Mobility on wood

HANS-ERHARD LESSING, former curator of the Landesmuseum for Technology and Labour in Mannheim, challenges misconceptions about Baron von Drais' 'running machine'.

Generations of German newspaper readers have learnt from their motoring pages that the two-wheeler of old was hopelessly heavy, unwieldy, lacked suspension and was difficult to balance. What they could not have known was that motor journalists hauled all these misconceptions out of the same well, the autobiography of the car-pioneer Karl Benz.  His ghost writer was his son-in-law Karl Volk who was obviously a bicycle hater of the first order. But if we look at newspaper interviews with Karl Benz himself, we find that his comments on front pedal-drive velocipedes, which he rode in 1869, strike a very different note: "It was sensational to be pedalling through the streets of Mannheim." Yet these velocipedes were very heavy indeed, weighing up to 65kg, because the makers, Pierre Michaux and the Olivier brothers in Paris stuck to solid wrought iron frames, which may have looked gracious but were as heavy as a modern motorbike.

When motor journalists wrote about the wooden Drais machines which had been around 50 years previously, they fell prey to the same misconception. Because the wooden construction involved thicker material, journalists concluded, purely from the evidence of their eyes, that the running machines were just as heavy or even heavier than the later velocipedes. Quite wrong! The wooden running machines weighed just 20kg, as light as modern Dutch roadsters.

How many different types of running machine were there? Museum academics have tried to work out a typology of running machines based on the 30 or so existing machines in continental Europe. Helmut Plath, the now deceased director of Hannover's Museum am Hohen Ufer, tried to identify schools of running machine builders. This proved to be unsuccessful because there was hardly one machine which resembled another.

The individuality of running machine design was due above all to the failure of patent protection across the various independent countries in the German-speaking area at the time. The concept of intellectual ownership of the solution to a technical problem, long previously recognised by the American constitution, was unknown in Germany. Karl von Drais contracted out the right to produce running machines in Austria, Prussia and the city of Frankfurt, but he had no success with the new fashioned inventors patent in Baden and with the patent protection in France. As a civil servant he was not allowed to practise any kind of entrepreneurial work on the side, so he restricted himself to the sale of building plans and licences. Machines built under licence had a licence badge, precursor of the modern bicycle head badge. The buyer went with his plans to the local carriage-maker to have the machine built, although the latter often improvised his own alterations as he made the machine. The copiers of running machines in Dresden, Liepzig, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Augsburg considered themselves to be beyond the powers of any patent and felt free to leave out the superfluous curved steering bar, which was a relic of horse carriage steering technology.

All this led to each running machine being unique and there is no point in looking for schools of design. Several 'ideal types' publicised by Karl von Drais can be dated: a custom built running machine in the Summer of 1817 without brake or stand; another in April 1817, with brake and stand; an ergonomically adjustable model with brake in Autumn 1817; and a 'second generation' adjustable running machine publicised in 1820.

It was quite different in the British Isles where the carriage-maker Dennis Johnson took out patent protection for a running machine (to be known as a hobby horse in English), and was consequently able to produce a large number of similar machines. The highest serial number on a preserved Johnson Velocipede is 299. Naive German writers believe that Johnson was a licensee of Drais. The American Velocipede patent of 1819 for William Clark Jr. was later lost in a fire and we therefore do not know how the machine looked.

What was the running machine like to ride?

The misconception that the forestry official Karl von Drais used the running machine on his forestry paths has proved to be particularly resilient. It first appeared in a doctoral thesis at the University of Harvard in 1956. In reality, Drais spent only a few years in forestry work after his technology studies in Heidelberg. He'd already been in the city of Mannheim for six years previous to the earliest recorded ride on two wheels in 1817. He'd spent this time on his inventions and mathematical work, as well as on teaching at the private forestry institute run by his uncle in Schwetzingen. For his rides on his running machine he preferred to use the so-called Kunstrassen which were especially solid roads with good surfaces for coaches. Drais rode on one of these between Mannheim Castle and the summer residence of Schwetzingen. Running machine fans in Berlin used such a Kunstrasse from Berlin Castle to Potsdam Castle - a road now known as the Kurfürstendamn.

This explains why, at the time of the running machine, German distance records were faster than was achieved 50 years later in the United States.  In 1820 Bertholdi, from Dresden, notched up 98 kilometres in 7 hours (14 km/h) on a running machine, whereas two Americans on heavy front-wheel-drive velocipedes managed only 144km from Syracuse to Rochester in 15 hours (10km/h). Researchers have not yet discovered the name of the British engineer who, according to Drais, travelled 500km in 1820 on a running machine from the French city of Pau over the Pyrennes to Madrid.

The riding characteristics of a running machine correctly made to measure optimised the stride of the rider, giving a fast pace, with the only ball of the foot touching the ground: similar to the way in which the ball of the foot and not the heel rests on the pedal of a modern bicycle. If we take a measurement from Drais' copper etching of 1817, with the foot being 30 centimetres in the measuring system of the State of Baden, we arrive at an inside leg measurement of 81 centimetres which is, according to modern ergonomic tables, the inside leg measurement of the average man of 176 centimetres (5ft 10in) height. Most running machine replicas in Germany were slavishly copied from the wrongly restored running machine found in Drais' effects after his death (now in the Karlsruhe City Museum). As a result modern running machine riders crouch in a unergonomically low position and end up exhausting themselves - a riding style which was never intended by Drais. This technical ignorance has brought the work of the Karlsruhe's favourite son into ridicule, and it's about time the city did something to put it right.