Karl von Drais And The Laufmaschine

Mar 21, 2024 0 comments

In April 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, erupted with a violence never seen before in recorded history. A massive amount of pulverized rock, weighing an estimated 10 billion tons, was ejected into the atmosphere. These rocks and ash reached into the stratosphere where it spread out enveloping the skies and blocking the sun for months on end. The eruption also released a substantial quantity of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to the formation of sulfate aerosols, which caused significant cooling of the Earth's surface. The cold and the altered weather patterns triggered crop failures and famine across many parts of the world.

Karl von Drais riding his draisine

The resultant scarcity of resources profoundly impacted daily life, rendering people unable to feed their beasts of burden and traditional modes of transportation such as horses and mules. It was within this challenging context that Karl von Drais, a young German inventor, found inspiration to devise a novel means of locomotion that didn’t rely on equine power. This creative impetus resulted in the invention of the world’s first two-wheeled vehicle.

Laufmaschine or the “running machine” comprised of two wheels, with both wheels in line— a form so familiar today in bicycles and bikes. The machine was made of wood, and comprised a horizontal bar which connected two spoked wooden wheels. A small cushioned leather seat was positioned in the middle of the bar to provide some comfort for the rider. 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 propulsion of the vehicle relied entirely on the rider's physical exertion. The rider would sit on the cushioned seat and use their feet to push off from the ground, moving back and forth to gain momentum. Each push would propel the machine significantly farther than an individual could traverse on foot alone.

Karl von Drais

On 12 June 1817, Von Drais set off from Mannheim along the best roads to Baden straddled on his Laufmaschine. Journeying in a roughly southwesterly direction, he covered a distance close to 7 kilometers before reaching a prominent coaching inn along the route, the Schwetzinger Relaishaus. While it remains uncertain whether Von Drais paused at the inn for refreshment, historical records affirm that his round trip lasted just over an hour—a duration less than half the time it would have taken him to walk the same route from Mannheim to the inn and back.

Six months later, Von Drais applied for a patent in France, introducing the term vélocipède to describe his invention. His patent application was successful, and the vehicle quickly captured the imagination of French society, earning the moniker draisienne in homage to its creator. Von Drais showcased his pioneering "running machine" across several European capitals, captivating large audiences with its novel design and functionality. The demonstrations sparked considerable interest, resulting in numerous orders for the man-powered vehicle. Because Von Drais personally constructed each unit, it led to prolonged delivery times. Consequently, the initial fervor surrounding the machine waned in Europe by the year's end. Neverthless, recognizing the growing demand, manufacturers in France and England sought to capitalize on the popularity of the vélocipède by producing their own versions. Among these, the variant engineered by London-based coach-maker Denis Johnson emerged as the most practical.

Denis Johnson's son riding a velocipede.

Denis Johnson implemented several enhancements to his version of the two-wheeled vehicle, which he marketed in London. Notably, the horizontal bar of Johnson’s machine dipped in the middle, allowing for the use of larger wheels, thereby improving the overall ride quality. Additionally, the steering mechanism, constructed from iron, provided riders with enhanced control, while the incorporation of iron bands on the outer edges of the wheels significantly increased their durability.

Christened the "hobby-horse" in London, Johnson's iteration rapidly gained popularity among the city's dandies by early 1819. Enthusiasts could be spotted navigating the streets of London atop their hobby-horses, embracing this innovative mode of transportation with fervor. However, the joyous trend soon encountered obstacles as the uneven and rutted roads, frequented by carriage traffic, presented challenges in maintaining balance on the machine.

A variant designed by Denis Johnson, called the Ladies’ Walking Machine.

In response to these challenges, some reckless dandies resorted to riding their hobby-horses on sidewalks, thereby endangering pedestrians. Recognizing the growing hazards posed by this burgeoning trend, authorities in Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and even Calcutta implemented restrictions on where the hobby-horses could be ridden or outright banned them. By the end of 1819, the fervor for hobby-horses in Britain had significantly waned.

Von Drais went on to make many fantastic inventions in his lifetime, such as the earliest typewriter with a keyboard. He later developed an early stenograph machine which used 16 character, a device to record piano music on paper, the first meat grinder, and a wood-saving cooker including the earliest hay chest. In 1842, he developed a foot-driven human powered railway vehicle whose name "draisine" is used even today for railway handcars.

A wooden Laufmaschine at the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg, Germany. Photo credit: Gun Powder Ma/Wikimedia Commons 

# Regency Bicentennial:  The First Ride on the Laufmaschine, The Regency Redingote


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