Tip your helmets, the 'bike' turns 200

Story by Ann N. Yungmeyer

Images courtesy Technoseum “2 wheels - 200 years"

On a recent trip abroad, I spent a few days in Southwest Germany for a very special occasion — the upcoming 200th anniversary of the bicycle. The city of Mannheim, just 30 minutes by train from Frankfurt, is the acclaimed birthplace of the bicycle and where an early version of the two-wheeled phenomenon was introduced on June 12, 1817. 

As a recreational rider who enjoys multiday cycling trips, I was curious to learn the story of the bike and explore the area known as Baden-Württenberg, where it all began. The promise of seeing vintage bicycles brought back memories of “big blue,” my hand-me-down, fat-tired Shelby Flyer that I learned to ride in a pea gravel driveway many decades ago. Seemingly retro, that Shelby was quite modern compared to the forerunner models I saw. 

Original Laufmaschine, made of ash wood, invented by Karl von Drais in 1817 

From Horsepower to Human Power

As the story goes, the bicycle was invented as an alternative to horsepower after the devastating effects of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. While dense clouds of ash lingered over Europe and other parts of the world for months, the lack of sun caused crops to die and, in turn, huge numbers of horses died of starvation. Many horses, often a family’s only means of transportation, had to be slaughtered for food. 

It was during this catastrophic time that German inventor Karl Drais created a means of transport he called the Laufmaschine — "running machine" in German. To ride it, one sat on a leather saddle atop a wooden frame with two wooden wheels. Unlike modern bikes, the laufmaschine had no pedals, chain, or gears; riders would propel themselves by running their feet along the ground. On his maiden journey, Drais traveled out from Mannheim and back, approximately 14 kilometers round-trip, and declared it a success. 

Drais worked on many inventions, and although historians have not validated that the volcanic event was the impetus for his Laufmaschine, it was a new mode of transportation that did not require the use of animals and is considered the advent of independent mobility.

Technical drawing of the Laufmaschine, published by Karl von Drais in 1817.

Dandy but Bone Shaking 

An original laufmaschine made of ash wood was on display at Mannheim’s Technoseum in the special exhibition, "2 Wheels — 200 Years.” My travel companions and I toured the exhibition, which showed the technical development of the bike from the early running machine models and velocipedes to the high wheel, safety bicycle, and modern-day singlespeed. 

The exhibition also portrayed the historical and social relevance of the bike, beginning with its rocky start. Roads were rutted and bumpy, and the running machine was heavy and uncomfortable. Custom made in a carriage shop, the Laufmaschine was expensive and became a toy of the nobility though it was initially banned for use on Mannheim streets. The infamous high wheel models were hazardous on the dismount, and women in long skirts who dared straddle a bike stirred up feminism. There was no pepper spray — cyclists had to carry a crop to fend off dogs. 

Drais was not recognized for pioneering the bicycle until after his death, and his patent for the running machine was ineffective, so the “Draisine” design was copied widely, especially in England and France. With various replicas and iterations, the Laufmaschine took on names such as the hobby horse, dandy horse, boneshaker, and velocipede. 

A pedal-crank mechanism was added to the velocipede and introduced at the Paris Exposition in 1867, followed by models with larger front wheels that increased both speed and danger. In response, the safety bike was designed with equal-sized wheels, a drive chain, and diamond frame — the basic form of the modern bike. Gearshift mechanisms were being tested, but the most groundbreaking development came with pneumatic tires in 1889, and, shortly thereafter, the freewheel design separating the drive and the rear wheel. By 1900, the safety bike was mass produced in Europe and the U.S.

Over several decades as the automobile gained popularity following WWII, bicycle production (other than children’s bikes) went into decline. The oil crisis of the 1970s, coupled with sports/fitness trends and the environmental movement, prompted a renaissance that paved the way for today’s enthusiasm for cycling. Amazingly, the basic form of the bicycle has remained the same since 1890, even as technical advancements have allowed the modern bike to evolve.

Mannheim’s Technoseum displays an early Laufmaschine (circa 1817).

Celebrate and Ride the “Drais Cities” of Southwest Germany

Mannheim features art installations and themed events highlighting the June anniversary, as does Schwetzingen, the village to which Drais traveled on his test ride. Cycling enthusiasts can see the bicentennial exhibition at Mannheim’s Technoseum through June 25, after which time the earliest Laufmaschine will be returned to owner/collector Furst von Furstenberg and his small museum in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest. A replica of the original model will be featured in the museum’s permanent exhibit on the history of the bicycle. Mannheim will host a finale anniversary celebration with a sound and light show on September 16 at Mannheim Palace courtyard, where Drais initiated his famous first ride.  

The nearby city of Karlsruhe, where Drais was born and died, honors the inventor with a historic monument, and two Ferris wheels (resembling a giant bike) are set up to mark the bicentennial. Both cities have a lively cycling culture with designated bike lanes and city bike rentals. Karlsruhe was voted the second-friendliest bicycle town in Germany (number one is Munster).

Cycle paths along the Rhine River and Neckar River are another draw to Baden-Württenberg. I rode a combination of bike paths and small roadways while touring Karlsruhe by bike and en route from Mannheim to Schwetzingen and Heidelberg. We had the benefit of GPS and a German speaker among us, which was handy when signage was lacking. If you go, I recommend arranging a guided ride through the local tourism office or booking with a tour company such as Biketours.com for a multi-day unguided trip with a well-planned route.

For more on the 200th anniversary, visit monnem-bike.de/english.

Ann Yungmeyer is a Tennessee-based writer and contributor to regional print and online publications.  Follow her travel adventures at annyungmeyer.wordpress.com.