The Draisine: Earliest Ancestor



On an afternoon mountain bike ride recently, at the top of a forest near home in the Black Mountains, my chain snapped. Not a problem, I first thought. I was carrying a chain tool: I could take the broken links out and turn the bike into a single-speed to get me home. That plan was undone when I dug the chain tool out of the bottom of my rucksack and discovered the pin – an essential part – had broken off. I was contemplating the eight-mile walk back to the house, and the ire of my wife for failing to pick the kids up on time, when I remembered that the earliest ancestor of the bicycle didn’t even have a chain.

By Rob Penn

Monday 29th January 2018

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The ‘Draisine’, also known as the ‘pedestrian-accelerator’ was invented in 1817. It comprised two wooden carriage wheels in-line, a wooden bench which the rider straddled, and an elementary steering system. You didn’t pedal. You propelled the machine by scooting or paddling your feet along the ground: travelling downhill or at speed, you lifted both feet into the air.

In 1816, known as the ‘year without a summer’, the harvest had failed across Europe because of a great ash cloud cast into the air by a volcanic eruption. The role of the price of oats was then something like the price of oil today. In southern Germany, famine ensued and farmers who could no longer afford oats to feed their horses, shot them. An eccentric German aristocrat, Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbronn, a former student of mathematics at Heidelberg University and an inventor, witnessed the slaughter. Without horse power, society faced an even graver crisis. Inspired by necessity, Drais realised a dream as old as mankind: he conceived a mechanical horse with wheels.

No one had previously put a pair of wheels in-line, on a frame, and made use of the fundamental precept of the bicycle – balance by steering – even though the technology had existed for millennia. It was thought then, that without your feet on the ground, you’d simply fall over. The Draisine taught humanity that you can balance on two wheels in-line if, and only if, you can steer.

The Draisine was expensive, cumbersome and weighed some 45kg. The fashion for it was brief. The poet John Keats scornfully called it ‘the nothing of the day.’ It was perhaps ahead of its time. Roads, especially in winter, were generally too poor to ride on. By 1820 the machines had been banned from pavements in Milan, London, New York, Philadelphia and Calcutta. In Europe, harvests soon recovered. The Draisine fell into obscurity and the dream of a mechanical horse was abandoned for 40 years. Cranks, pedals and the chain drive attached to the rear wheel only emerged with advances in engineering at the end of the 19th century. Ironically, today the Draisine is having something of a popular renaissance – in the form of a toy bike thought to be the ideal way to teach children balance.

By imparting velocity to a machine, Drais accelerated the act of walking or running, while simultaneously reducing the energy consumption required. To prove his point, he rode from Mannheim, where he lived, to the Schwetzinger Relaishaus and back in an hour, along Baden’s best road. The same journey took three hours on foot.

Similarly, my long foot journey home was made much swifter by my converted ‘pedestrian accelerator’. Once I had removed the broken chain, taken the pedals off and lowered the saddle, I had effectively turned my aged mountain bike into a Draisine. Rolling downhill with my legs in the air and scooting over the ground with my feet when it was flat, I covered the eight miles in under an hour, and I squeaked in to collect the kids moments before the wrath of Mrs Penn was incurred.