200 years ago
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the bicycle. ‘Only 200 years’, some of you might remark with astonishment. The wheel was invented already in the Neolithic age (10 200 BC)! Once invented, in Mannheim (Germany) by Karl Freihher von Drais, the bicycle has evolved enormously and nowadays we can pick and choose from bicycles: road / MTB / fixie / cyclo-cross / urban /Dutch / touring / fat / BMX / gravel / e-bikes, you name it.
To celebrate this special anniversary, Technoseum in Mannheim held the exhibition “2 Wheels – 200 Years”*. Showcasing dandy horses, penny-farthings, the first Rover bike, a wonderful hirondelle, bikes from the second world war, an American Bonanza, contemporary bikes with a purist e-singlespeed bike closing the line-up (the photo gallery above), the exhibition gave a great overview of how the bicycle has been evolving and gaining new meanings depending on historical and political situations. Started as an expensive sport device for only the well-off, nowadays it plays so many roles in our lives: an everyday means of transport, a fitness tool, a recreational object, part of our life style or a solution to polluted and congested cities.
When inventing his bicycle called ‘laufmaschine’ (also known as ‘velocipede’, ‘dandy-horse’), Karl Drais did not think of active mobility and did not need to be concerned about carmageddon:). An inventor of a typewriter and meat grinder, Karl Drais designed his first laufmaschine most probably in connection with a volcano…in Indonesia!
Indonesian volcano and mobility in Europe
The laufmaschine was for sure a stroke of genius which happened in the middle of natural disaster. In April 1815, volcano Tambora in Southeast Asia exploded. Ashes and gases were hurled into the atmosphere. A year later, not only Asia, but also Europe saw dramatic changes in the weather conditions: cold temperatures and heavy rains. That year was called a ‘Year without Summer’. The explosion killed thousands of people and caused harvests to fail. The prices of cereals and bread skyrocketed. Shortage of oats led to the starvation of horses on a massive scale. Costs of keeping saddle horses became unbearable. Perhaps, this is the context that prompted Karl Drais to invent the laufmaschine as a substitute for horses.
First bike ride
On June 12th 1817, Karl Freihher von Drais set off on the first ever ride by bike. He cycled, or to be more precisely, ‘walked swiftly’ pushing his laufmaschine, and around 7 km later he turned back. This 14km ride took him an hour. To get the idea of how the laufmaschine looked like, have a look above or take a contemporary bike and strip it off its gears, brakes, carbon/steel/aluminum frame, tyres and spokes, pedals. True, not much is left. But the principle was the same: a human-powered vehicle composed of two wheels and a steerable handlebar.
Lousy patent law
Karl Drais designed his laufmaschine (‘running machine’) using the craftsman skills of wagon constructors. He used the notion of machine as he wanted to underline how novel and modern his invention was and he also referred to the industrialization process started in England a hundred years earlier. He was not only divinely gifted, but also aware of marketing. His plan was to sell it under license. He created a publication which nowadays could be called a prospect where he presented the laufmaschine’s merits, technical specification, application and price. To make it difficult for copycats to ‘pirate’ his invention without a licence, he concealed details about brakes…He planned to sell license plates. His aim was to profit from his invention, but in his times the patent law was at its crawling stage so his efforts to make profits became futile. The laufmaschine spread quickly abroad where it was copied without the license.
Ban on cycling or ‘laufmaschining’
The users of laufmaschine took to the pavements where it was easier to keep balance and where surface was not as bad as on roads which were rutted due to coaches. Riding a laufmaschine posed danger to pedestrians. As a result, it was soon forbidden to ride a laufmaschine in Mannheim. Besides, in 1817 in Baden, freedom of movement did not exist. Only with an official approval were people allowed to leave their home town or village.
As a matter of fact, Karl Drais did not enjoy recognition as an inventor. He himself experienced hostility and resistance. The laufmaschine was first declared useless and was ridiculed, for example as a tool to quickly wear off your shoes on cobbled stones. His genius and invention were recognized only 70 years later when his first biography** was published.
I’m going for a bike now. Cycling along the fields, I can imagine Karl Drais on his wooden dandy-horse, reportedly lubricated with a piece of bacon.
* The exhibition was open until June 25th 2017.
** Draisine, Velociped und deren Erfinder Freiherr Carl von Drais aus Karlsruhe (Baden), Ernst Noetling, Mannheim, 1884.