Before there were pedals, there was the ‘draisine’.

by Eric Shalit on December 30, 2014

Buster Keaton rides a Laufmaschine (German for 'running machine') in his 1923 film 'Our Hospitality', which is set in the 1830s. Keaton's technical crew were unable to obtain a vintage dandy horse, so they built one to match existing drawings and prints. Keaton later donated the machine to the Smithsonian Institution, which had lacked an authentic example. Thanks to Norman Anderson for sending this my way.

In 1817, Karl Drais, a young baron and inventor in Baden (Germany), designed and built a two-wheel, wooden vehicle that he straddled and propelled by walking swiftly. A forester for the Grand Duke of Baden, Drais used his “lauf-maschine” (running machine) to inspect the Duke’s forests. He could make his rounds more quickly and efficiently on wheels than on foot. The lauf-maschine soon became a novelty among Europeans, who named it the “draisine.” Copies were made in cities across the continent, and rentals, races, and public demonstrations became popular forms of recreation and entertainment.

In England, men and women took pleasure rides on a lighter, simpler version called the hobby horse. By 1818 the draisine craze reached the United States. Charles Wilson Peale, a well known portrait artist, helped to popularize the draisine by displaying one in his museum in Philadelphia. Many American examples were made, and rentals and riding rinks became available in eastern cities. Riding downhill at high speed was a particularly enjoyable activity that compensated for the draisine’s lack of a propulsion mechanism. On both continents, however, the draisine fad ended by 1820. The high cost of the vehicle, combined with its lack of practical value, limited its appeal and made it little more than an expensive toy.

Rough roads and accidents discouraged many riders and caused conflicts with local citizens. The draisine is historically significant because it was the first widely available vehicle that was not animal-powered, and it intrigued many people with the possibility of moving about on a personal, mechanized vehicle. But the success of two-wheelers would not become sustained until pedals were added to the front wheel some fifty years later.

Smithsonian Museum: The exact origin of this draisine is unknown; it is a typical example dating from the late 1810s.

"The Independent Balance." Philadelphian newspaper engraving. 1819. The article suggested the use of hobby-horses that "require no forage" for the grand army of Pennsylvania. (credit: 'The Bicycle' by Pryor Dodge).

What goes around comes around.

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