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Feb. 17, 1818: Proto-Bicycle Gets Things Rolling

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Feb. 17, 1818: Proto-Bicycle Gets Things Rolling
1818: A minor German nobleman patents a two-wheeled, foot-powered vehicle. It looks almost like a modern bicycle, but it's missing some key components.
Baron Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun (or Drais von Sauerbrohn, or Sauerbron) was born in Karlsruhe in 1785. He studied at Heidelberg and broke with his guardian's pre-selected career choice of forestry to take up inventing.
Bad weather in 1812 caused oat crops to fail, and horses starved as a result. That got von Drais thinking about how you could get around quickly without a horse. His first attempt was a four-wheeled vehicle with a treadmill crankshaft between the rear wheels. He demonstrated it to the Congress of Vienna (the peace confab that ended the Napoleonic wars).
That invention went nowhere, but the eruption of Indonesia's Tambora volcano in 1815 gave Europe a snowy summer in 1816. Oats were scarce and expensive again, horses died, and von Drais got back to work.
This time, he invented a two-wheeler on a frame that looks much like a modern bicycle frame with a seat and front-wheel steering. It didn't have a chain drive, and it didn't even have pedals. You drove the thing with your feet, much like a scooter. You stopped it with your feet, too: no brakes.
Von Drais' Laufmaschine, or running machine, bested 9 mph on its first trip, June 12, 1817, near Mannheim. He patented the invention the next year, but better weather and falling oat prices dimmed its future as a practical replacement for the horse. (Sounds sort of like gasoline prices and public attention to electric vehicles and alt-fuels, doesn't it?) In some localities, riders faced fines for riding on public roadways.
The two-wheelers really needed paved or at least smooth surfaces, of which there weren't many. It was also way too easy to fall off the contraption, and people's leather shoes were nowhere near as durable as a horse's iron shoes. What's more, the Laufmaschine also faced competition from another new invention: the railroads.
So, the utilitarian-inspired mechanical horse instead became a fancy toy for aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie. The French called it a draisine, the English a hobby horse. The devices were often graced with equine figureheads, or even carved dragons and elephants.
In the first-known draisine race in 1819, a German cyclist named Semmler covered the 10-kilometer (6.2 mile) course in 31½ minutes — an average speed under 12 mph. (The word draisine is still used to describe a variety of hand- or foot-propelled rail cars, used for track inspection and repair.)
When revolution broke out in Germany in 1848, Baron von Drais renounced his title, proclaimed himself a democrat and styled himself simply as citizen Karl Drais. When the revolution failed, the triumphant aristocrats ridiculed Drais, and banned him from the fashionable spas. The government also revoked his inventor's pension.

Drais died in 1851, but his concept of the rider straddling a two-wheeled vehicle with the rear wheel following a steerable front wheel lives on in both the bicycle and motorcycle. In the decades after his death, many hands improved the two-wheeler:
  • French draisine maker Ernest Michaux put pedals on the front wheel in 1861, then added brakes a few years later.
  • In 1869, Englishmen James Starley and William Hillman started making penny-farthing bicycles with a small back wheel and huge front wheel. The design maximized pedal power, but keeping balance was pretty tricky.
  • Harry John Lawson, another Englishman, returned to smaller wheels and notably added the chain transmission in 1879.
  • Gottlieb Daimler added an engine to the design to create the first internal-combustion motorcycle in 1885.
  • Starting in the late 1880s, John Dunlop, Édouard Michelin and Giovanni Battista Pirelli made successive improvements on Robert W. Thompson's pneumatic tire, which rolled out a little ahead of its time in 1845.
But the baron who didn't want to be a forester — or even a baron — was the father of it all.
Source: Institute and Museum of the History of Science (Florence, Italy), Baden-Baden City Guide (Germany)

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