The Bicycle, 200 Years Old Now, Was a Timely Response to an Environmental Crisis

Public Domain. Laufmaschine

Baron Karl von Drais needed a way to replace his horse; today we need a way to replace the car.

On this day in 1817 Baron Karl von Drais rode his Laufsmaschine for the first time. According to a biography by Dr. Gerd Hüttmann:

On June 12th 1817 Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig, Freiherr (= baron) Drais rode his two-wheeled invention, the first Velocipede, five miles from the centre of Mannheim and back in less than an hour. It was basically a bicycle without pedals that one pushed along the ground but it was still much faster than walking. He called it a Laufmaschine (running machine in German) but the press named it a Draisine after the inventor.

Necessity Led to the Invention of the Bicycle

etching of Tamora

Mount Tambora exploding/Public Domain

But what really resonates today, two hundred years later, is the reason he invented it: in response to an environmental crisis. Two years earlier in April 1815, Mount Tambora exploded and changed the world. This put so much ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that it turned 1816 into "the year without summer", causing world-wide famine. Most of the horses were slaughtered because there was nothing to feed them or their owners, so they became dinner. As one of our wonderful commenters noted,

Karl Drais

Karl Drais/Public Domain

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 precursor of the bicycle.

The Draisine was not a success; although he had a patent for it, being a civil servant did not leave time for him to really market it. The roads were awful, so the inevitable happened, according to this biography by Dr. Gerd Hüttmann:

Roads were so rutted by carriages that it was very inconvenient to balance for long. Velocipede riders took to the sidewalks and, no need to say, moved far too quick, endangering the life and limb of pedestrians. In consequence, authorities in Germany, Great Britain, the USA and even in Calcutta did ban the use of velocipedes, which ended its vogue for decades.

Drais was also a radical who got involved on the losing side of political battles of the era.

Drais was a fervent democrat, supported the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, dropping his title and the aristocratic "von" from his name in 1849. After the revolution in Baden had collapsed, Drais became mobbed and ruined by royalists. After his death, Drais's enemies systematically repudiated his invention of horseless moving on two wheels.

'History Doesn't Repeat Itself But It Often Rhymes'

copenhagne bikes

Lloyd Alter/ bikes in Copenhagen/CC BY 2.0

That’s what Mark Twain supposedly said, and he was right. Bikes today are also the answer to an environmental crisis.

Energy-Efficient, Pollution-Free Transportation

Today the bicycle is the most energy efficient and pollution free means of transportation on the planet. It is seen by many as a major player in the solution to climate change given that they are emission free. They could be the answer to urban congestion as they take up so much less space than a car. We have quoted consultant Horace Dediu: “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars.”

Bikes Remain Controversial

As in Drais’ day, bikes are controversial. Drivers hate them when they are sharing the road and hate them more when bike lanes are built and take away space for driving and storing cars. As in Drais’ day, the road conditions are so awful and dangerous that cyclists sometimes ride on the sidewalk, alienating and endangering pedestrians.

And, as in Drais’ day, they are political, with cyclists described in right-wing British tabloids as “arrogant, abusive and oh-so smug” and American papers headlining Bicyclist Bullies Try to Rule the Road in DC

traffic jam

WP/ Traffic jam in Delhi/CC BY 2.0

But two hundred years ago the skies cleared and a normal climate returned, and soon people were back to being pulled around by horses. But the environment is not going to return to normal this time, and our cities cannot hold any more cars. This time it’s different.

See also another take from Christine in Germany: Happy 200th birthday to the bicycle!