Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, Karl von Drais, the man who invented the proto-type of the bicycle, took his first ride on his new invention. He rode his wooden, two-wheeled vehicle a distance of about five miles, out from Mannheim, to the outskirts of the city. Though his intent had been to provide an inexpensive and economical vehicle for the masses, within eighteen months, this vehicle would become all the rage among the dandies of Regency London.
The first ride of the Laufmaschine . . .
Perhaps the most powerful impetus for the invention of this new mode of transportation was the devastating after-effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora, which ravaged most of northern Europe in 1816. Due to the vast and widespread loss of crops, many people were no longer able to feed their horses, mules, donkeys and oxen, thus depriving them of their usual forms of transportation. In that Year Without a Summer, a young inventor from Karlsruhe, Karl von Drais, set himself to find a mechanical replacement for the customary four-legged transportation.
The development of mechanical vehicles was nothing new to Karl von Drais. In 1813, he had built a proto-type of a four-wheeled human-powered vehicle. He had even take it to Austria, hoping to interest some of the delegates at the Congress of Vienna in his invention. When he could not get the support he needed, he traveled home to Germany and turned his attention to other inventions. Then, in 1816, when weather conditions wrought such ruination across northern Europe, he considered a less complex vehicle which could be manufactured at a much lower cost. Von Drais reduced the number of wheels to two, and eliminated the gears and pedals which he had incorporated into his earlier, four-wheeled vehicle. This new, simpler machine was made of wood, and comprised a horizontal bar which connected two spoked wooden wheels. A small padded leather saddle was placed at the mid-point of the horizontal bar. A vertical pole with a set of handle bars was connect to the wheel at the front of the vehicle to provide for steering. The motive power of the vehicle was provided by the rider, who straddled the horizontal bar and pushed off from the ground with his feet, alternating from side to side. With each stride, the vehicle would move forward a much further distance than a man could walk on his own. It seems to be for this reason that Karl von Drais called his new invention the Laufmaschine, or "running machine."
By the late spring of 1817, Von Drais felt his new Laufmaschine was ready for a rigorous and extended test under real-world conditions. On Thursday, 12 June 1817, in Mannheim, Von Drais set his proto-type two-wheeled vehicle on the best road to Baden, straddled the saddle on the horizontal bar and pushed off, one foot after the other, as his vehicle gathered speed. He rode in a roughly southwesterly direction, for a distance of nearly five miles, until he came to a popular coaching inn on that road, the Schwetzinger Relaishaus. It is unknown whether Von Drais stopped at the inn for any refreshment before he returned to the city, but it is known that the round trip on his new Laufmaschine took him a little over a hour, less than half the time it would have taken him to walk out to the coaching inn and back in to Mannheim.
Von Drais was granted a patent for his new Laufmaschine in Germany, in January of 1818. The next month, in February, his request for a patent in France was approved. However, in France, this new vehicle was more usually known as the draisienne, taking its French name from its inventor. Von Drais demonstrated his new "running machine" in several capitals of Europe, and these demonstrations typically drew large crowds. He got many orders for his man-powered vehicle, and be built all of them himself. Probably because each was handmade by Von Drais, delivery was slow and the machine’s popularity began to wane in Europe by the end of that same year. Though it was an infringement of Von Drais’ patent, an ambitious London coach-maker, Denis Johnson, began making his own version of the Laufmaschine late in 1818, even as the vehicle was falling out of favor in Europe.
Since he was an experienced coach-maker, Denis Johnson made various improvements to his version of the two-wheeled vehicle which he sold in London. The horizontal bar of Johnson’s machine dipped in the middle, which enabled him to use larger wheels that improved the ride. The steering mechanism was made of iron, which gave better control. The wheels had iron bands on the outer edges which significantly improved their durability. In London, this version of the Laufmaschine came to be known as the "hobby-horse." Other coach-makers also began to make their own versions of these two-wheeled, man-powered vehicles. By early 1819, the hobby-horse had become all the rage among the dandy set and it was not long before the dandies were riding their hobby-horses all over London. However, many of the dandies were so rude and inconsiderate of others while riding their hobby-horses that many towns began to restrict where they could be ridden, or banned them altogether. By the end of 1819, the fashion for hobby-horses in Britain had all but come to an end.
The mother of the Regency romance novel, Georgette Heyer, dated one of her more delightful Regency romances, Frederica, to the year 1819, by including a hobby-horse in her story. In that romance novel, one of the heroine’s younger brothers takes lessons to learn to ride a "pedestrian curricle," since the family cannot afford horses for him to ride. Though the vehicle and the boy astride it come to a spectacular and rather ignominious end, fortunately, it turns out that all’s well that ends well. Through the good graces of the hero, the young man is able to leave the hobby-horse behind and is given the opportunity to do what he really loves, ride real horses.
Dear Regency Authors, despite the fact that the hobby-horse, also known as the velocipede, flourished in early nineteenth-century British Isles only in the last year of the Regency, 1819, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the earlier versions might have made it to Britain in the previous year. Or, that a British visitor might have acquired and/or learned to ride one of the earlier versions while travelling abroad. This new, human-powered vehicle was publicly demonstrated in many European capitals throughout 1818. With the Napoleonic Wars long over by that time, many British tourists were eager to visit the Continent and at least some of them were sure to have seen one of Von Drais’ demonstrations. Therefore, a story set in 1818 might include a Laufmaschine, or a draisienne, being ridden in Germany or France. It is even possible that a wealthy British tourist might even have one shipped home in 1818, in order to have a truly unique vehicle which no one in Britain had yet seen. Then, there is Karl von Drais himself. Might his work inventing the Laufmaschine, or his first read ride on it, feature in a Regency romance?