speed and sprint to the finish on the final lap.
In the Spring of 1876 John Keen and David Stanton, well known names in English professional bicycle racing, came to America for a series of exhibitions and matches. Keen and Stanton were virtual legends of path or track racing. They were some of the first riders to be seen in America on high bicycles. In Philadelphia the American Centennial Exhibition was underway and a number of English bicycles were displayed. Here Col. Albert Pope, founder of the Pope Manufacturing Co. and makers of the Columbia, discovered the beauty of the bicycle and likely witnessed Keen and Stanton giving demonstrations racing high bicycles with Keen on his "Eclipse"..
In 1879 Keen accompanied promoter and pro bicycle racer Harry Etherington to the United States. As a member of "Etherington's Professional Group" Keen and four other racing men introduced the American public to the sport of bicycle racing on high wheel bikes.
Here is one of Keen's "Eclipse" racing bicycles, serial number 161 . Found in Western Massachusetts in 2011 it may have been brought over during one of Keen's 1879 or 1880 visits. Of particular note are Keen's patented rat trap pedals complete with toe clips and the very unusual "bayonet" rear fork. This is a full on racing machine built for use on a prepared track. It is very light.The narrow 1/2 inch rims and tires would not have survived the punishment given by the rough roads of the day. There is no brake. The front tire is 5/8" (16mm) and the rear is 1/2" (13mm). The front wheel is 55 inches, Keen's preferred size.
One of Keen's shops was located at the rear of the Angel Inn Angel Road,Thames Ditton, United Kingdom. As can be seen in the photo below, the Angel Inn was a popular stop for Victorian era cyclists.
The Angel Inn a cycling Mecca. Note Keen's shop in the back on the right.
From "The Bicycle World" 1880