In 1816, German inventor Karl Drais developed this Laufmaschine, or "running machine."
A simple wooden frame supported two in-line wheels. The front wheel could be steered, albeit awkwardly. The rider's crotch was protected from the frame by a padded strip. In front of the rider, a curved padded strip projected upwards on a stem, corresponding with the rider's abdomen.
The idea was that the Laufmaschine allowed one to run while bearing some of the rider's weight, increasing stamina. To demonstrate its ability, Drais took his invention on a well-publicized 13-kilometer jaunt through Mannheim, completing the trip in about an hour.
The invention, which the German press dubbed the Drasine, was well-marketed and became an international hit. By 1818 it had spread to the UK, France, the U.S., and as far as India. "Many American examples [of the Draisine] were made," the Smithsonian writes, "and rentals and riding rinks became available in Eastern cities." In English-speaking countries it was known as a velocipede. By 1819, British cartwrights were producing their own versions, like this one by cartwright Denis Johnson.
The problem is that, in those pre-asphalt times, the condition of roads was quite poor. Outside of a rink, the most comfortable place to ride a Draisine was on sidewalks, which were relatively flat. But sidewalks were designed for walking, and the not-particularly-maneuverable Draisine was made for running. Accidents between thrill-seeking Draisiners and walking pedestrians rose, and eventually multiple municipalities banned the device, leading to its decline.
In the 1860s, someone—exactly who is hotly debated—slapped a crank and some pedals on a Draisine. By 1863 or so, Parisians were riding around on what we'd come to call bicycles. They looked a lot more like today's bikes, before they briefly detoured into the odd Penny-farthing form factor (which had a gigantic front wheel, for greater speed).
Pierre Lallement's US Patent No. 59,915, 1866
Sadly for him, Drais was never able to profit from his invention; at the time of developing it, he worked as a civil servant in Germany's Baden region. Drais, who eventually revealed politically radical views, was ostracized and reportedly died penniless in 1851.
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