A global disaster gave us the bike

An 1819 illustration of German inventor Karl von Drais and his “dandy horse,” the forerunner of the modern bicycle. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In 1815, the most powerful volcanic eruption in modern recorded history rocked present-day Indonesia, sending up an ash column that dispersed throughout the atmosphere and caused global temperatures to plummet.

The following year, known as the “year without a summer,” was a time of famine and strife, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. In Europe, crop failures and food shortages exacerbated by the Napoleonic Wars meant working animals — including tens of thousands of horses — starved or were slaughtered.

A German inventor and civil servant, Karl von Drais, had recognized the need for a mode of transportation that didn’t need to be fed, and was working on designs for a human-powered, wheeled device before the volcanic winter set in.

“In wartime, when horses and their fodder often become scarce, a small fleet of such wagons at each corps could be important, especially for dispatches over short distances and for carrying the wounded,” he wrote, in comments on designs for his earliest versions.

Drais’ two-wheeled running machine, the forefather of the modern-day bicycle, had no pedals and no brakes, and was propelled Fred Flintstone-style by a rider’s feet.

His maiden voyage on the new contraption, on June 12, 1817, was a roughly 9-mile, one-hour ride, from his home to an inn, and back. Drais made that trip on the region’s best road.

As more people began mounting up and heading out on “dandy horses,” however, it became clear that it was nearly impossible for a rider to stay upright when navigating down most roads, which were deeply rutted from the passage of carriages.

Riders took to cruising down sidewalks instead, which endangered pedestrians and led to widespread bans, effectively putting bike evolution, and interest, on hold for some 40 years.


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