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He Invented the Bicycle

On the 200th Birthday of Karl Friedrich von Drais by Hermann Ebeling

There are not many inventions that have been manufactured in such large numbers as the bicycle. Probably hundreds of millions have been produced. After it had found Its final form, the bicycle rapidly proved to be one of the most useful inventions that mankind has succeeded in creating. The wheel itself is a stroke of genius of the human spirit: after all, it is one of the very few inventions that has no prototype in nature.

Two wheels, arranged behind one another, linked by a system of rods, with a pedal drive and a chain for power transmission, resulted in a vehicle on which people could move far more easily and more quickly than on foot. And more than that: it has been calculated that a human being on a bicycle requires less energy to move (in relation to the weight of his body) than an animal, mammal or bird.

Of course, the history of bicycles still has to be written, in particular their early history. The history of technology is a stepchild of historical research, but the bicycle, as a typical lower-class vehicle and technically unspectacular product, has been relegated even further to the background of interest.

The birth of the bicycle dates back to the year 1817. On 12th July of that year Karl Baron von Drais, a district forestry official from Baden, used the "hobby horse" he had invented to travel the distance from Mannheim to the Schwetzinger Relay House. That was the beginning of the age of locomotion on two wheels.

An awkward character

Who was this forestry official von Drais? The story of his Iife is almost a didactic drama about history: the fate of an inventor in the Biedermeier period, a tragic life between the declining world of aristocracy and feudalism and the emerging world of technology and industry. (Editor's note: The Biedermeier period were the years after the Napoleonic Wars in Central Europe. They were years in which people longed for tranquility and a life of contemplation, away from the world of politics. The bourgeoisie in Germany and Austria, for it is in these two countries in particular that one speaks of the Biedermeier period, sought refuge in domestic happiness. But Biedermeier is also the term for the art of these years; one speaks of the Biedermeier style in painting and music as well as in writing. And the furniture of the period also had its own style, the Biedermeier style.)

Karl Friedrich Baron Drais von Sauerbronn was born on 29th April 1785 - exactly two hundred years ago - in Karlsruhe, the seat of the Baden court. His father was a high official in the service of the Margrave and thus the career of the young Baron already seemed to be traced out. (Editor's note: In the period in which the inventor of the bicycle lived Germany was not a uniform political structure, it consisted of many separate states, all of which were sovereign entities. One of these states was Baden in the southwest, on the frontier with France. The sovereign had the title of »Margrave«. His seat of government was the city of Karlsruhe. Today Baden ist part of the federal state of Baden Württemberg.)

All paths and doors were open to him. But the performance of the young man at school was apparently not very good. He was sent to a forestry school run by his uncle. From there he proceeded to the University of Heidelberg in 1803 and enrolled there for agriculture, physics and architecture.

After a year and a half - before the beginning of the real course of specialized study- he was transferred to the Baden Forestry Service, but he was never given the office of forestry superintendent. He must have been too awkward a character and generally - that can be seen from his personal files- not even present at his place of work. The worthy forestry officials were afraid of the "momentum of his genius" and his ideas, it said in a report about him. They suggested that Drais should be transferred to the administrative department. He might not be any use to anyone there, but at least he wouIdn't do any harm.

In 1810-hewasthen25-Draisall of a sudden withdrew to his parents' house in Mannheim where his father held the position of the most senior judge at the Baden High Court. The young Drais had now set himself an objective in life: he wanted to be an inventor. Drais sensed the mood of the times; behind the Biedermeier scenery, which feigned tranquility and rigidity, everything was fermenting. In those decades Germany began to develop as an industrialized country. Small craftsman's businesses turned into factories and everywhere do-it-yourself fans and inventors began to devise new kinds of equipment and new technical processes. The "Taylor from Ulm", for example, constructed his aeroplane, today we would call it a glider, and also medical prostheses.

Inventing was the purpose of his life

After 1810 Drais presented a whole series of inventions to the public. He invented a music-writing machine, i. e. a device which was attached to a piano whereby the music played was recorded on paper using a new kind of notes. He invented an "elevation perspective", a sort of periscope like those later used in submarines; he also produced a "transformation machine", an aid for surveyors for calculating areas. Drais also invented a "shooting machine", a new type of can non, the secret of which he fortunately took with him to the grave, and a method of making rivers run upstream by making use of the power from the water running downstream. All these inventions, some of which got no further than being bright ideas, were quickly forgotten again. Probably rightly so. Also forgotten is a mathematical formula for solving an algebraic equation that Drais had discovered; and also forgotten is the "dyadic" calculation system, which he presented in a small brochure in 1814, and which did not work with 10 figures as usual, but only with two. This binary system was of no use for manual calculations, but today of course it is employed in electronic data processing. Drais suggested merely using dashes and dots for the two figures, and if today you look at a packet of cigarettes or a packet of coffee, you will quickly discover the oblong of zebra stripes, which is nothing more than a number encoded in the binary system.

Not even a drawing or an illustration exist of a four-wheeled vehicle that Drais designed and presented in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna. Locomotion was provided by the driver himself, but apparently it had no advantages over walking.

The birth of the bicycle

Three years later Drais presented his "hobby horse", the invention in which there is a spark of genius and which a few decades later developed into the bicycle. The main idea for his hobby horse, Drais informed the press, was taken from skating and consisted in "the simple idea of thrusting along a seat on wheels using the feet . . . In order to maintain his balance the rider has a little padded board in front of him on which he rests his arms, in front of which is the steering pole which is held in the hands in order to determine the direction". That, as the technicians would call it in their own jargon, was the "basic innovation" of the bicycle. In 1861 the pedal crank (still on the front wheel) was invented and the chain drive appeared in England in 1885. Since then the bicycle has not fundamentally changed. Apparently after following all sorts of wrong tracks such as the "penny farthing" - which was comparable to the development of the dinosaurs - the ideal form had been found.

Drais himself experienced a brief enthusiasm for the "hobby horse" which lasted three or four years; it was soon called the "Draisine". In Baden he was granted a patent for the invention and he was able to export a few of them. Soon there were imitations and "improvements" in France and Belgium, in Britain and the United States. But then the vehicle was forgotten once again. In 1822 Drais emigrated to Brazil, presumably under pressure from his father, a man who took pride in his rank and who disapproved of the technical and commercial activities of his son. But Drais was not able to settle down in Brazil either. It is true that he recognized the enormous potential of the country (he reported on the idea for a gold-digging machine), but in 1827 he was back in Germany. However, he no longer had any foothold, he travelled restlessly around, got into conflicts with the authorities, tried in vain to find entrepreneurs for his last inventions: a speed typewriter, new kinds of stoves and cookers. When the Baden Railway was built at the beginning of the forties, Drais recalled the four-wheeled car he had demonstrated in Vienna. Now he put the vehicle on rails, and a merciful fate granted that at least this idea, his last invention, was given and retained the name "Draisine". In 1851 Drais died in Karlsruhe lonely, sick and forgotten.

By birth and education Drais belonged to the pre-industrial age; he was, if we may venture to use the expression, a "gentleman inventor". He tinkered about, built his "hobby horse" with wood whereas in England iron was used from the outset. Again and again Drais tried to turn his inventions into money- but the Baron lacked any business skill. He tried to issue a "Drais share". This was no doubt a progressive idea, but Drais had no success with it. His life became an inexorable decline, his own social class excluded him from their company, but he was not accepted by the new class of factory owners, entrepreneurs and technicians either.

Thus he remained an outsider, possessed with the idea of progress, with the idea of perfecting the world by means of inventions. At the end of the technological age we have become critical as regards "progress". But if we wanted to draw up a balance sheet, the bicycle definitely ought to be entered on the credit side.


Michauline dating from around 1870 and built in Germany. It already looks much more like a modern bicycle.

If you want to find out more about the inventor of the bicycle, we can recommend this book by Hermann Ebeling, a biography of the "Mad Baron". The author describes the tragic life of Freiherr von Drais, set set against the background of the Biedermeier period and the beginning of the industrialization in Germany. Many of Drais' letters and other documents which have been preserved are published here for the first time.

Ebeling, Hermann: "Der Freiherr von Drais, das tragishe Leben des 'verrucksten Barons' ein Erfinderschicktal im Biedermeier; aufzerzeichnet von Hermann Ebeling. "Karlsruhe: Braun, 1985 ,132 pp., DM 36.00

ISBN 3-7650-8045-4

Only available in German.

The Bicycle - The Poor Man's Motor Car?

by Rainer Pivit and Falk Rieß.

The simplest and traditional means of transport is the human head. Loads are carried on it which the carrier cannot lift up himself, weighing 35 kg to 40 kg. These are then carried over a period of several hours to the local market for example. Technical devices which have been adapted to avoid this strenuous work include special frames, which make carrying easier, carts drawn by animals, and bicycles equipped with special devices for transporting loads.

This applies to the transport of loads in rural areas, and the same can be said of the transport of passengers in the towns. Where there is no local transport system operating on the basis of a public mass means of transport, and this is the case in almost all developing countries, the bicycle is a cheap, simple and quite fast means of transport, provided that the area is geographically suitable for bicycles with no steep hills.

Looking at the statistics for the number of bicycles and the production figures for bicycles in quite different countries it is noticeable that the number of bicycles is at its highest in the industrialized countries, where relatively few people ride bicycles and most people drive motor cars. It is also apparent that most developing countries (at least in Africa) are forced to import bicycles, as they do not have any bicycle factories of their own. The bicycle factory in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for example, which was opened in 1978, can only produce 60% of the components required. It is also noticeable that there are just as many motor cars as bicycles in the world, and that the rate of growth in bicycle production in the developing countries is very high, while production in the industrialized countries is stagnating.

The bicycle - luxury article

If one looks at the prices of bicycles in developing countries, it is apparent that, although the prices appear to be very low, the bicycle is a valuable article, which only people who have managed to save some money can afford to buy. In 1975 a bicycle in India cost between $ 24 and $ 35, while the average annual per capita income was only $ 100, that is three times as much. Tricycles, or rickshaws, which are used to earn a living, cost between $ 100 and $ 200, which means that the majority of rickshaws do not belong to their drivers, but instead are rented out. In Tanzania the situation is similar. In 1978 the Swala bicycle, which is manufactured there, cost £ 23, while the annual per capita income amounted to £ 75.

While most bicycles, as already mentioned, are made in large factories or abroad, in Asia the rickshaw, or the transport tricycle, is usually manufactured by small or medium-sized firms and workshops, which buy standard parts from the large firms and make all kinds of special models to suit different purposes. In addition to this, bicycles guarantee the existence of a large source of employment, the mobile cycle workshops, which owe their existence to the fact that the majority of cyclists are unable to service their vehicles themselves and are dependent on the services of a repair shop.

The standard bicycle

The bicycles which are made in China and India, and which are to be found in a similar form in many developing countries, are the equivalent of man's roadster bicycle, like the ones manufactured in England after about 1905. Apart from minor changes in the material of the frame, in the paint, chroming and to the saddle practically no changes have been made: wheels and tyres 28 x 1½ ", stirrup brakes, Westwood rims, free-wheel coaster-hub without brake, development approx. 5.5 m (i.e. the distance travelled per crank revolution), heavy weight of over 20 kg. It is worthy of note that due to the design of the frame (diamond-frame with horizontal top tube) it is impossible for the majority of women in the Third World to ride a bicycle, unless they disregard the conventional dress norms of their society.

Attaching larger and bulkier loads to the normal, narrow carrier poses great problems, although the stability of the bicycle would allow a load of approx. 100 kg to be carried in addition to the weight of the cyclist. On a bicycle which is not carrying a load a speed of approx. 9 km/in to 14 km/in can be reached with ease on dirt roads in the plain. On bad dirt roads with a slight gradient of up to 2.5% the cyclist will make an effort and pedal on. But on gradients of 5% over a longer distance a normal bicycle will have to be pushed. On a good dirt road in the plain a maximum load of 70 kg can be transported on a bicycle without excessive effort. But on a slope with a gradient of more than only 2.5% a cyclist will have to get off a loaded bicycle. On a slope with this gradient an additional load of up to 250 kg can still be pushed. On a gradient of 5% and on good dirt roads en additional load of up to 150 kg could probably still be pushed without additional effort. Considerable effort is required to push a loaded bicycle up a slope with a gradient of 10%. A load of 250 kg could be pushed up a slope like this with an enormous amount of effort, but only at a snail's pace and with many pauses.

One of the reasons why people have to get off and push their bicycles at such an early stage, and that so little can be transported while actually riding the bicycle is that the gearing ratio is much too high for the rural areas in the Third World. Instead of the 5.5 m which are customary at present, a development of about 3 m would be ideal. This could be achieved, if, for example, a chainwheel with 28 teeth were used, instead of the large one which usually has 48 teeth, or if the bicycle had an adequate gear-change mechanism.

Bicycle trailers

What has been said about the loading capacity of a bicycle also applies to bicycles with trailers, except that the weight of the trailer itself (usually 20 kg to 30 kg) must be subtracted from the weight of the load the bicycle can carry. As hardly more than an additional 70 kg can be transported on level, dirt roads while riding a bicycle, this means that using the same output of energy, an additional load of less than 45 kg only could be transported in a trailer. This is without taking the higher roiling resistance of a trailer into account, caused by the fact smaller wheel of the trailor and the three tracks a bicycle with a trailor produces.

Tricycles

Tricycles are quite common in Asia, but they are only found in the towns, where they are used for transporting goods and passengers. The technical knowledge required for manufacturing them is generally beyond the scope of a rural workshop.

The version with two front wheels is not suitable for unsurfaced roads, since this kind of road requires too much steering power. The driving performance of tricycles with sidecars would not be good on dirt roads. The most suitable design is probably the tricycle with the loading surface at the back and two rear wheels. This type of tricycle is driven by an axle on one side or by a through axle, depending on the region; differentials are seldom found. The gearing ratio is usually only slightly smaller than on an ordinary bicycle. In China tricycles with a gearchange mechanism are occasionally found. They have two chainwheels at the bottom-bracket. The chain sits very loosely and a small guiding wheel just in front of the rear sprockert prevents it from springing off. The gear is changed by moving the chain from one chainwheel to the other by hand.

Vehicles like this are of no use to the farmer in a rural district, since as already mentioned above when describing the bicycles in the Third World, they can only carry a very small additional load on dirt roads, because they have a similar ratio. Tricycles can be ridden at a very low speed, but extremely slow pedalling is very tiring and ineffective. Also tricycles cannot be ridden on footpaths.

In rural areas on dirt roads tricycles as a means of transport only make sense if the gearing ratio is radically changed (development of less than 2 m or even better a suitable gear-change mechanism) and they are built more robustly. The standard tricycle can be used on surfaced roads in fairly flat countryside. Here they could complement or partly replace buses, lorries and community taxis.

A bicycle adapted for use in developing countries must meet certain requirements

In view of the small load that a normal bicycle can carry, special models built for transport can only be of real use if the gearing ratio is considerably smaller (i. e. a development of approx. 3 m). At the same time the rolling resistance must not be increased by smaller wheels. With a development of 3 m the slowest possible speed is approx. 6 km/in. This means that on good dirt roads in the plain a load weighing about 140 kg can be transported on a bicycle, but pedalling a bicycle with a load up a slope with a gradient as low as 2.5 % would demand an effort from the cyclist, which he could not maintain over a long period of time.

A gradient of 2.5%, however, is no problem if the bicycle is not carrying a load, and in the plain a constant speed of 14 km/in can still be pedalled. A transport bicycle for the Third World would need a maximum load capacity of 150 kg.

It would be a good idea to develop bicycle more appropriate to the needs of the Third World. The ideal design should take the following points into consideration:

- the transport of loads weighing up to 150 kg; good possibilities for attaching loads

- equally suitable for men and women

- safe accommodation for children and babies

- large wheels with an improved connection between hub, spokes and rim, or possibly sandwich structure

- a development of 3 m, or a suitable gear-change mechanism

- manufactured locally (possibly sheet metal frame) as few imported parts as possible

- extremely robust maintenance-free resistant to dirt, sand, rust and potholes

- the cyclist should be able to carry out servicing and repairs himself

- the price should not be higher than that of the present bicycles.).