Thank heavens for the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which caused snow all summer long in much of Europe and consequently poor harvests and resulted in the invention of the Draisine.
At the time the only means of transport was horses. The appalling weather conditions resulted in a lack of food for horses, which caused 32-year-old Baron Drais (or Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn to give him his full name and German title of “Freiherr”) to look for an alternative means of getting around.
His invention in 1817 of the “Laufmaschine” (literally running machine) is widely recognised as the forerunner of the bike, and the only one of his many inventions to be remembered, though I am using the descendant of another – the first typewriter with a keyboard – to write this.
This early bike, with no pedals, became known in France as a Draisienne and in the UK as a Draisine, a name also later given to another of his later inventions, the human powered railway handcar. Later the names Velocipede and Hobby Horse, or Dandy Horse, came into use.
The first reported ride by Drais was from Mannheim to the coaching inn called the Schwetzinger Relaishaus in Rheinau, which is now a district of Mannheim, a return trip of 12.8 km which took him just over an hour, on his 20kg invention.
Roads at the time suffered from ruts making it difficult to balance on the Draisine. The result was that many took to riding on the pavement. Typically they travelled at 3 times the speed of people walking and caused such upset that riding on pavements was banned in many countries.
The original design had a design problem in that the handlebars were about 15cm ahead of the axle of the front wheel, adversely affecting stability. This was corrected in 1819 by coachbuilder Denis Johnson in the UK in his “pedestrian curricle” for which he got a patent.
The invention slumbered somewhat until in 1865 Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement introduced a version with pedals on the front wheel.
Changes were also made, away from the Cherry wood original to a cast iron one, as well as to the introduction of a sprung saddle, as exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867.
There was a considerable gap before inflated tyres and chain drive were added to gradually move towards a “bicycle” rather than a “balance bike” – which is probably the closest direct successor of Drais’ invention.
Drais was a liberal and after the French revolution renounced his title in 1848 and took the name Citizen Karl Drais, which caused problems for him after the collapse of the revolution, losing him his pension as a former civil servant.
Citizen Drais died penniless on 10th December 1851 in Karlsruhe in a house that was only a few hundred meters away from the childhood home of a certain Karl Benz, whose first motorised vehicle resembled a tricycle.