Getting the wheels rolling: the Draisine (dandy-horse)

5th April 1815: the volcano Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. This was no ordinary volcanic eruption; the mountain literally exploded, destroyed almost the entire island and in doing so killed between 90,000 and 117,000 people. But this wasn’t all: the massive emissions of sulphur dioxide changed the atmosphere and had an influence on the weather all over the world. In Europe, the people admired magnificent sunsets first of all, but 1816 became the “Year without a Summer” with unusually cold temperatures; in some places, the sun didn’t even seem to rise. The bad weather led to crop failures and famines throughout the world. The food shortages also meant that there was not enough fodder for farm animals. In many places, horses had to be slaughtered or they died of starvation.

In Mannheim, Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Drais searched for a replacement for horse labour and he developed the “Laufmaschine” (running machine), also known as the Draisine (dandy-horse), which is today considered to be the forerunner of the bicycle. In 1817, he presented it to the public for the first time. However, this was not a matter here of a linear development; many technical innovations were developed independently of one another or at several times before they found their way into bicycle technology. Thus, there were many running wheels before the dandy-horse, however without steering and with little success. Drais’s running wheel spread throughout Germany and Europe. Nevertheless, it still took about 50 years before the development of the bicycle was continued.

The pedal crank drive: velocipede and high-wheeler

At the beginning of the 1860s, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest constructed a bicycle with a pedal crank drive with iron-clad wooden wheels, known as the vélocipède bicycle (vélocipède means something like “quick feet”).

The Michaux originally put pedals on the front wheel of a dandy-horse, but soon afterwards they also designed their own models. The bicycle was now no longer set in motion with momentum, but also by the drive torque of the pedals. The velocipede, also called the “Michauline“, was very popular and was sold first of all in Europe and later also in the USA.

Pedal crank bicycles were, however, anything but comfortable. In England, they were given the telling name “boneshakers”. Nevertheless, the bicycle was a success: the first official bicycle race took place in Bordeaux in 1868; the first edition of the magazine Le Vélocipède illustré was published two years later, and the French military deployed Michaulines in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. At the end of the 19th century, most European countries, and also the US army, had bicycle battalions, which were still deployed in the First World War.

In 1867, the velocipede got company in the form of the high-wheeler (also known as “penny-farthing”). The reason for the front wheels becoming ever larger, which finally achieved a height of up to 1.5 metres, was the pedal crank drive. Pedalling only set the front wheel in motion; the larger the wheel, the further the distance which could be covered by one turn of the pedal. Thus, the high-wheeler went faster than a conventional velocipede.

In general, high-wheelers were more for sporting activities: the first models didn’t have any assistance for mounting, so high-wheeler enthusiasts had to take a run and jump up onto the saddle with their legs straddled. Due to its height, this new vehicle was considerably more dangerous; accidents happened time and time again. Only a few people could afford such a high-risk pleasure. Around 1880, a high-wheeler cost about 4,000 reichsmarks, which corresponded to the annual wage of a worker. High-wheelers were, therefore, a status symbol.

Safety and comfort: Rover and air tyres

First of all, there were a few improvements made on high-wheelers in the 1870s: steel spokes were introduced instead of wooden spokes; 1878 a high safety bicycle came onto the market. This was a matter of a high-wheeler with a scaled-down front wheel, where the rider’s centre of gravity was shifted somewhat towards the rear. At the same time, manufacturers were experimenting with a rear-wheel drive, respectively chain drive. The front and rear wheels were connected by a chain; the power generated by pedalling was no longer transferred to the front wheel, but to the rear wheel. At first, this innovation was disregarded; the high-wheeler was too popular.

In 1885, John Kemp Starley brought the first low-wheeled bicycle with a chain drive to the market, under the name of Rover (in German “Wanderer”), in Coventry. To begin with, the wheels were of different sizes, but this soon changed.

In 1888, the Irish veterinary surgeon John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre with a bicycle valve, so to say for the second time. Robert William Thomson had already developed an air-filled rubber tyre in 1845, but for unknown reasons this had been forgotten. Pneumatic tyres were considerably more comfortable than solid rubber tyres, because they could cushion the rider better from uneven surfaces. What’s more, Thomas Humber introduced the diamond frame in 1890, whereby the saddle and bottom bracket were directly connected to each other by a tube and consequently more stable.

Means of mass transport: mobility and independence

The development of the bicycle, as we know it, had thus been largely completed – which doesn’t mean, of course, that it hasn’t been continuously improved and varied up to the present day. For example, the first folding bicycles were developed for the military in the 1890s. 70 years later, in the 1960s, folding bicycles were then also available for civil use.

At the end of the 19th century, the Dane Mikael Pedersen was dissatisfied with the comfort of the bicycle, so he developed a model whose saddle was suspended between the handlebars and the rear wheel and which swung freely like a hammock. Pedersen bicycles are still manufactured today. Many manufacturers experimented with the new means of transport and, after the turn of the century, the first scooterbikes und recumbent bicycles came on the market.

At the end of the 19th century, bicycles became more and more affordable. Cars were not yet real competitors at this time - they were not significantly faster than a bicycle and they remained a luxury vehicle up to the 1950s. In contrast, the bicycle democratised mobility: it was inexpensive, easy to maintain and anyone could learn to ride a bicycle – even women. This naturally gave rise to a social controversy. Men, in particular, were certain that riding a bicycle not only endangered fertility, but was also “unseemly”. Needless to say, contemporary fashion also hindered women from simply jumping on a bicycle.

Any form of movement was difficult when wearing a corset, and long skirts quickly got entangled in the spokes. But this didn’t stop women from riding bicycles. At the end of the 19th century, women’s fashion adapted to the new demand for mobility: skirts became shorter and lighter; corsets were dispensed with or replaced by so-called reform bodices, and many women wore baggy trousers for riding bicycles. (You can learn more about the history of women’s trousers here)

In 1889, John Kemp Starley brought a bicycle to the market, the “Ladies Rover”, whose step-through frame design and chain guard was practical for skirts. Cycling became a symbol of emancipation, for the bicycle enabled women to be on the move independently and beyond house and home. A woman riding a bicycle in public was often a synonym of modern society. Advertising posters for bicycles, but also for other products, showed time and time again women riding bicycles.

Cycling culture: cycling and clubs

The first cycling club in the world was founded in Hamburg as early as 1869, the “Eimsbütteler Velocipeden-Reitclub”. It still exists today under the name of Altonaer Bicycle Club. At the end of the 19th century, it was not only women who were insisting on more rights. It was the time of the labour movement. Sports clubs, and naturally also cycling clubs, emerged throughout Germany, but these were totally separate from bourgeois clubs. Whereas bourgeois cyclists greeted one another with “All heil”, the slogan of the workers’ clubs was “Frisch auf”.

Races had already been held with the velocipede and the high-wheeler; the bicycle was, therefore, not only a means of transport, but also a piece of sports equipment right from the beginning. The first racing bike star was the American Major Taylor. In 1899, he became the sprint world champion in track cycling and set seven world records. This made him the first, and only, black cyclist who has won a world championship up to the present day. Cycle races for women were also held in Great Britain and in the USA. Hélène Dutrieu from Belgium, who is most notably known as an aviation pioneer today, became the first world champion in sprint in 1895.

At the end of the 19th century, the bicycle therefore stood for the almost unlimited possibilities of the modern era. Many people hoped for a restructuring of the cities: more green; healthier people; more contact and open-mindedness through mobility. The enormous popularity of the bicycle led to improvements in the road system, particularly in the USA.

The first cycle path was opened in New York in 1895 and ran from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Coney Island. But it was not yet apparent that the bicycle also indirectly paved the way for the motor car. The development of the motorcycle, which was simply a bicycle with a petrol engine to begin with, gave a foretaste of this. There was also a predecessor of today’s e-bikes as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

Since the 1950s, it has been largely the consensus on transport policy to build in a car-friendly way. Pedestrian and cycle traffic had to subordinate themselves to the car. There has been criticism on the concept of the car-friendly city since the 1970s, whereby many ideas are reminiscent of those of the early 20th century: more green; less environmental pollution and healthier people. Today, cities should become more bicycle and pedestrian friendly again, with the key word being “Moblitätswende” (mobility turnaround). The history of the bicycle makes it clear that some things have to be invented several times or re-discovered before they prevail.

You can find more bicycles in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek here…


In keeping with the topic, we have put together a new signal-sticker set with bicycles, dandy-horses and Co.

Tips from Coding da Vinci: Under what conditions and on what roads did cyclists ride around 1900? And how was cycling different from today’s standards? The routes of historical tour guides (in and around Leipzig) have been descriptively edited on and cycling enthusiasts can follow these on their bicycles.



Wikipedia: und (German)

National Geographic: (German),Drais%20in%20Deutschland%20erfunden%20wurde (German)

More information about the cycling world champion Major Taylor:

About the Pedersen-Bicycle:

About the Tambora volcano: (German)

Essay on the car-friendly city and the mobility revolution: (German)