The Bicycle Begins

The balance bike, or draisine (photo by Gun Powder Ma via Wikimedia Commons)
The first bicycle had neither pedals nor a drive train; what made it a bike was the principle of balance, and the way it connected the human frame and locomotion to the efficient wheel.

The concept of the balance bike was magical if simple.  For the first time in recorded history, humans discovered that, with the right machinery, they no longer needed animals but could be a self-generating source of speed.  Until that moment, man’s conception of personal mobility consisted solely of walking or running.  For millennia, humans had had to depend on beasts—whether oxen, mules, or horses—to either carry them or power the conveyances that could transport them with speed.

The discovery that a human being could balance on a wheeled contraption and use his or her legs to push it was itself wildly revolutionary.  It was also a foundational discovery, crucial to developing the modern bicycle, the motorcycle, the automobile, and even (think Wright Brothers with their bike shop) the first airplane.  We owe the balance bicycle to a brilliant German inventor named Karl von Drais (1785-1851).  He was born in Karlsruhe, the capital of Baden, but as a young adult he moved to the smart city of Mannheim; he invented the first keyboard typewriter and hand-powered rail car, too.

Draisine-in-Mannheim-Garden-1819Curiously, Drais’s invention of the balance bicycle—which he dubbed a Laufmaschine, and which became known as a draisine or dandy horse—had its roots in an environmental crisis.  The bicycle was a consequence of the Summer without a Summer (1816).  The devastating eruption of the Indonesian Mount Tambora in April 1815 precipitated a long period of global cooling, depressing agricultural yields in northern Europe and the US and leading to widespread food shortages, livestock losses, and human suffering.  Von Drais’s thoughts turned to devising a new human conveyance because so many horses had died.  He called his foot-propelled vehicle a ‘running machine.’  This was in 1817.

Velocipedes in Luxembourg Garden (Paris), 1818Rooted in practicality, the draisine caught on because it was fun.  In no time, the rest of civilization had taken it up, smitten with a love of bikes and biking that continues on.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
Top: “Draisine or Laufmaschine Around 1820: Archetype of the Bicycle,” by Gun Powder Ma.
Middle: Von Drais Riding his Invention in Mannheim Garden, 1819.
Bottom: Velocipede Race in the Luxembourg Garden (Paris), 1818.

Bike messengers by Lewis Hine

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand). He said gleefully "She gimme a quarter tip." . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message . . . . He said gleefully “She gimme a quarter tip.” . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.  1913.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. "I learned a lot about the 'Reservation' while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now." Location: Houston, Texas.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M.  Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. “I learned a lot about the ‘Reservation’ [red-light district] while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now.”  Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company.  Said fifteen years old.  Exposed to Red Light dangers.  Location: Waco, Texas.  1913.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often." Location: Washington DC.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service.  They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night.  Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight.  They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips.  They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes.  Said “The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us.  Not very often.”  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M. Location: Syracuse, New York.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M.  Location: Syracuse, New York.  1910.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington DC.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only.  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.  1911.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job-- "Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks' pay." Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job– “Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks’ pay.” Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  1917.

Since these boys stared into Lewis Hine’s camera a century ago, the status of American children has improved in some ways but not others.  Back then, children were prone to become whatever the economic situations of their families required.  The children of farmers were often pressed into lives of drudgery, while others followed the trend of modernization, working in the street trades if they were city dwellers, or in mills, mines, and factories, all to stave off the want of individual and family poverty. Continue reading

The bicycle starts a revolution

A couple dressed in cycling clothes congratulates themselves for leaving the cumbersome fashions of the nineteenth century behind.
THE BICYCLE possessed some kind of magic, its mute presence transforming American society.  Originally known as a velocipede, the bicycle had been around since the early nineteenth century, but only after 1890 did the contraption become safer and gain popularity throughout the States as something associated with freedom and pleasure. Continue reading