Karl Drais (1785 – 1851)
Earlier this year I read (and reviewed) Geoffrey Parker’s magisterial Global Crisis which demonstrated, at great length, the impact of climate change on the political fortunes of the world during the 17th century. It seems that adverse climatic conditions has been the catalyst for ground-breaking inventions in other eras too. This is where the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame, Karl Drais, steps in.
The second decade of the 19th century was also a period of great climatic change – 1816 was dubbed the year without a summer after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 – the largest recorded volcanic eruption – thrust volcanic ash into the atmosphere, causing crops to fail as far west as Western Europe and animals to starve.
In those days, man had very few options available to him to travel around the place. Of course, he could rely on Shanks’s pony. Otherwise he was reliant upon the horse, with or without a cart. But the adverse climatic conditions meant that there was little grazing pasture for the horses and they starved in numbers. It was this problem – how to develop an alternative means of transportation – that exercised our hero’s mind.
And as we would come to expect from an inductee, he cracked the problem, coming up with what he called the Laufmaschine or running machine. It was a two-wheeled vehicle with both wheels in a line propelled by the rider pushing their feet along the ground as if they were walking or running. The front bar and handlebar assembly was hinged to allow the machine to be steered. His first public outing on the contraption took place on June 12th 1817 when he set out from the centre of Mannheim to a coaching inn in Rheinau. His second trip was from Gernsbach to Baden Baden.
In 1818 Drais was awarded a grand-ducal privilege to exploit his invention but as Baden had no patent laws, others quickly saw the opportunity and exploited the results of his labours. The machine became popular in France, where it was known as the draisienne and in England where it was known as the dandy horse and several manufacturers sprang up there in 1819.
Of course, not everyone welcomed this new road to freedom which had opened up – at least for the well-to-do. Riders preferred to operate their machines on the pavements which offered a slightly smoother ride than the pot-holed roads but this meant that they became a menace to pedestrians and some authorities prohibited their use!
As is the way with inductees, misfortune dogged Drais. He was forced into exile in the 1820s because of political unrest and although he was eventually able to return he seemed to be cursed. Following the revolutionary uprising in Baden in early 1848 – in a fit of revolutionary fervour Drais renounced his title and styled himself Citizen Karl Drais – the Prussians stepped in and crushed it in 1849, taking Drais’ pension amongst others as reparation for the costs of suppressing the revolution.
Drais never recovered and so the father of cycling died penniless in Karlsruhe in 1851. Karl, you are truly a worthy inductee.
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