Happy Birthday to the bicycle; 200 yeas old

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Laufmaschine.jpgThe old girl has reached the ripe old age of 200 and is looking as good as ever. Actually, let's face it, over the years the old girl has changed and improved, and thus looking even better. Though, when we see today's so-called balancing bikes for young children, the Draisine is back, even in wood, with some improvements.

June 12, 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the date on which Karl Drais (although he had an aristocratic title he renounced the “von” and the title Freiherr, that is to say, Baron later) took his new invention out for a ride and the modern bicycle was born.

On that day Drais rode his two-wheeled invention, the first Velocipede, five miles from the centre of Mannheim and back in less than an hour, at an average speed of 9.3 mph. It was basically a bicycle without pedals that one pushed along the ground but it was still much faster than walking. He called it a Laufmaschine (running machine in German) but the press named it a Draisine after the inventor.

The reason for the invention was not just for the fun of it. It was in response to an environmental crisis. Two years earlier in April 1815, Mount Tambora exploded and changed the world. This put so much ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that it turned 1816 into "the year without summer", causing world-wide famine. Most of the horses were slaughtered because there was nothing to feed them or their owners, so they became dinner.

But Drais needed a means of inspecting his tree stands that did not rely on horses. Drais discovered that, by placing wheels in a line on a frame, one could balance through dynamic steering. Thus a narrow vehicle capable of maneuvering on his land and the Laufmaschine became the immediate precursor of the bicycle.

As the bicycle became more popular, people found riding in the streets was uncomfortable due to the deep ruts left behind in surfaces of the roads by coach and cart wheels. This lead to cyclists sharing the sidewalks with pedestrians, which, in turn, led to the first conflicts. The penny-farthing, a bicycle with a huge direct-drive front wheel and tiny rear wheel accelerated fears for the safety of riders and passers-by alike and bicycles bans became common.

The invention of the "rover safety cycle" put the rider's feet back within reach of the ground, and helped this mode of transportation to return to the streets of cities around the world, introducing the rear chain drive in the process. Further important breakthroughs included the invention of ball bearings, the pneumatic tire, and the freewheel. Though some have, today, gone back to the fixed back wheel and please do not ask me why.

Today the bicycle is the most energy efficient and pollution free means of transportation on the planet, aside from walking. It is seen by many as a major player in the solution to climate change given that they are emission free. They could also be the answer to urban congestion as they take up so much less space than a car, and especially to urban pollution.

As in Drais' day, bikes are controversial. Motorists hate them when they are sharing the road and hate them even more when bike lanes are built and take away space for driving and storing cars. As in the days of Drais road conditions are often so awful and dangerous that cyclists sometimes take to riding on the sidewalk, alienating and endangering pedestrians. Though, it has to be said, neither of that is necessary if the cyclist remembers that he or she, theoretically, and often legally, is not meant to be there and that it is the domain of the pedestrians.

The way some cyclists ride and their attitude – and I am a cyclist myself – it is no wonder that people are often not very fond of them, and it seems to be getting worse.

I cannot understand why one has to race along the sidewalk – where one is not supposed to be in the first place though, I admit, I ride there myself but at slow speed (I am in no hurry ever) – or park paths, and such, where pedestrians have priority, weave in and out of motor traffic, undertake cars and trucks, etc. What's the hurry, what's the rush?

But two hundred years ago the skies cleared and a normal climate returned, and soon people were back to being pulled around by horses and the bicycle almost was forgotten. But in our the environment and climate, more than likely, is not going to return to normal, and our cities cannot hold any more cars.

As we enter an era when new pressures encourage everyone to swap their car for alternative transportation, it makes sense to celebrate the birthday the bicycle. So, once again, Happy Birthday old Girl! Let's ride!

© 2017