June 12th 1817, the German Karl von Drais rode the world’s first bike from his home in Mannheim to Schwetzingen 7 kilometres away and back again in only an hour. This was done not on an ordinary bike as we know it today, but on a so-called “Laufmaschine” (literary “Running machine”) without pedals, that later inherited the name of its inventor; the “Draisine”.
Like so many times before, it was necessity that drove Karl von Drais to invent a machine for transportation. The price of fodder for horses had risen due to crop failure and made it expensive to own and feed a horse for transportation in the city.
But it wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1866, that the Frenchman Pierre Lallement put pedals on the bike, which he started to produce in the United States. He came back to France the following year, only to discover that two brothers had had the same idea.The new vehicle was a success in Europe as the “Velocipede”, but remained a toy for the wealthy upper class.
In the 1870s, the so-called “Penny-farthing”, or “High-wheeler”, came from England. Here, the front wheel had been made larger, which gave a higher speed. It was a difficult and dangerous thing to ride though, because it was challenging to maneuver and hard to keep the balance.
The name “Penny-farthing” hasn’t got anything to do with farting, but emerged from the British coins penny and farthing, one much larger than the other, so that the side view of the bicycle resembled a penny leading a farthing.
It was primarily young men who drove these dangerous machines and accidents were quite often and severe, leading to the next generation of bike, the
The bike as we know it today saw the light in 1885 with the Rover Safety Bicycle, that was a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven bicycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable and maneuverable than the previous high wheeler designs.
This bicycle became common household item and was especially favoured by the working class, who could now work in the city and live in the lower priced countryside. It truly changed the circumstances of the poorer classes and continued to develop into the first versions of another popular transportation device. The car. But that’s another story.
The whole region of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany is commemorating the anniversary. Both Mannheim, from where Karl von Drais drove his “Draisine” for the very first time, and Karlsruhe, where he continued to live, celebrate 200 years of biking with lots of events throughout the summer.