Of Velocipedes and Draisiennes — The Rise

      … it was Jessamy who plunged him, not many days later, into the affair of the Pedestrian Curricle.

     Boy enough to wish to startle his family with his unsuspected prowess, Jessamy had said nothing to them about his new hobby. Once he had perfected his balance, and could feel himself to be master of the Pedestrian Curricle, he meant to ride up to the door, and call his sisters out to watch his skill. …


Chapter 14 of Frederica

by Georgette Heyer

Of course, anyone who has read Frederica knows that the Pedestrian Curricle which Jessamy was riding was smashed to bits in an accident involving a pair of dogs, a man mending a chair and landaulet drawn by a pair of high-stepping horses. Fortunately, the Marquis of Alverstoke was able to sort everything out, and "the affair of the Pedestrian Curricle" resulted in a "command" from the Marquis to Jessamy to ride his horses, much to the young man’s delight.

"Pedestrian curricle" was just one name for vehicles like that from which Jessamy took his tumble. They were also known as "velocipedes," "draisiennes," "hobby-horses" and "dandy horses," among others. The grand fashion for these contraptions flourished briefly at the very end of the Regency. This week I will tell you about the meteoric rise of the Regency craze for the velocipede …

There had been attempts to create a human-powered vehicle since the end of the seventeenth century. Most were theoretical and though plans and drawings were made, few proto-types were ever built. In 1774, in London, a Mr. Ovenden designed and built a four-wheeled vehicle which was powered by a muscular footman treading on a set of planks connected to a series of gears which then moved the vehicle forward. It was clocked at speeds of six miles an hour. In France, in 1779, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his assistant, M. Masurier, created a similar four-wheeled human-powered vehicle which they demonstrated several times in Paris. But they were large and clumsy and there was little popular demand, so such vehicles remained a curiosity.

By the decade of the Regency, the Industrial Revolution was fueling a new interest in machines of all types across Europe. In Germany, a well-educated baron of democratic philosophy, Karl von Drais, held a position as a forest ranger in the Grand Duchy of Baden. His responsibilities were not onerous and he spent much of his time working on his inventions, one of which was his own version of a four-wheeled human-powered vehicle. He built a proto-type in 1813, but was unable to get the support necessary to acquire a patent. In an attempt to drum up support for his invention, he traveled to Vienna, where he took every opportunity to parade his horseless carriage before the many delegates attending the Congress of Vienna. He was not able to garner the support he needed, and returned home to focus his efforts on other inventions.

Within a few years, Drais revisited the concept of a human-powered vehicle. But this second effort focused on a new concept, a two-wheeled vehicle which he called a "Laufmaschine," or "running machine." Drais later called the machine a "draisine." It was commonly called a velocipede as it became known across the Continent. This new vehicle was remarkably simple, using no gears or pedals. Made of wood, the main components were a horizontal bar which connected two spoked wheels. There was a perch or saddle for the rider on the horizontal bar and a vertical pole which connected to the front wheel which allowed the rider to steer. The vehicle was powered by the rider straddling the horizontal bar and pushing off from the ground with alternating feet. Thus its designation as the "running machine." Drais received a patent in Germany for this vehicle in January of 1818. In February of that year, he was granted a French patent, which is when the machine was first called the "draisienne." The machine was demonstrated in many of the capitals of Europe, and drew great crowds to each demonstration. Drais made each machine to order and he built nearly a hundred vehicles over the course of the year. Yet by the end of 1818, interest in the velocipede was waning across the Continent.

It is likely the velocipede might have faded from history with the close of 1818, if it were not for the efforts of an ambitious London coachmaker, Denis Johnson. Though he was nearly sixty in 1818, he made several improvements to the design of the velocipede based on his knowledge of coachmaking. He patented his own lighter and more elegant model, which he called the "pedestrian curricle," in December of 1818. The horizontal bar of his machines dipped in the middle, enabling him to use larger wheels, which improved the ride. The wheels where hooped with iron on the outer edge for greater durability, and the steering mechanism was also made of iron, giving greater control to the rider. Some of the horizontal bars on the more elaborate machines terminated in the front with the carving of a horse’s head, which is believed to be how they acquired the name "hobby-horse." A hobby was a term used at the time to refer to a small horse or pony.

It is estimated that Johnson produced nearly three hundred and fifty of these machines in the first half of 1819, at a cost of £8 each. Every machine was custom-made, each customer providing their weight so their vehicle could be made as light as possible yet still support them. In addition, the seat was attached to the horizontal bar by two iron supports which could be raised or lowered based on the rider’s inseam measurement for a more precise fit. In the spring, Johnson opened a "riding school" on the Strand, not far from his Long Acre workshop. Due to the high demand for lessons, he later opened a second school in Brewer Street. The majority of the students at these riding schools were young gentlemen and the charge for admission at each school was one shilling.

These vehicles were an immediate hit with the Regency dandy set, which is how they acquired the name "dandy horse." Johnson began making a version for ladies in May with a drop frame which would accommodate their flowing skirts. That model came to be known as the "lady’s accelerator," though few "ladies" actually rode one. There were also tricycle models with two back wheels. Some of these tricycle models had a rear seat set between the back wheels in which a lady could sit while the male rider in the front provided the motive power. In England, the velocipede was most commonly used as a recreational vehicle, ridden by young men, and a very few ladies of leisure for exercise. But there were numerous velocipede races run, many of which drew large crowds and often offered "worthy" prizes, such as looking glasses, smelling-salts bottles and scissors. There was one instance where the prize was to be a corset richly embroidered with gold and silver threads, given to the winner by a lovely young lady. Unfortunately, that event ultimately did not take place. The many races staged between velocipedes and horses drew even more crowds, and betting was often heavy. The velocipedes won as often as did the horses in these popular races.

I seriously debated whether to put this article in the category for Transportation or that for Entertainments. But though the velocipede was a very popular form of recreation for young men of leisure, it was also used by many people as an inexpensive form of transportation. It was less expensive to buy or maintain than a horse, and a fit rider on a velocipede could easily triple the distance they could cover when walking, with little more expenditure of energy. There are records of people traveling very long distances by velocipede, in some cases from London all the way to Scotland. Some velocipedists raced the London to Brighton coach and a few beat it. One young man is known to have arrived in Brighton a half hour ahead of the coach. There are reports of blacksmiths complaining that the velocipede cut into their business, as it had no feet in need of shoes. However, it is interesting to note that velocipede riders went through shoe leather very quickly. Several cobblers offered iron-soled shoes and boots made specifically for the use of avid velocipedists.

Denis Johnson had a few competitors who were making and selling their own version of this two-wheeled vehicle, both in London and in other cities and towns. He realized that the best way for him to increase his own velocipede business was to get his vehicle in front of as many people as possible. He staged exhibitions in many cities across Britain and later in the year, even traveled to America. For a shilling, the public could get a close-up look at one of these vehicles, and often a lesson on how to ride it. Johnson, a very shrewd businessman, had only very experienced young men demonstrating his machines and they were routinely lauded as unique and elegant vehicles which moved quite gracefully. However, one such exhibition was supposed to take place in Canterbury on the first day of April in 1819. A large crowd gathered to see this remarkable curiosity, but the appointed time came and went. The crowd was pacified with reports that the vehicle had broken down and was in the process of being repaired. Another hour passed, with no sign of a velocipede. Finally, someone admitted to the crowd that the expected velocipede exhibition was a hoax, intended to ensure they remembered the first of April. This was not the first April’s Fool’s Day prank to be played in England and it appears the crowd took it fairly well.

By the late spring of 1819, the velocipede was all the rage across England. There were probably more of them in London than anywhere else, but there were still a goodly number to be found in most large cities and towns throughout the kingdom. They were advertized in the newspapers, velocipede demonstrations were always well attended, and one often had to wait for admittance into a velocipede riding school for lessons. Initially ridden most often along the paths of London’s parks, the velocipedists soon ventured out onto the city streets. In so doing, they began to sow the seeds of their own demise and within months, the craze for the velocipede was over.

Next week, the story of the rapid fall of the velocipede from its great height of popularity, and how the presence of the Pedestrian Curricle in Georgette Heyer’s Frederica precisely dates the setting of the novel.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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