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Bicycle History – Draisines and Velocipedes

Every time you get on your bicycle, you are participating in history. Bicycles have been credited with being critical to the first paved roads in America, the women’s suffrage movement, and much more. Bicycles have a long history that spans the globe.

The first record, of sorts, of a bicycle-like vehicle is an image in a stained-glass window at St. Giles Church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, England dated to 1642. It portrays a nude man standing astride a two-wheeled contrivance that has an animal-like head blowing a horn. Interestingly, it is not terribly unlike the laufmaschine (running machine) built by Baron Karl von Drais of Germany in 1817. He built his wheeled walking machine to assist him in getting around on the smooth paths of the royal garden.

Following an eight-mile ride out of Mannheim on June 12, 1817, Drais’s machine gained in popularity amongst the upper class and became known as a Draisienne in French, and a Draisine, velocipede, hobby horse or dandyhorse in English. Made of wood, the Draisine had iron-clad wheels and weighed about 48 pounds. The wheels were the same size, and the front wheel was steerable. The rider rode the Draisine by straddling it and pushing along with his feet. Models with a low horizontal bar (connecting the wheels) were specifically developed for women. The lack of brakes and because power came only from the rider’s feet running along the ground ultimately limited the popularity of the machines.

Draisines lost favor rapidly due to accidents, but models were still reported as being in use in 1866 Paris. I found it interesting that this basic design has resurfaced in recent years as the push bike or balance bike. Push bikes are marketed for young children who haven’t yet learned to ride a pedal-powered bike. Supposedly, push bikes are better for training kids to balance than traditional bicycles with training wheels.

Inventors around the world began to explore the possibilities of adding cranks or pedals to the Drainsine’s wheels. The first commercially successful design is attributed to Ernest Michaux of France who developed in 1865 a new velocipede that was propelled by pedals and rotary cranks attached directly to the front wheel hub. Unfortunately, its rigid frame and iron-banded wheels led to it being called a “bone-shaker,” an apt description on the rough and cobbled streets of the time. It was difficult to pedal the wheel used for steering, and the only way to stop or slow a velocipede was by pedaling backward. The difficulty and discomfort of riding it, as well as a weight of up to 150 pounds, led to the bone-shaker having only a brief flash of popularity.

The invention of the Draisine and velocipede eventually led to the development of the modern bicycle that we know and love. That story, however, is for another day.

Ride safe and have fun!

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