Bicycling Beginnings- Thank you, Karl von Drais

Last week, almost nothing I wrote was verifiable. With the entire column taken up by rebuked theories, in retrospect I probably could have skipped that one. In the meantime, I’ll get to information that is known to be fact, so you’re not wasting learning about things that might be, or probably are, inaccurate.

We have a German to thank for the first legitimate design of something even remotely bike-like. In 1817, as a civil servant to a Grand Duke, Karl von Drais designed something very similar to running bikes used by children today. Drais called it a Laufmaschine, which is German for “running machine.” But reporters decided to play on the inventor’s name and referred to it as a Draisine in the English press, and the Draisienne in the French press. By 1818, Drais patented his design and had commercial success with his “two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine,” which was now called a velocipede, for reasons I was unable to find. Others called it a hobby-horse or a dandy-horse. Perhaps they meant those nicknames as compliments, though I find that hard to believe.

An example of a Draisine.

An example of a Draisine.

If you’ll allow it, a slight detour is necessary to explain why this invention even occurred. The proverb goes “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and a top researcher on this subject, Hans-Erhard Lessing, thinks that the invention and interest in the velocipede was caused by a volcano.

Mt. Tambora is an active stratovolcano (a volcano which is built up like a cone from layers of ash, lava, and other debris that the volcano coughs up) located in Indonesia. On April 10th, 1815, it erupted with a ferocity unparalleled in recorded history. The blast was heard more than 1,200 miles away and it killed an estimated 71,000 people. The volume of its ejecta (stuff that the volcano spewed out) is thought to have been around 38 cubic miles (30 to 80 times that of the 1980 Mt. Saint Helens eruption), with much of that blowing high enough into the stratosphere to cause climate abnormalities over much of the planet, especially in North America and Europe. Because of this, 1816 for the Northern Hemisphere became known as the “Year without summer,” as crops and livestock died due to the harsh weather, leading to the worst famine of the 19th century.

So it’s safe to assume that Karl von Drais was there to witness the starvation of many horses and realized an alternative means of transport was necessary. Preferably something that didn’t need to eat so much.

Drais took the first ride on his Draisine (later the velocipede) on June 12, 1817. Running along with his feet, Drais was able to push the almost 50 pounds of wood and iron-shod wheels eight miles in less than an hour. Because of its practicality, as well as entertaining challenge of balance, several thousand were built and used, mostly in North American and Western Europe. An increasing number of accidents made city authorities wary, however, and in some areas velocipedes were banned for safety reasons. But in 1866, there were still enough on the streets of Paris for Bin Chun, a Chinese visitor, to note the foot-pushed vehicles.

Johnson's slightly different model of Drais' design.

Johnson’s slightly different model of Drais’ design.

Others copied Drais’ model and tried to improve upon it. Most notably was Denis Johnson who changed the shape of the frame to a more serpentine pattern. But it was Drais who designed something that could be built on, like the front-wheel hub, which a French metalworker added rotary cranks and pedals to in 1863—making the initial design into something much closer to what we would recognize as a bicycle today.

Becca Heaton

Becca Heaton is the program coordinator and editor for BikeLife Cities' city magazines and website. An avid cyclist, Becca is "embarrassed" to share that she has 5 different bikes... and she rides them all!

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