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Karl Drais´ first ride with his “Laufmaschine” (hobby-horse): Beginning of the Bicycle Age

Velocipedes at Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 1818

Velocipedes at Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 1818

The brisk baron

The citizens of Mannheim were amazed at this June 12, 1817: someone rushed through their streets on a wooden frame with two wheels, completely without horses! It was Karl Freiherr von Drais who introduced them to his latest invention - a running machine. It was the first steerable, muscle-powered two-wheeler and thus the direct forerunner of today's bicycle.

Drais drove on this day with his “Laufmaschine” the nearly 15 kilometers long distance from Mannheim to the Schwetzinger Relaishaus and back in only one hour. That was faster than the stagecoach and a real sensation. Drais became suddenly famous; his running machine was called Draisine in honour of the inventor. This is how the triumph of the bicycle began 202 years ago.

On 12 January 1818, Drais received a ten-year Grand Ducal privilege for his running machine from the ruler of Baden, which today would amount to a patent. Weighing about 50 pounds, the onstruction made of ash wood was not much heavier than modern steel frame wheels. It already had a folding stand, a luggage carrier and a brake. A preserved Draisine can now be seen in the immediate vicinity of the DPMA at the Deutschen Museum in Munich.

Intellectual property rights difficult to enforce at the time

Zeichnung der Draisine

Konstruktionszeichnung der "Draisine"

Thanks to the Grand Duke's privilege, every running machine in Baden had to carry a license mark on its handlebar. Drais also received a "Brevet" in France. But despite the "privilege" Drais had to experience how his invention was illegally copied and sold. Others applied for a patent for their copies of Drais´ invention in the USA or Great Britain, for example. The baron therefore earned very little from his invention. At that time, intellectual property protection was still in its infancy and mostly ended at the numerous borders of the many Central European small states.

With the rip-offs, the brake was sometimes missing, which led to accidents and damage to the invention's reputation. Soon several cities (starting with Mannheim) were forced to ban the use of running machines on sidewalks. However, the hobby-horses did not run well on the mostly bumpy roads at that time. After a short boom the enthusiasm for the running machine faded again. This was also due to the fact that its inventor, who had initially promoted the Laufmaschine intensively with various publicity trips and appearances, went to Brazil in 1822 for several years as a surveyor.

A volcanic eruption and its consequences

German 20 Euro Special Edition coin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Drais´invention

German 20 Euro Special Edition coin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Drais´invention

Drais may have been inspired by the "year without summer" of 1816 to invent a means of transport without horses: The eruption of the Tambora volcano in Southeast Asia in the previous year led to a temporary deterioration of the climate in the northern hemisphere, with rain and cold, followed by poor harvests and a shortage of oats. People were often unable to feed themselves or their horses, so they preferred to eat them. So it was obvious to think about a means of transport without draught animals. A volcano can therefore be seen in the background of the 20 Euro commemorative coin in Drais' honour minted in Germany in 2017. However, this connection is not proven, because already in 1813 Drais had (unsuccessfully) applied for a patent on a crank-operated "carriage without horses". In addition, there had been a series of wet summers with poor harvests even before the Tambora eruption.

One of the first independent inventors

Portrait of Karl von Drais

Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn

Drais, born 1785 in Karlsruhe, was the godchild of the Grand Duke of Baden. In 1808 he became a forest official, but two years later he was released from his duties on full pay, so that he could concentrate fully on his inventive activity. In 1818 he was also appointed professor of mechanics.

The baron was an innovative mathematician and versatile inventor: among other things, he developed a music notation machine that wrote down music while playing the piano, a quick-type typewriter, a wood-saving stove and a cooking machine. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life Drais was regarded more as a failed "crazy inventor" than as a technical innovator.

Attacked and isolated

The Badisches Wochenblatt reports on Drais´frost rides on 29 Juli 1817

The Badisches Wochenblatt reports on Drais´first rides on 29 Juli 1817

There were also political reasons for Drais' increasing social isolation in his later years. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ludwig Friedrich von Drais von Sauerbronn, a privy councillor and court judge in Baden, was involved in the death sentence for Karl Ludwig Sand in 1820. In Mannheim, the radical student Sand had murdered the writer August von Kotzebue, whom he regarded as a "traitor of the fatherland". Nationalist students therefore saw a hero in him and regarded his judges and their families as enemies. Drais' father is said to have advised his son to travel to Brazil because of this.

On the other hand, Drais later made himself unpopular with the same traditional restorative authorities that had always protected him and fought the radical students. In "Vormärz" and in the March Revolution of 1849, Drais confessed to the democratic forces and renounced his noble title. For this reason, the authorities even tried to declare him insane. When he died in Karlsruhe in 1851, he was completely impoverished, surrounded by enemies or ridiculed and socially practically ostracized.

The most common vehicle in the world

Only very long after his death did the appreciation of his pioneering achievements begin. In the following decades after Drais´ patent, several decisive technical developments such as the pedal crank drive for the rear wheel, the air-filled tyre or the low-wheel frame construction ensured that the bicycle was given its shape that is still valid today.

Today it is by far the most common vehicle in the world with billions of units: in Germany alone there are over 72 million bikes. Nevertheless, running machines are still very popular today - with small children.

In the DPMA patent database DEPATISnet you can search all German patent specifications and also the documents of the most important patent offices and organisations worldwide on the subject of bicycles. In the IPC area B62M1 "Driver drive of wheeled vehicles" alone, there are several thousands of patent specifications. To this day, the bicycle - most recently also spurred on by the e-bike boom - is constantly being further developed, as a small glance at the applications filed with the DPMA in recent months shows (e.g. pdf-Datei DE102013100058B4, pdf-Datei DE102017116668A1, pdf-Datei DE102017212905A1, pdf-Datei DE102018100191A1).

  • A good 80 years after Drais´'s first ride on the running machine, a second historic ride was also to begin in Mannheim: Bertha Benz´ legendary first ride the "Patent-Motorwagen No.3" of her husband Carl, with which the age of the automobile began.

Pictures: via Wikimedia Commonns, Technoseum Mannheim, BADV / Hans-Jürgen Fuchs, via Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: 4 February 2020 


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