200 years ago, Mount Tambora exploded and changed the world. The cloud of ash and sulfur dioxide caused the Year Without Summer in 1816, a year so cold that crops failed around the world, causing massive famine. Horses were slaughtered as there was no food for them, let alone the people. According to our commenter Richard,
Baron Karl von Drais needed a means of inspecting his tree stands that did not rely on horses. Horses and draft animals were also the victims of the "Year without Summer" as they could not be fed in the great numbers that had been used. Drais discovered that by placing wheels in a line on a frame one could balance through dynamic steering. Thus a narrow vehicle capable of maneuvering on his lands-the Laufsmaschine became the immediate precurser of the bicycle.
Baron von Drais later just Karl Drais, was a fervent democrat and revolutionary and was on the wrong side of the mid-century revolutions sweeping Europe, so he did not get much credit for his invention. However a new study by historian Hans-Erhard Lessing is quoted in The New Scientist:
The resulting velocipede, or draisine, was the first vehicle to use the key principle of modern
bicycle design: balance. "To modern eyes balancing on two wheels seems easy and obvious," says Lessing. "But it wasn't at the time, in a society that normally only took its feet off the ground whenriding horses or sitting in a carriage."
The Laufsmaschine was nicknamed the Dandy-horse and hobby-horse, and a French version was called the velocipede. They became quite popular, which led to a familiar problem:
Another big problem for would-be velocipedists was the state of the roads: they were so rutted that
it was impossible to balance for long. The only alternative was to take to the sidewalks, endangering the life and limb of pedestrians. Milan banned the machines in 1818. London, New York and Philadelphia banned them from sidewalks in 1819. Calcutta followed suit in 1820. This clampdown, combined with a series of good harvests after 1817, ended the vogue for velocipedes.
Drais also invented the first typewriter with a keyboard and a better wood stove. However after the revolution the Royalists tried to declare him mad and lock him up. They stripped him of his pension (awarded for his inventions) and he died penniless in 1851. But he is now credited again with the invention of the precursor to the bike, a direct response to the Year without Summer and the eruption of Mount Tambora.
Read more in this biography.