Bike Of The Week: First Bikes

Life is like riding a bicycle. You don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling. – Claude Pepper

One thing you notice living in the Tri-Border region is the general absence of tricycles for kids, or bicycles with training wheels.  A Dutch friend said that trikes are generally an indoors-only toy for the very youngest of children.  Unlike America, there are lots of very small, kid friendly bikes here.  Some are pedal powered, but many are some kind of hobby-horse, upon which young riders sits and paddle with their feet.

These simple two-wheeled conveyances are actually a modern version of the earliest known bicycle, the Draisienne.  Invented in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais, the wooden vehicle (also called the Pedestrian Accelerator in Britain, and le velocipede in France) featured a steerable front wheel and supported the rider on a saddle between two moderately-sized wheels.

By all accounts, the Draisienne was primarily an amusement for the wealthy, a trifle to be used on the manicured paths of one’s estate, or one of the new and still rare  Macadam roads.   However, it showed the potential for great speed, and demonstrated the then revolutionary concept of balancing on two wheels.

It is possible that Baron Drais had bigger plans for his new conveyance.  In 1815, the Indoneesian volcano of Tambora exploded with the largest know eruption in recorded history.  An estimated 50 cubic kilometers of ash was ejected into the stratosphere where it remained for several years, reddening sunsets and cutting the sunlight reaching the ground.  1816 was know as the year without a summer, and disastrous crop failures were noted in Europe and North America.   Starvation was widespread, and horses were killed for lack of fodder, the price of oats then playing the same role as oil price today.  Perhaps Drais was anticipating a future without horses?  In any event, the Draisienne was three generations ahead of its time.  The birth of the modern bicycle would have to await the inventions of Starley, Dunlop, and countless others, together with the availability of paved roads, to perfect the Baron’s brain child.

Below is a modern recreation.  Note the adjustable saddle height.  Perfect for breezing along on the Burke-Gillman trail!

The Draisienne enjoyed limited success, but by 1821 riders were subjected to high taxes or outright bans, and popularity waned.  This almost 200 year-old idea lives on today in the form of inexpensive and relatively safe toys to introduce children to the wonder of balance and motion astride two wheels. Modern incarnations may be in wood, metal, or plastic.


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Filed under bike of the week, culture, general interest

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