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by Peter Flax
February 15, 2017
Photography by Getty Images/Science & Society Picture Library
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Karl Drais rolled out from the center of Mannheim early on a Thursday morning in June, meandering south along the Rhine toward Schwetzingen. When the 32-year-old rider reached the mail station near that nearby community, he turned around and rode back home. 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.
That’s right, the first bike ride took place 200 years ago.
Like a lot of brilliant inventors, Drais was a misunderstood and highly sensitive soul. The son of an influential aristocrat, from a family that had nobility and little money, the young German wanted a career in forestry, but because a suitable position wasn’t open, he started tinkering full time. He is credited with making a stenograph machine that helped inspire the modern typewriter, and a wood-saving stove with padded pots. (Wikipedia and numerous articles credit Drais as the creator of the first meat grinder, but historian Hans-Erhard Lessing, who has studied and written about the inventor and bicycle history extensively, insists that this is one of many urban legends about Drais.) Yet his crowning achievement was his Laufmaschine, a wooden bike that launched a craze and ultimately changed the world after spurring widespread antagonism and ridicule.
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.
An original Drais Laufmaschine. Photo courtesy Mannheim Technoseum.
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. It had no pedals or brakes, but Drais quickly discovered the centrifugal forces, gyroscopic effects, and other dynamics — some still not fully understood by scientists two centuries years later — that allow a moving bicycle to balance and be stable.
The machine, which weighed about 45 pounds, similar to a 21-century beach cruiser, might look clunky to the modern eye, but people who tried it back in those early days agreed: It was fun to ride. Later that summer, Drais took it out and banged out 60 kilometers in just four hours.
What happened next may feel oddly familiar to contemporary observers of cycling culture. The machine — called the draisine in Germany, velocipede or draisienne in France, and the hobby horse or dandy horse in England — became an immediate craze in big cities like London and Paris and Berlin, fueled mostly by affluent young and middle-aged men.
Lessing estimates that somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 units were sold within this initial craze. Vicious non-riding critics emerged almost immediately. Poet John Keats famously called the hobby horse the “nothing of the day.” Americans derided the two-wheeled invention; the Baltimore Sun dismissed it as “Transatlantic nonsense.”
Schematic of Drais Laufmaschine courtesy of Hans-Erhard Lessing.
Meanwhile, as devotees quickly discovered that rutted roads weren’t much fun to ride, some began lobbying for better infrastructure (which went nowhere) while others took to the sidewalk. Riders had hundreds of collisions with pedestrians — remember, 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.
Drais himself was on the pariah track back home. Lessing says that German students and nationalistic liberals despised his father, an aristocratic judge who refused to pardon a popular student leader who had fatally stabbed a well-known playwright known for opposing democracy.
And later, after Drais publicly expressed support for demographic ideals, he was persecuted and hated by government authorities and royalists. In short, just about everyone hated him. For decades, his legacy and inventions were ridiculed by German historians, who seemingly took pains to make sure his Laufmaschine was memorialized as little more than a silly and irrelevant fad.
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.
When Ryan MacFarland started ripping apart a kid’s bike in 2007, he had never heard of Karl Drais or his two-wheeled creation. All he knew is that he really wanted to get his two-year-old son riding. MacFarland had the tiniest bike he could find set up with training wheels, but his son couldn’t really turn the cranks. So he started cutting tubes and stripping off components to make the bike lighter, simpler, and correctly sized for a small child. He actually tried taping his son’s feet to blocks on the pedals, trying to simulate the effects of clipless pedals, but the little guy still couldn’t get the bike rolling. At that point, MacFarland was reluctant to pull off the pedals, like it might constitute some kind of sacrilege.
Then he got over it, and a company called Strider was born.
MacFarland obviously didn’t invent what are now called balance bikes — Drais did. And MacFarland didn’t even really reinvent balance bikes — several European brands already were selling wood bicycles for kids without pedal-operated drivetrains — but he was the first to engineer a true performance bike for extremely young children. Strider will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year. The company sold its 1.5 millionth bike last November.
“I had to get over that hurdle myself, but I’ve learned that pedals have nothing to do with the heart of a bicycle,” he says. “You don’t have to turn a crank to ride a bicycle.”
What is the soul of a bicycle? Is it a pedal-driven drivetrain? Or is it more elemental than that — a human-powered, two-wheeled machine that must be balanced and steered? These questions seem to underscore the doubts many cyclists have when they ponder Drais’ invention — or a modern e-bike. Is it actually a bike if it isn’t entirely powered by pedals?
If you have lingering questions yourself, you probably haven’t seen a good Strider race on YouTube or Facebook. The competition is particularly sharp in Japan, where tots racing balance bikes has become an actual phenomenon.
The Strider Cup Asian Championship, held two months ago in a shopping center parking lot near Bangkok, had 840 competitors — slots were handed out by lottery and thousands of young racers were denied bids. If you watch a few of these contests, it’s impossible not to notice the skills of these toddlers — picking lines, carving turns, deploying strategies. The action has more dramatic tension than many master’s cyclocross events that I’ve seen. It’s undeniable that this is bike racing.
The success of these competitions reflects the simple genius of the balance bike — and the limitations of a conventional kids’ bike.
“A whole lot of kids wind up on tricycles or some heavy training-wheel bike that weighs more than they do,” says MacFarland. “Unfortunately, that’s the worst first date you could have with bicycling. Imagine if you were just trying to get into riding a bike as an adult, and the first thing someone gave you was a bicycle that weighed 150 pounds, had a seat height of four feet, and had a single speed. Cycling would be the dumbest sport on the planet.”
In the so-called old days, parents and kids had little choice. But now children interested in early mobility have more options than ever — scooters, skateboards, RipStiks, hoverboards, to name a few — and start scheduled sports activities at a younger age. And yet most bike companies are still trying to put kids on 45-pound, single-speed bikes with 80 millimeter cranks.
I ask MacFarland if he had been aware of Drais and his invention back in 2007 when he was in his workshop, chopping down a seat tube and ripping off a crankset. “No, I had no idea — I didn’t even know folks in Europe were making little wooden balance bikes,” he says. “If I had I’m pretty sure I would have just ordered one over the Internet, and Strider wouldn’t exist.”
But still, he can imagine the goosebumps Drais might have felt on his first ride in Mannheim.
“Imagine if your whole world revolved around walking,” MacFarland says. “And you could get on this thing, and put your cargo on it so you didn’t have to carry it, and go two to three times faster with the same effort. I have to guess he got a shot of adrenaline riding it — thinking, this changes everything.”
Things did not end well for Karl Drais. After the student killer who his father refused to pardon was beheaded (and thus martyred), tensions in Germany were so high that Drais fled to Brazil for five years. When he came back, proclaiming support for democracy, he earned an assassination attempt, which the historian Lessing tells me he survived by “the skin of his teeth.” Eventually, his status as a nobleman was deposed.
Compounding his problems, German duchies did not have patent law until 1878 (“In essence, inventing had not yet been invented,” says Lessing). So Drais made almost nothing from his stenograph machine or the Laufmaschine. British coachmaker Dennis Johnson was the most prominent of multiple builders to build, tweak, market, and patent replicas of his groundbreaking balance bike — serial numbers on extant hobby horses indicate that Johnson built at least 320 of them — and there were others in Ireland and the United States who did the same. The inspiration for open-mold bike building was born.
Lessing says the Prussians eventually seized Drais’ pension — to help pay for the fight against the failed revolution — forcing his sisters and a cousin to support him. He died in 1851, penniless.
But his invention started a revolution that did not fail. The velocipede begat the penny-farthing and the safety bicycle and everything that followed. The term bicycle was coined in France in the 1860s, five decades after Drais took his first ride. John Boyd Dunlap, Clément Ader, and Édouard Michelin invented key elements of the modern rubber tire, and many other inventors, whose names are still recognizable today, advanced the development of the modern bicycle.
Yet for a brief moment in time, Karl Drais was on top of the world. He was deluged with requests from princes and learned societies, and noted brain researcher Franz Joseph Gall — who helped establish psychology as a science — made a plaster cast of Drais’ face that was recently rediscovered amid the archives of the famed Musee de l’Homme in Paris.
A plaster cast of Karl Drais’ face was discovered in the archives of the Musée de l’Homme at Paris, where it had remained untouched for 150 years. Image courtesy Spoke Magazine.
All this emerged from that initial 13km ride on June 12, 1817. Imagine Drais out on that road between Mannheim and Schwetzingen, 200 years ago, the first human to carve a turn on a bicycle, the first to coast down a small hill, the first to discover the joy of riding on two wheels.
At that moment, he had no idea of the adversity he would face in life, the ways in which his accomplishments would be pilloried. He was just out for a ride, and he probably had a smile on his face.