By Piyush Rout
On this day 200 years ago in Germany Baron Karl von Drais demonstrated his newest invention the draisienne (which was also known as the laufmachine, running machine or Vélocipède), a two-wheeled horseless vehicle propelled by its rider. Drais’ laufmaschine, which translates to running machine, known as a draisine in English and draisienne in French, consisted of two miniature carriage wheels attached in alignment to a wooden frame.
It had a triangular steering column with an arm rest fitted over the pivoting front wheel and a padded saddle. To propel the machine, the rider ran his feet along the ground, coasting between strides as the machine gained velocity, reaching speeds of 5–6 miles per hour. To brake, the rider pulled a cord that stopped the back wheel. Drais envisioned practical applications for his machine, such as postal, forestry, or military transportation.
Drais undertook his first documented ride on July 12, 1817, setting out from the city of Mannheim and covering a distance of about 13 kilometers in one hour. The most remarkable thing about that 13km spin, which lasted a little less an hour, was that it probably was the first bike ride in human history. Drais’ maiden voyage took place in 1817. A few months later Drais created a huge sensation when he rode 60 kilometers in four hours. Useful accessories included an umbrella and a sail for windy days.
The idea for the Laufmaschine emerged out of an explosion — the eruption of Mount Tambora, in modern-day Indonesia, to be precise. That volcano blew on April 10, 1815, a once-in-a-millennium eruption. The effect was so enormous that it disrupted weather patterns all over the world for 18 months The following summer, much of Europe, North America, and Asia suffered through freezing temperatures and persistent snowfall. Europeans called 1816 “The Year Without a Summer.” It was like a miniature Ice Age.
Among the many harsh consequences in Europe was a massive oats shortage, and widespread starvation of livestock. Drais starting thinking about alternatives to horse-drawn transport. His Laufmaschine had two 27-inch wheels placed in a line, an upholstered saddle nailed to the frame, hubs with brass bushings, and a steering mechanism that turned the front wheel. The machine became an immediate craze in big cities like London and Paris and Berlin, fueled mostly by affluent young and middle-aged men. It was estimated that somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 units were sold within this initial craze.
Meanwhile, as people quickly discovered that rutted roads weren’t much fun to ride, some began lobbying for better infrastructure while others took to the sidewalk. Riders had hundreds of collisions with pedestrians as these bikes didn’t have any brakes and hostility among the public grew. Within six months of his first ride, Mannheim had prohibited the use of the machines. During the following two years, bans were issued in Milan, London, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia. And in 1920, reflecting the scope of velocipede mania and the resulting backlash, the machines were outlawed in Calcutta.
Even today, years after any politically or socially driven scorn of Drais has faded into oblivion, most articles and references sources gingerly avoid calling the machine he invented a bicycle. Instead, it is identified a “precursor” or “forerunner” to the bike, or a “proto-bicycle,” with an underlying message that you can’t have a bicycle without pedals. Two hundred years after Drais took that pioneering ride, the insults are still coming.
Drais did not lead an easy life. His mother died when he was 14, his forestry career relied on his father’s influence, and his meagre income rendered him unmarriageable. Drais had difficulty patenting his draisienne, and failed to find commercial success. The von Drais family, who had already once fled the advancing French revolutionary army, had their reputation ruined in 1819 when Drais Senior, a high ranking judge, refused to pardon a student accused of murdering an anti-revolutionary playwright. Karl von Drais moved to Brazil to escape persecution, returning in 1827 when his father, an epileptic, became ill. His father died in 1830, at which point Drais was called “the bachelor became an alcoholic.”
During the German Revolutions, 1848–9, Drais forfeited his title as Baron, becoming “Citizen Karl Drais.” Later, when Prussians forces reclaimed the region, revolutionary sympathisers were executed or committed to asylums, a fate Drais escaped only through the lobbying of his sister and cousin. Drais lived out his remaining years quietly and impoverished, having had his assets seized and reputation ruined in the aftermath of the failed revolution. He died penniless aged 66 on 10 December 1851.
The draisienne may not have been a pedal bike like we think of today, but it represented an integral stage in cycling design. Two centuries after the draisienne first came to prominence, it is fair to look back at the legacy of Karl Von Drais and declare him the father of the bicycle. A fitting memorial to Drais has since been erected in Karlsruhe cemetery. Postage stamps, a Google Doodle and a 2017 German €20 coin have also been released in his honour.
Karl Von Drais is no more, so did bicycle has had many updates, innovations and competitors over the years as different designers and manufacturers have toyed with three, four and off-size two-wheel designs before arriving back at the standard bike that we see every day on our streets. But 200 years latter Bicycle is a dominance force in mobility yet struggles for shared space on the street in most part of the world along with social respect. Well so did over the years Bicycle still the first love of a Kind no matter being a son or daughter of poor or rich.