Karl Drais and the Dandy Horse or, The Invention of the Bicycle

Federal Republic of Germany: 200th Anniversary of the Invention of the Bicycle (Scott #2982), issued 13 July 2017.

On 12 June 1817, the earliest form of bicycle, the dandy horse, was driven by inventor and baron Karl von Drais. Dandy horse is actually a derogatory term for what Drais initially called the Laufmaschine or “running machine”. It was later called a vélocipède or draisienne (in French and then English), and then a pedestrian curricle or hobby-horse. This was the first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine, powered by the rider’s feet on the ground instead of the pedals of later bicycles.

The dandy horse was originally called the draisine by the German press after its inventor. Later, the name draisine came to be applied only to the invention of a light auxiliary rail vehicle, driven by service personnel, equipped to transport crew and material necessary for the maintenance of railway infrastructure. Because of their low weight and small size, they can be put on and taken off the rails at any place, allowing trains to pass.

Portrait of inventor Karl von Drais by an unknown painter, circa 1820.

Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn. better known as Karl von Drais was born on 29 April 1785 in Karlsruhe and became a noble German forest official and significant inventor in the Biedermeier period. This was an era in Central Europe during which the middle class grew in number, and the arts appealed to common sensibilities. It began with the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and ended with the onset of the Revolutions of 1848. Although the term itself is a historical reference, it is used mostly to denote the artistic styles that flourished in the fields of literature, music, the visual arts, and interior design. It has influenced later styles, especially those with origins in Vienna.

In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. The estimated 38 cubit miles of ash, pumice and other matter the eruption blasted into the atmosphere blanketed the northern hemisphere, reflecting the sun’s light and cooling the earth’s surface. The following year, 1816, would become known as “the year without a summer”. Temperatures from Mexico to Vienna dropped below freezing in July. Snowstorms and freak rainstorms brought travel to a stop and washed away farms and grain storehouses. This followed close on the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars and caused widespread crop failures and food shortages resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of horses, which either starved to death or were killed to provide meat and hides.

In the German state of Baden, Karl von Drais realized that there was a need to develop a form of transit that did not rely on the horse. “In wartime,” he wrote, “when horses and their fodder often become scarce, a small fleet of such wagons at each corps could be important, especially for dispatches over short distances and for carrying the wounded.”

“There once was a Baron von Drais
Who observed some swift skaters on ice;
“If they balance on steels
Then why not two wheels –
Yes, a Laufmaschine, that would be nice!”

—Roger Street, 1823

Karl von Drais’s Laufmaschine as illustrated by Wilhelm Siegrist in a three-page description printed in 1817.

By mid-1817, Drais had created his first Laufmaschine — a two-wheeled vehicle with both wheels in-line and propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet as in regular walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar assembly was hinged to allow steering.  Drais’s first reported ride from Mannheim to the Schwetzinger Relaishaus (a coaching inn, located in Rheinau, today a district of Mannheim) took place on 12 June 1817 using Baden’s best road. This was a distance of about 7 kilometres (4.3 miles). The round trip took Drais a little more than an hour, but may be seen as the big bang for horseless transport and was his most popular and widely recognized invention. It was patented by him in France in February 1818 using the term vélocipède. In English, it is also sometimes still known as a velocipede, but that term now also has a broader meaning.

Regardless of its name, it quickly became popular in both the United Kingdom and France with several manufacturers making their own during its brief popularity in the summer of 1819, particularly within a certain circle of aristocratic young men known as “dandies”. The term “dandy” today, when applied to a man, is frequently pejorative, and a synonym for “effete”. But in Regency Britain, to be a dandy was the masculine ideal. More than any other factor, this was due to one man: George “Beau” Brummell. Confidant of the Prince Regent, Brummell nearly singlehandedly reshaped the masculine ideal from the Francocentric “fop” with his powdered wigs, makeup and perfumes, flashy silk breeches and long waistcoats, and yards of frilly laces into a virile, scrupulously clean sport-loving gentleman, wearing trousers, a simple frock coat, riding boots, white shirt and short hair. In many ways, Brummell invented modern men’s clothing, as well as making sport a gentlemanly pursuit.

Johnson’s specification, 1818, printed in 1857 by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode

The German Laufmaschine was a novelty too challenging and exciting for any dandy to pass up. The early models were made entirely of wood and metal and weighed nearly 50 pounds. The best of these were constructed by carriage builders; the more crude ones were cobbled together by blacksmiths. London coach-builder Denis Johnson fashioned a lighter version in 1818 using an elegantly curved wooden frame that allowed the use of larger wheels, yet it still lacked pedals, gears, or a chain. To move forward, the rider pushed on the ground with his feet, leaning forward while sitting on a central saddle. It became fashionable as it was faster than walking. Retailing for around £10 — quite a tidy sum for a bit of a gimmick in the early 19th century (the equivalent of about US $800 in today’s money) — owning and riding a draisine made a statement. The vehicle began to be termed in a derogatory manner as a “dandy horse”.

Still, it had no practical use except on a well-maintained pathway in a park or garden. After marketing began, it became apparent that roads were so rutted by carriages that it was hard to balance on the machine for long, so riders took to the pavements and moved far too quickly, endangering pedestrians. Consequently, authorities in Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and even Calcutta banned its use, which ended its vogue for decades.

The Laufmaschine created by Karl von Drais as displayed at the Technisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo taken on 23 August 2010.

Later designs avoided the initial drawback of this device when it had to be made to measure, manufactured to conform with the height and the stride of its rider. An example is Nicéphore Niépce’s 1818 model with a height-adjustable seat for his velocipede built by Lagrange. His design was never adopted by any company that produced dandy horses in large quantities.

One of the dozens of negative caricatures drawn at the time included this quote:

“Then beware Hobby Horsemen, beware of yr fate
Dismount from your Hobbies before t’is too late,
For Farmers, horse doctors and horses providers,
Cry down wooden horses & down walking riders,
whoa hobby, down hobby down.”

Nearly as quickly as it appeared, the dandy horse disappeared. By 1820, the price of oats was back down to pre-1815 levels, and horses were readily available to those who could afford them.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1860s that two-wheeled transport began to make a come-back. During this period, the first bicycles appeared utilizing pedals on the front wheel, giving it an improved means of locomotion, as well as a scrub brake for the rear wheel; an improvement for stopping over crashing it into a hedge. A German named Karl Kech claimed he was the first to attach pedals to a hobby horse in 1862, but the first U.S. patent for such a device was granted in 1866 to Pierre Lallement, a stroller maker in Nancy. He had exhibited his creation publicly in 1864, before obtaining a patent for his vehicle while just 19 years old.. Aime and Rene Olivier — two sons of a wealthy Parisian industrialist — learned of his invention and decided to create a velocipede of their own. They enlisted Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith and carriage maker, to create the parts they needed for their invention. Michaux and the Olivier brothers began marketing their velocipede with pedals in 1867, and it was this device that became a hit.

Original patent for the first pedal-driven bicycle, filed by Pierre Lallement, U.S, Patent No. 59,915, granted on November 20, 1866.

This invention enabled the French population to start purchasing much more efficient and easy to use bicycles that were for the first time created in mass quantities by Michaux Company. Even though this first modern bicycle design was made entirely from wood and it would shake the users violently (which awarded it the nickname “boneshaker”), the original dandy horse bicycles faded from use completely.

Other inventions that aided the development of these early bicycles included improvements upon the wheels. Drais’s and Johnson’s designs and those that followed utilized wheels made of wood with iron rims. In 1849 William Ford Robinson Stanley, then aged twenty and working as a Pattern Maker’s Improver at an engineering works in Whitechapel, London, invented steel-wheel spider spokes. In 1868, Eugene Meyer in Paris developed an all metal wheel that relied on the tension of wires rather than compression of heavy metal spokes to achieve structural integrity. Two years later, William Henry James Grout, a builder of velocipedes from Shadwell, London, patented spokes that had eyed nipples at the outer end, a design that continues in use today.

The Laufmaschine invented by Karl von Drais is regarded as the archetype of the bicycle. The above Draisine was built with cherry tree wood and softwood. It is displayed at the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg, Germany (Inv.-No. GH 98). Photo taken on 18 July 2008.

Coming back to Baron Drais, in 1821 he invented the earliest typewriter with a keyboard and in 1826 he developed an early stenograph machine which used 16 characters, as well as a device to record piano music on paper, the first meat grinder, and a wood-saving cooker including the earliest hay chest. He also invented two four-wheeled human powered vehicles (1813/1814), the second of which he presented in Vienna to the congress carving up Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. In 1842, he developed a foot-driven human powered railway vehicle whose name draisine continued to be used for all railway handcars regardless of propulsion means.

Drais was unable to market his inventions for profit because he was still a civil servant of Baden, even though he was being paid without providing active service. As a result, on 12 January 1818, Drais was awarded a grand-ducal privilege (Großherzogliches Privileg) to protect his inventions for 10 years in Baden by the younger Grand Duke Karl who also appointed Drais to the honorary title of professor of mechanics, not related to any university or other institution. Drais retired from the civil service and was awarded a pension for his appointment to professor of mechanical science.

Tomb of Karl von Drais in the main cemetery of Karlsruhe, Germany. Photo taken on 2 June 2017.

In 1820 trouble overtook Drais when the political murder of the author August von Kotzebue was followed by the beheading of the perpetrator, Karl Ludwig Sand. Drais’s conservative father, as the highest Judge of Baden, had not entered a plea for pardon in the beheading of Karl Ludwig Sand, and the younger Drais was mobbed by the student partisans everywhere in Germany due to his family ties. Therefore, hr emigrated to Brazil where he lived from 1822 to 1827, and worked as a land surveyor on the fazenda of Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff. He returned to Mannheim in 1827 and moved to the village of Waldkatzenbach in the hills of Odenwald in 1839 having survived a murderous attack in 1838. Finally in 1845, he moved back to his place of birth, Karlsruhe.

Still being the fervent radical, in 1849 Drais gave up his title of Baron and dropped the “von” from his name. Having renounced his noble title, he adopted the name “Citizen Karl Drais” as a tribute to the French Revolution. The royalists tried to have him certified as mad and locked up. His pension was confiscated to help to pay for the “costs of revolution” after it was suppressed by the Prussians. Karl Drais died penniless on 10 December 1851 in Karlsruhe. The house in which he lived last is just two blocks away from where at that time a young Carl Benz was raised.

Today, the concept of Karl von Drais’s original Laufmaschine can be seen in the starter bicycles for children that are variously called a balance bike or run bike.

The dandy horse can be seen in a few television shows and movies, the earliest of which is the 1923 film Our Hospitality starring Buster Keaton 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. George Arliss, as the title character of the 1929 film Disraeli, rides a dandy-horse through a London park until he collides with a pedestrian. This occurs in the opening scene of the film, set in the 1830s, when Disraeli was still a writer and a famous dandy. In the 1997 film Amistad, a citizen is briefly seen riding a dandy-horse through a forest trail when the escaped slaves first land on American soil.

In one episode of the British historical reality television program Regency House Party, members of the cast are seen riding rough reproductions of the dandy horse. In the series a group of five men and five women, accompanied by four older female “chaperones,” are given the identities of Regency-era singles from the year 1811. Participants received instruction in the upper class courtship rituals of the time and were charged with seeking out a suitable marriages within the group.

Republic of Mali: Early Bicycles and Automobiles – Draisienne (Scott #109), issued on 12 August 1968.
Republic of Niger: 150th Anniversary of the Bicycle (Scott #C88), issued on 17 May 1968.

Many stamps have been issued over the years depicting bicycles from the earliest designs to the most modern and efficient versions in use today. The earliest in my collection depicting a dandy horse was released by Mali (Scott #109) on 12 August 1968 which I previously featured here on A Stamp A Day in April 2017. However, it cites the wrong year for its invention with 1809 stated rather than 1817. An air post stamp from Niger (Scott #C88) issued the same year purports to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the bicycle’s invention but is a year late.

Federal Republic of Germany: Youth Stamps – Karl Drais and the Draisienne Bicycle, 1817 (Scott #B630), issued on 16 April 1985.

On 16 April 1985, West Germany issued a semi-postal stamp, demoninated 50 Pf+25 Pf surcharge, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Karl Drais’s birthday, part of a set of four Youth stamps depicting Historic Cycles. There were 4,160,000 copies of Scott #B630 depicting Drais and his Laufmaschine printed using offset lithography.

Republic of Togo: History of Bicycles miniature sheet (Michel #3749-3752KB), issued on 15 December 2010.
Republic of Togo: History of the Bicycle souvenir sheet (Michel #BL561), issued on 15 December 2010.

Togo released a series of miniature sheets on 15 December 2010 that depicted early bicycles including Karl von Drais’s design. Both use inaccurate dates, 1810 on the miniature sheet and 1818 on the souvenir sheet. According to Colnect, “although this issue was authorized by the postal administration of Togo, the issue was not placed on sale in Togo, and was only distributed to the new issue trade by Togo’s philatelic agent.”. These are not listed in the Scott stamp catalogues.

Bosnia and Herzegovina HP Mostar: 200th Anniversary of the Draisine Bicycle (Michel #457), issued on 12 June 2017.

Several entities released stamps in 2017 marking the bicentennial of Karl Drais’s first run of this bicycle forerunner. The Croatian postal administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the territory has three postal services operating within its boundaries, all of which issue their own stamps) released a single KM 2,90 stamp on 12 June 2017 with 20,000 copies printed using offset lithography, perforated 12.

Switzerland: 200th Anniversary of the Bicycle (Scott #1627), issued on 2 March 2017.

Switzerland marked the bicycle bicentenary with a pair of 100-centime stamps released on 2 March 2017 (Scott #1627-1628). Designed by Vaudeville Studios of Zurich, one depicts a dandy horse while a modern bicycle is shown on the other stamp.  The were printed using offset lithography and are perforated 13¼ x 13½.

Federal Republic of Germany: 200th Anniversary of the Invention of the Bicycle (Scott #2982), issued 13 July 2017.

On 13 July 2017, Germany issued a commemorative postage stamp denominated at 0,70 Euro in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Karl Drais’s first run of his “running machine” on 12 June 1817. The stamp shows the machine plus as its shadow, a bicycle. It is perforated 14 and printed by offset lithography.







To commemorate the bicentennial of Karl von Drais’s invention, Holger Hermanns — a professor of computer science at Saarland University — teamed up with Dries Callebaut, a Belgian bicycle engineer, to develop a prototype for what they called the “Draisine 200.0”. To honor Drais, the follow-on model is built completely of wood and is braked using a sort of foot pedal on the wooden front wheel. In the center of the wooden back wheel is a 200W electric motor, driven by a 750g battery. Through a cable, the electric motor is connected to a mini-computer, which sits on the frame and controls the motor with the help of a speed sensor. A third prototype had been completed by early June 2017 including a mini-computer, battery and speed sensor hidden completely inside the wood frame that is no longer affected by strong vibrations. The team continue to work on developing this modification of the earliest bicycle.

I have long been fascinated by the history of technological development, particularly in regards to modes of transportation.  The earliest forms of bicycles and motorcycles (neither of which I can drive particularly well due to a condition involving vertigo) are especially interesting to me as are period depictions of their usage, be they designs used on patent applications or cartoons published in the media of the time.  In researching this article, I found a wonderful resource on the latter with numerous nineteenth century satirical cartoons depicting the dandy horse on the Poemas del río Wang blog.

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