*Von Drais’ Laufmaschine

“Without doubt, the first bicycle ever made was by von Drais in Germany, in 1817.” That's the certain belief of cycle historian JOHN PINKERTON.

The laufmaschine, as it was called by its inventor, was built in Mannheim in Germany by Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais, Freiherr von Sauerbronn, and it carried him on his first two-wheeled journey on 13th July 1817.

'He had produced tricycles and other types of machines,' says Pinkerton, 'but this was the important one. A single track vehicle was useful to von Drais so he could move along the narrow trails of the forestry estates that he worked on.'

His design was copied all over the world. The English coachmaker Dennis Johnson copied the principle, although his design was very different. 'The von Drais machine was very Germanic. The framework was very correct with lots of straight lines,' says Pinkerton. 'When Johnson built his, he curved the main frame. The handle on the front and the rear forks were also nicely curved.' Johnson used metal for the forks and the steering mechanism to give additional strength where it was needed. His 'Pedestrian Curricle' was patented in June of 1818, less than a year after von Drais created his laufmaschine.

The design principle for the 'hobby­horse' was always the same - two wheels, supporting a beam, on which there was a saddle. 'There are two important things about the design which are absolutely instrumental to the bicycle,' explains Pinkerton. 'Firstly, when you transfer the weight of an object onto a set of wheels it's a lot easier to move it about. Secondly, and most importantly, is that you can balance on two wheels only as long as you can steer. An unsteerable bicycle is unrideable with both wheels on the ground.'

The construction of the laufmaschine was relatively simple. Two wooden wheels, with wooden spokes and wooden rims, and an iron band shrunk on the outside of each rim — called the tyre because it tied the whole wheel together. On some of the early hobby-horses the spokes were on a central line from the rim to the hub. But on the von Drais laufmaschine the spokes were staggered so that alternate spokes went from each side of the hub to the rim, as they do on modern bicycle wheels. This gave some triangulation and additional strength. The wheels were fitted into wooden forks attached to the main frame member - a wooden beam - and on that was a padded saddle made of leather stuffed with horse-hair. 'It [the saddle] didn't need to be wide because you didn't sit on it with your pelvic bones,' says Pinkerton. 'You were actually sitting on the bony part between the pelvis. If you get it wrong it can be a bit painful!'

The rear forks were fixed but the front ones could turn. The head of the front forks passed through a hole in the main beam. On early models the steering mechanism wasn't attached to the top of the fork column. Johnson's hobby-horse had a steering control consisting of two pieces of metal starting either end of the front axle, curving around the front of the frame and coming together at a handle above (but not attached to) the top of the fork column. Von Drais's laufmaschine used the same principle. 'They hadn't realised at the time that you could steer from the top of the steering head,' says Pinkerton. This improvement followed later and Johnson is said to have made open-framed, ladies' hobby-horses in 1819 that featured direct steering. 'There is at least one hobby-horse in existence with sprung front forks!' adds Pinkerton. 'So, suspension isn't that new.'

These machines were very expensive and, generally, only made to order. Drais's machine was intended for his own transport but, on the whole, they were little more than toys for the very rich. Its invention, and subsequent copies, had an enormous impact on this very small percentage of the population. 'It was a craze that lasted only a few years before it died out,' says Pinkerton. 'Nothing much happened after that until Macmillan produced his machine in about 1840.

'To look at a hobby-horse you'd think it wouldn't be a lot of use,' comments Pinkerton. 'To get some idea how it would work, take the pedals off a normal bike and lower the saddle so you can put both feet flat on the floor. Then you can appreciate how wonderful it was as opposed to walking. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend this as a first step in learning to ride a bike.

The 'paddling' action is much the same as walking but, with most of your bodyweight supported by the wheels, you are carried at least half as far again with each stride. Try it and see!