How a giant volcano led a German to create the world’s first bike

Over 200 years ago on June 12th, an inventor from Karlsruhe was inspired to create the world's first practically used bicycle.

How a giant volcano led a German to create the world's first bike
Von Drais' invention on display at the Technoseum in Mannheim in 2016. Photo: DPA

Beginning on the April 5th, 1815, the eruption of Mt Tambora in modern-day Indonesia let to vast clouds of ash, shot high into the Earth's atmosphere. Not only dimming the skies, it led to a sudden cooling of temperatures, killing crops and lead to famine.

In many parts of the world, 1816 became known as the 'Year Without A Summer'.

In Europe, not only did the eruption lead to famine, but also impacted people's ability to get about. With less feed for horses, it simply wasn't possible to keep as many stabled, or use them more than necessary.

A prototype for horseless travel

Enter then, our hero – a German, no less. Already able to devote his life to invention, thanks to his noble background, Baron Karl Von Drais noted the need for a new mode of transportation due to the lack of healthy horses around.

Based in Karlsruhe, in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, he spent hours developing a prototype for horseless travel.

SEE ALSO: 10 things you use everyday and had no idea were invented by Germans

On June 12th, 1817, Von Drais revealed his creation to the world – or the people of Mannheim, at least.

This historical sketch shows 'Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Drais von Sauerbronn' (1785-1851) using his invention. Archive drawing: DPA

It looked like a very primitive bicycle, propelled by pushing one's feet along the ground. He called it a 'Laufmachine', or 'running machine' – it would later become known as a 'draisine' and in English, the 'dandy horse'.

Riding a distance of about four and a half kilometres along roads and footpaths, Von Drais made the journey in an hour, a considerable saving of time on the same journey by foot.

The people of Mannheim were impressed, and news soon spread of this new invention. Once people actually tried the vehicle, however, uptake would not be as high as he hoped.

For a start, roads across Europe were terrible, and the 'Laufmaschine' lacked any kind of suspension. It was also a pain to push uphill. The skies would also clear by the following year, allowing travel by horse to resume again at normal levels.

One invention leads to the next

Von Drais was awarded a patent for the 'Laufmaschine', along with several other of his inventions such as a meat grinder and an economical heater. He would hardly profit from them, however.

To this day, Von Drais inspires bike enthusiasts. One of them, Walter Werner, took a 3,000 km ride starting in Karlsruhe on a bike modelled after Von Drais'. Photo: DPA

Alongside the wider lukewarm reception to the vehicle, family connections made him a target for revolutionaries, who hounded him into poverty. He died in 1851.

It may seem that describing Von Drais as a hero is overdoing it, especially considering the drawbacks of his invention. However, it would undoubtedly go on to inspire a generation of pioneers and inventors who would change the world.

For example, as they will tell you in Karlsruhe, just a few streets away from Von Drais' residence, lived a small boy who could not have but heard about the 'Laufmaschine', and seen a few trundling around the streets at the time. It must have excited him.

His name was Carl Benz.

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Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

It's rush hour on a grey morning in the German capital and a stream of cyclists are gliding along Friedrichstraße, the fabled shopping street that runs through the city centre.

Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic
Cyclists near the landmark Brandenburger Gate in central Berlin on December 7, 2020. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“Move!” one of them yells after illegally mounting the pavement and charging at a defenceless pedestrian.

Bernd Lechner, a 40-year-old insurance clerk, manages to dodge the speeding bike just in time, but he's had enough of the “increasingly aggressive” attitude of cyclists in the German capital.

“It's getting worse and worse. I'm starting to become more scared of bicycles than of cars,” he said.

Berlin has long been known as a bike-friendly city, but a sharp rise in the number of cyclists during the coronavirus pandemic has been causing tensions on the road.

The number of Berliners cycling to work or to go shopping has increased by some 25 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to city authorities.

All good news for fitness, air quality and public health, since it reduces the number of people using public transport during the fight against Covid-19.

But at the same time, police have registered a sharp rise in the number of offences committed by cyclists and a surge in complaints about them from pedestrians, according to Berlin police chief Barbara Slowik.

Compulsory registration?

In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper in October, Slowik even proposed compulsory registration for cyclists to make it easier for the authorities to identify those who break the rules.

“More than 50 percent of all traffic accidents involving cyclists are caused by the cyclists themselves,” she said.

And some are paying with their lives: 17 cyclists have been killed in traffic accidents in Berlin this year, 11 more than in 2019.

But the idea of compulsory registration is unlikely to become reality because of the “immense bureaucracy” it would entail, Ragnhild Soerensen of Changing Cities, an NGO that lobbies for sustainable transport, told AFP.

Berlin has about 3 million bicycles, compared with only 1.1 million registered cars, she points out.

But the police chief's comments have ignited a fierce debate on the behaviour of cyclists in the city.

“We are being pushed around, insulted. Many people think they are better people just because they ride a bike… This anarchy has to stop,” the Tagesspiegel newspaper wrote recently.

Cyclists on the street leading up to Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on a quiet day of lockdown, April 1, 2020. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

'Denigrating cyclists'

According to Soerensen, critics are simply “trying to denigrate cyclists in order to distract attention from the delays in drafting a new transport strategy” to increase the use of public transport.

Just three percent of public space in the city is reserved for cyclists, but they make up 18 percent of traffic, says Anika Meenken of the Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) transport association.

“Aggressiveness occurs when space is too tight, which naturally leads to more stress,” she said.

By way of contrast, cars make up some 33 percent of traffic in the city but take up 58 percent of the space.

But Oliver Woitzik, head of transport for the Berlin police, argues that “we can't just build roads, cycle paths and pavements everywhere.”

“What would help a lot would be for people to stop putting their own ego first, and also to know when to give up their rightful place” if there is danger involved, he said — a skill that is sometimes lacking among those on both four wheels and two.

In any case, cyclists who break the rules are more likely to be fined in future as Berlin is expanding its use of officers on bikes around the city, he told AFP.

Their number, currently around 40, is expected to “climb to 100 in the spring” and then continue to grow over the next few years.