Inventing the Bicycle, Part 2: Velocipede Fever (1817 to 1820)

This is Part 2 of my dive into the history of the bicycle. Here’s the link to Part 1.

Baron Von Drais and his machine … and fancy riding outfit!

We’re up to the early 1800s. It took a while for news to travel back then, but travel it did around the world. For example, from the forests of Germany, trickled out a story that would have worldwide repercussions … 

The leading principle of the invention is taken from the art of skating, and consists in the simple idea, of impelling, by the help of the feet, a seat affixed upon two wheels.

The Lancaster Gazette, England, November 8, 1817

This newspaper story refers to the “running machine” invention of Baron Karl Von Drais, a member and employee of the Court of the Grand Duke of Baden (Germany). There were still no pedals, the wheels were made of wood and there were very few proper, paved roads upon which to “skate” this two-wheeled machine upon. Let’s just say it could be a rough ride. However, it was a lot lighter than previous hobby-horse-type vehicles and … steering! Drais devised a way for the rider to turn the front wheel while they flapped their feet, Flintstones style, or coasted down a hill, working hard to keep their balance – and figure out a way to slow down or stop at the bottom of the hill. Yep, still no brakes – other than jamming your heels into the ground.

This improvement upon the celerifere/veloifere of the Comte de Sivrac was a huge step forward in the evolution of the bike. It took France, then England and the United States by storm. It was referred to as the Drais Laufmaschine (German for running machine), the Draisienne in France, and also the dandy horse, hobby horse, pedestrian accelerator and dandy charger in England and the United States. Eventually, the world settled upon the term velocipede.

But first, before we learn more about Von Drais and his machine, let’s take a look at it in action, courtesy of the great Buster Keaton …

The Baron Begins to Tinker

Drais (1785-1851) was a tinkerer and non-stop inventor, who created early versions of the typewriter and a stenograph machine, one of the earliest meat grinders and a sort of foot-driven, human powered railway handcar that actually stuck around a lot longer than the running machine he’s more famous for creating.

The Baron worked as a forest ranger for the Grand-Duke of Baden, whose vast property contained lots of forests. This meant Drais had to cover a lot of ground on a regular basis, which, in addition to a worldwide shortage of horses, most likely contributed to the “light bulb” moment of clarity that triggered the birth of the Laufmaschine.

The Baron

The 1817 article in The Lancaster Gazette, England, described how …

 The ranger of the forest … has made some highly satisfactory trials of his new-invented travelling machine, without horses. On the 12th of July he went from Manheim to the Relay-house, at Schwezingen, and back again … within one hour … The machine that the inventor has made consists of a seat on only two two-feet wheels, running one behind the other, that it may be used in the foot-paths … This machine, which may be used with great advantage for expresses, and for other purposes, even for considerable journeys, does not weigh [50 pounds] and may be made strong, handsome, provided with pockets, &c. for four Carolines [4 pounds sterling] at the very utmost.

The Draisienne visits Paris

Back then, if you wanted publicity, off you popped to Paris. Which the publicity-seeking Drais did in 1818 …

An immense concourse of spectators assembled yesterday at noon, at Luxemberg [Luxembourg Gardens], to witness the experiments with Draisiennes, a species of carriage moved by machinery without horses. The crowd was so great that the experiments were but imperfectly made. The machine went, however, quicker than a man running at speed, and the conductors did not appear fatigued. About three a lady appeared in a Draisienne, conducted by the chasseur [servant] of the Baron de Drais, who made with it several turns in the alleys, in the midst of the crowd … The machine ascended with facility the hillocks [small hills] which are placed in some parts of the garden. The Draisiennes appear to be convenient for the country, and for short journeys on good roads.

This story, taken “From a Paris Paper” was in the June 3, 1818 edition of The Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal, in Pennsylvania. Word of the Draisienne was filtering far and wide, and especially in the United Kingdom, which was rife with velocipede fever.

British invasion

The Drais machine was “introduced into this country by a tradesman in Long-acre,” according to a story in the February 6, 1819 edition of The Morning Post of London. The tradesman was Denis Johnson, who applied for and received a patent for an improved version of “a machine, called the Velocipede, or Swift-Walker and also the curricle. Here’s the description, from The Morning Post of his velocipede …

The riding seat, or saddle, is fixed on a perch upon two double shod wheels, running after each other, so that they can go upon the footways … The swiftness with which a person, well practiced, can travel, is almost beyond belief; eight, nine, and even ten miles, may, if asserted, be passed over within the hour, on good, level ground.

The Observer of London, in a February 1, 1819 article, said that “these machines will answer very well for messengers and other purposed, and even for long journeys: they do not weigh 50 pounds and may be made with traveling-pockets …”

Another story, in the March 22, 1819 edition of The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, described one of the pluses of the Drais and Johnson machines: “On a descent, it equals a horse at full speed.” And then, one of the drawbacks: “The machine seems to us intended solely for dry level roads. Wherever the ground is broken, hilly or even steep, the rider must dismount and draw his machine after him.” Slowing down and stopping at the end of a descent was another issue.

Let the ladies ride

Johnson’s machine was quite popular for a brief period – and caught the fancy of many adventurous women ready for a little independence. In the April 19, 1819 edition of the Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, England, there was an ad for an exhibition of Johnson’s “pedestrian curricle.” The ad read: “Mr. Johnson particularly invites the Ladies, because he fears, from their known delicacy, they may debar themselves from the gratification which the perfections of the Vehicle are highly capable of imparting.”

Bicycles would become, several decades later, tremendously popular with women and an important part of the suffrage movement in the United States. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony wrote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike.” 

The Italian version

Velocipede-mania made its way to Italy. And the workshop of a Mr. Brianza, “a native of Milan, has just invented a new machine for travelling, said to be far superior to that contrived by M. Drais,” according to the June 7, 1819 edition of The Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser, England. “It moves forward and backward. In front of the machine is placed a winged horse, which gives motion to it by the action of the wings. These new carriages are named Pegasians.”

I’m not sure if this was a bicycle, an airplane or a helicopter, but there are no other mentions of it in the British papers, or anywhere else, and the Pegansians never seems to have taken off.

The first race? And accident?

I’m sure that soon after the first person on a velocipede came across another person on one, a race ensued. Which makes is hard to document the first-ever velocipede race. Here’s the first mention I could find in the British newspapers, from the March 22, 1819 edition of the Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle, England …

Yesterday a race took place at Chigwell-row, Essex, between Mr. Jones and Mr. Brady, for 25 guineas, who went the greatest distance in one hour, upon one of the Velocipedes, or modern hobby-horses! The stakes were won by Mr. Jones performing 7 ¾ miles, beating his adversary ¼ of a mile.

We also know that soon after the first person rode a velocipede, there was surely an accident. Here’s the first newspaper account of one I could find, from the April 19, 1819 edition of The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, England: 

On Monday last, about three o’clock, as two of these vehicles were descending the hill … with tremendous velocity, one of them came in contact with a lad near the bottom of the hill, who was thrown with such force of the machine, which passed over this leg and fractured it in a most dreadful manner. We lament to add that the rider had not the humanity to take the least care of the unfortunate sufferer, but again mounted his velocipede (which had been upset) pursued his course with the greatest unconcern.

Coming to America

Velocipedes reached the states at some point in 1819. An article in the May 28, 1819 edition of the New York Post had the headline “Velocipedes” and read …

This new invented machine for traveling, which has been seen in the Park and Broadway yesterday, to the astonishment of the spectators, who had conceived it an impossibility for a man, by his own exertions, to move with so much facility and swiftness … 

The first bike helmet?

Velocipede touring

Velocipede touring quickly became a thing. A story The Morning Chronicle, London, June 7, 1819, described how it “is now become quite common for persons to come down from London on Velocipedes [to Brighton]. Mr. T. Alford and three others arrived here at one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, having performed the journey (50 miles) in little more than nine hours.”

Not everyone loved the velocipede 

An article in the June 23, 1819 Poughkeepsie Journal, New York, said that this “curious” new invention “is propelled by jack asses, instead of horses.” An article in the August 7, 1819 Jackson’s Oxford Journal, England, reported that the “fatal efficacy of the Velocipede, in producing ruptures, has been formally announced by the London surgeons. An alarming number of cases of Hernia have, within the last two months, offered themselves at the Hospitals of the Metropolis.” Soon, several municipalities in England and the United States prohibited the use of velocipedes on sidewalks, citing the dangers. The fine was “five dollars for every offense” upon the streets of New York, according to an August 11, 1819 story in The Evening Post.

There are several accounts of inventors who made improvements upon the basic Drais and Johnson design, including multiple machines with a third wheel (one in front, two in back, so, a tricycle) that was “sufficient to contain two children.” Another British inventor came a little closer to the modern bicycle with a complicated contraption that “has two wheels behind, which are wrought by two levers, like weavers’ treadles, on which the person impelling the machine presses alternately with a walking motion,” according to The Royal Cornwall Gazette on June 12, 1819. “These move the axle by means of leather straps round the cramps; and the wheels being fixed revolve around it. The lady sits on a seat before and directs the velocipede as in the original invention.”

The fad fades

By 1821, velocipede fever was pretty much over, and there were fewer and fewer newspaper stories and people riding them. According to a post on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History website, “the pastime declined almost as rapidly as it had risen, and after the early 1820s, velocipedes were rarely seen.” 

Something was missing. Something that seems so simple now, but was just a little beyond the imagination, grasp and technology of the early 1800 tinkerers: The pedal!

In Part 3: Pedal power. Who invented the pedal is open to debate, with several inventors in multiple countries laying claim to the creation that revolutionized the velocipede and turned it into an efficient and affordable bicycle. 

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