The bicycle is 200 years old

Two hundred years ago Karl Drais invented the two-wheeler principle of today’s bicycle.

dpa/Uwe Anspach - Bicycle

According to an old German saying, necessity is the mother of invention. This certainly applies to the invention of the bicycle. Crop failures in 1816/17 resulted in rising oat prices and an increase in the cost of horse feed. It was this that led Karl Drais to develop a so-called running machine or dandy horse, the forerunner of the present-day bicycle. It consisted of two wheels arranged one behind the other with a saddle to sit on and a handlebar to steer. The whole vehicle was made of wood and weighed only 22 kilograms, which is as much as a modern touring bike. Users moved forward by pushing on the ground with their feet. During his first journey on 12 June 1817, which took Drais from his house in Mannheim to the Schwetzingen stage house, he achieved an average speed of roughly 15 km/h.

Karl Drais was born in 1785 and initially completed an apprenticeship in the forestry service on the wishes of his father, a Baden high court judge, before studying physics, architecture and agriculture. Afterwards he become a forestry official, but was released from his duties in 1811 to pursue his passion for inventing. In 1818, Grand Duke Carl appointed him professor of mechanics. His salary continued to be paid as a kind of inventor pension. Drais’s inventions include a piano recorder that recorded key presses on a roll of paper, a key-based writing machine for 25 letters, a wood-saving oven and a machine for cooking meat. However, his most enduring invention was to be the dandy horse.

Prohibitions slowed down development

Drais organised public rides and wrote articles for periodicals to publicise his invention. The idea soon spread and was copied everywhere. Initially, however, the prohibition of dandy horses slowed down their development. Riders commonly used pavements instead of the rutted and often muddy roads and, as a result, collided with pedestrians. The first pavement riding ban came at the end of 1817 in Mannheim, in 1818 then in Paris and in 1819 in London. The bicycle only became a mass means of transport after the invention of pedal propulsion in 1861, ten years after Drais’s death. Today, people in Germany alone own 72 million bicycles.