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.
Curiously, 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.
Rooted 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.