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Frankenstein and Bycyles

Mary Shalley

On 5 April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia began to grumble. A week later the volcano blew its top in a spectacular eruption that went on until July. It was the biggest eruption in recorded history, killing around 92,000 people and ejecting so much ash into the atmosphere that average global temperatures dipped by 3 °C. In the northern hemisphere 1816 became known as the year without a summer. New England had blizzards in July and crops failed. Europe was hit just as badly. On holiday by Lake Geneva the 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her husband Percy were trapped in Lord Byron's house by constant rain. To divert his guests Byron suggested a competition to write a ghost story. The result was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Across the border in the German state of Baden the soaring price of oats prompted the 32-year-old Karl Drais to invent a replacement for the horse - the first bicycle.

ON THURSDAY 12 June 1817, Karl Drais set out to demonstrate his new velocipede, the direct ancestor of the modern bicycle. He left his house in the centre of Mannheim and headed out along Baden's best road towards Schwetzingen. After 7.5 kilometres, he turned and headed home. The round trip took little more than an hour. A month later he performed an even more impressive feat. To publicise his new invention he announced that he would ride the 51 kilometres from Karlsruhe to Kehl in just four hours. He set off at noon. “The local police commander confirmed that he arrived at 16.00,” says Hans-Erhard Lessing, a historian at the University of Ulm who has pieced together Drais's story. Drais was born in 1785. His middle-class family may not have been rich, but it was highly influential. Karl's father Wilhelm, Baron von Drais, was a senior civil servant living in Karlsruhe, the capital of Baden, and Karl's godfather was no less a figure than the Grand Duke Karl-Friedrich.

In 1803 Drais left home to study in Heidelberg. The university was the first in Germany to teach courses in technological subjects such as agriculture and architecture. It was also the first to teach in German rather than Latin, which suited Drais even better: he was lousy at Latin.

Karl followed his father into the civil service, working as a forestry official. But by 1810 Wilhelm had wangled his son permanent paid leave so that he could pursue what he was really good at - inventing things. Early on, Karl worked on a device to record piano music on punched paper. However, after a series of bad harvests that began in 1812, he set about finding a replacement for the horse. Animal power hauled almost everything that moved, and unlike today's cars, animals must be fed whether they are working or not. On top of bad harvests, Europe's grain stores had been raided by Napoleon's starving army as it retreated from Moscow in 1812. The price of oats soared. Europe suffered an energy crisis more devastating for 19th-century society than high oil prices are today.

Drais's idea was to replace horse power by human power. His first machines were four-wheelers driven by a treadmill or cranks attached to the rear axle. They were designed for two: a servant pedalled at the rear while the owner steered and supervised the operation from the front. The Russian tsar, Alexander, was impressed and encouraged Drais to show his machine to Europe's princes, who were gathering in Vienna to carve up Europe after Napoleon's defeat. Preoccupied, the princes took little notice.

As the price of oats soared to a new high, Karl Drais turned his mind to horseless transport Drais abandoned the idea and turned instead to improving surveying instruments. But the brutal weather following the eruption of Tambora sent the price of oats soaring to a new high. Horses were slaughtered for lack of food and Drais again turned his mind to horseless transport. This time he cut the number of wheels from four to two to reduce friction.

Karl Drais & Velocipede or Draisine

The resulting velocipede, or draisine, was the first vehicle to use the key principle of modern bicycle design: balance. “To modern eyes balancing on two wheels seems easy and obvious,” says Lessing. “But it wasn't at the time, in a society that normally only took its feet off the ground when riding horses or sitting in a carriage.”

Ice skaters, who balance on a blade, were the main exception to this rule. There are contemporary accounts of Dutch women skating from village to village along frozen canals, balancing a milk churn on their heads while doing their knitting. Drais had been a keen ice skater as a boy, so the idea of balancing on two wheels did not seem strange to him. Nevertheless, he decided to play safe. Instead of propelling the machine with a crank, riders simply scooted by pushing with their feet. “People didn't dare to lift their feet off the ground for more than a second,” says Lessing.

The draisine pioneered other features of today's bicycle. It had brass bushings - elementary bearings - in the wheels to cut friction, and its frame of well-seasoned ash weighed only 20 kilograms, making it as light as a modern bike.

The evidence linking Drais's invention to Tambora's eruption is only circumstantial but it is persuasive, says Lessing. Contemporary newspapers certainly hinted at a link. In 1817 the Dresdner Anzeiger reported that as the draisine replaced horses “it may be hoped that the price of oats will fall in the future”. In 1818, the Comte de Ségur, an aristocratic scribbler for the Journal de Paris, wrote that he had walked a considerable distance in order “to see these peculiar carriages intended to abolish the luxury of horses and to lower the price of oats and hay”.

Drais won support in the highest places. Baden's Grand Duchess, Stephanie Napoleon, persuaded the state to issue a decree protecting the invention for 10 years. Riders had to buy a licence, or risk paying a fine and confiscation of their machine. The state also awarded Drais a pension.

However, the decree only protected the draisine in Baden. In Britain and the US local “inventors” pirated the idea and patented it as their own. The hobby-horse, as the English called it, quickly became fashionable. But life in the fast lane was perilous. Drais's velocipede had a brake, which although not very effective was better than nothing. The hobby-horse had nothing. In 1819, caricaturist Robert Cruikshank - the less famous younger brother of George - went for a spin with a friend down Highgate Hill, to the north of London. Out of control, they cannoned into each other at high speed, wrecking their machines. At the bottom of the hill they consoled themselves in the Archway Tavern, before returning to London by coach. Disillusioned, Cruikshank began a vociferous campaign against the velocipede.

Another big problem for would-be velocipedists was the state of the roads: they were so rutted that it was impossible to balance for long. The only alternative was to take to the sidewalks, endangering the life and limb of pedestrians. Milan banned the machines in 1818. London, New York and Philadelphia banned them from sidewalks in 1819. Calcutta followed suit in 1820. This clampdown, combined with a series of good harvests after 1817, ended the vogue for velocipedes. The idea of a bicycle was not revived until the 1860s, when a roller-skating boom in Paris created a new public with a better sense of balance.

Drais continued to be a prolific inventor. There was the first typewriter with a keyboard, then a stenograph that could emboss 1000 letters a minute onto a strip of paper, a more efficient wood stove and a haybox for slow cooking. But Drais fell from favour after his father died in 1830. Jealous rivals launched an anonymous smear campaign. Drais was a fervent democrat and incurred the wrath of royalists. He supported the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, dropping his title and the aristocratic “von” from his name. When the revolutions reached Baden, Grand Duke Leopold called on Prussia for help.

Prussia's troops stayed three years, during which the royalists tried to have Drais certified as mad and locked up. His sisters thwarted them but could not stop the state appropriating his pension to help pay for the occupation. Drais died penniless in 1851.

After his death, Drais's enemies systematically wiped his achievements from the historical record. Until recently, if Drais was remembered at all it was as a figure of ridicule. “Ironically, the draisine is currently having a renaissance in Germany,” says Lessing, “as a toy to help children learn to balance.”

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