What is a Bowden Cable?

Meaning | Concept | Definition:

A Bowden cable is a cable mechanism that uses a thin braided cable that runs inside a flexible outer casing. The Bowden cable has been used since the late 19th century and was designed to replace complex cable and pulley mechanisms for bicycles and automobiles. The hollow outer casing of this device is usually constructed of spirally wound steel wire encased in a plastic sheath.

The inner wire of this mechanism is typically used to perform a pulling motion, although it sometimes provides a pushing force in shorter applications. Bowden cables are most often used in automobile and motorcycle clutches and throttles.

The first patent for the Bowden cable was issued to Ernest Monnington Bowden in 1896. The cable was originally intended for use as part of a bicycle braking mechanism and was well received by cycling enthusiasts.

Bowden’s original brake mechanism consisted of a brake calliper containing a set of rubber pads mounted in line with the metal rim of the rear wheel. The footpeg was controlled by a Bowden cable connected to a lever mounted on the bicycle’s handlebars. This early mechanism required expert installation to provide a reliable and effective braking force.

The outer shell of a typical Bowden cable is constructed of a tightly wound helix of square or round steel wire. This casing is usually lined with some type of plastic material to prevent rust and corrosion from forming on the external and internal steel wires.

Modern versions of this cable employ a plastic coating inside the casing to further reduce the risk of corrosion and rust. Usually some type of dry lubricant is applied to promote smooth operation of the inner wire. Some outer casings have hollow threaded ends to facilitate length adjustments when necessary.

In pulling operations, the inner wire of this cable is usually made of stranded steel wire. Heavy duty cables may also have a solid steel wire in the center of the stranded wire. Bowden cables in pushing operations generally contain a single steel wire inside a hollow plastic casing.

A Bowden cable that pulls is generally much more flexible than one that is used for pushing. In brake and shift applications, the inner cable ends often have a small piece of metal attached to them for connection purposes.

Bowden cables are used in a wide variety of automobile, motorcycle, and bicycle applications. Pull cables are commonly used for throttles, shifters, brakes, clutches, and cruise control devices.

Push cables are often used on throttles and chokes on lawnmowers and tractors. Bowden cables have many aeronautical applications, such as throttle controls, propeller pitch mechanisms, and flap adjustment.

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