The bicycle has become so ubiquitous that it's difficult to imagine a time before it provided cheap, efficient transport for the masses. But the early history of the bicycle tells a very different story, and one known to few riders today. This is the story of the "dandy horse".
Since the early-18th century, there had been experiments -- mostly in Western Europe -- of human-powered vehicles. Invariably, these consisted of four or more wheels, accommodations for up to seven passengers, and handles or ropes with which men on foot could push or pull the contraptions. In this respect, they were little different from carts or carriages; simply substituting humans for livestock.
European gentry usually owned horses for drawing carriages, and those with country homes owned horses for riding as well, provided the gentlemen were fit enough to ride. Purchasing a horse for riding was quite expensive, and the requisite stabling, feeding, grooming and shoeing made pleasure horse ownership painfully costly. Still, no able-bodied gentleman would want to be without at least one horse for riding.
By "gentleman", it must be understood to refer to men whose income did not require their own labor; i.e., landowners, or men who had inherited or married fortunes. But in 1816, that world was thrown into chaos. Not because of wars or economic crises, but because of an island in the South Pacific, six thousand miles from Europe.
In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia -- halfway between Asia and Australia -- erupted in the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. With the power equivalent to 1,000 atomic explosions, it blasted about 38 cubic miles of ash, pumice and other matter into the atmosphere, creating a plume that spread eastward across the Pacific, blanketing the northern hemisphere in a gloomy haze. Since the ash reflected the sun’s light, the earth’s surface cooled. 1816 would become known as “the year without a summer”. Temperatures from Mexico to Vienna dropped below freezing in July. Snowstorms and freak rainstorms brought travel to a stop and washed away farms and grain storehouses. Crops failed. Livestock died by the tens of thousands. The world was gripped by the worst famine in a century, and typhus was rampant.
There was one silver lining to this disaster, and it appeared in the German state of Baden. Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais, otherwise known as Baron Drais von Sauerbronn was a 31 year-old aristocrat, an expert in forestry , an enthusiastic rider and an avid inventor. With the failure of crops, the price of oats doubled, then quadrupled, then rose to 8 times the norm. Those horses that didn’t die from the cold, disease or famine were frequently targeted by mobs of starving peasants who would kill and eat any livestock they could find, regardless of to whom it belonged.
We don’t have records of whether Baron Drais’ horses died from environmental causes, were poached by peasants or managed to survive, but it’s clear that something set the Baron to thinking about the problems of mortal (and edible) horses, and how those factors affected gentlemen who rode for pleasure. Somehow, his thinking led to a synthesis of the basic form of the horse and its accommodations for a rider in a wooden and wrought iron frame with a pair of carriage wheels in tandem. The result would be recognized by anyone today as the genetic ancestor of all bicycles.
It was more pony-sized than horse-sized, but this was essential, for the rider needed his feet to reach the ground, for propulsion. It had a saddle, handlebars and a steerable front wheel. With Teutonic precision that would do credit to the Bauhaus, the Baron called it his “Laufmaschine” (“running machine”). He tested and improved it throughout the next year, patenting it in January of 1818.
The Laufmaschine proved to be a sensation. Well, among young gentry who missed being able to ride their horses, anyway. Germans preferred to call it a “Draisine”, after Count Drais. News of it spread westward across Europe, and it was most enthusiastically adopted in Britain within a certain circle of young aristocratic men known as “dandies”.
The term “dandy” today, when applied to a man, is frequently pejorative, and a synonym for “effete”. But in Regency Britain, to be a dandy was the masculine ideal. More than any other factor, this was due to one man: George “Beau” Brummell. Confidant of the Prince Regent, Brummell nearly singlehandedly reshaped the masculine ideal from the Francocentric “fop” with his powdered wigs, makeup and perfumes, flashy silk breeches and long waistcoats, and yards of frilly laces -- barely capable of walking (much less riding) -- into a virile, scrupulously clean sport-loving gentleman, wearing trousers, a simple frock coat, riding boots, white shirt and short hair. In many ways, Brummell invented modern men’s clothing, as well as making sport a gentlemanly pursuit. And since demonstrating one’s manly abilities was key for dandies, the Laufmaschine was a novelty too challenging and exciting for any dandy to pass up.
Of course, the name was a bit, well, foreign to British ears. And so it was renamed the “dandy horse”. (Why not the “dandy cycle”? Remember: there was not yet any such thing as a “cycle” in the world of transportation.) Soon, every young gentleman who aspired to the dandy ideal owned a dandy horse. A basic dandy horse in 1818 cost the equivalent of about $800 in today’s money, which made it a rather expensive plaything. The best of these were constructed by carriage builders; the more crude ones were cobbled together by blacksmiths.
Given the fact that the “tires” were wrought iron and roads at the time were either dirt or cobblestone, and that it lacked brakes or suspension, to actually ride a dandy horse risked one’s limb, if not life. The preferred venue was a grassy slope or carefully groomed dirt path. Even so, injuries were frequent, which only added to its masculine appeal.
The BBC miniseries "Regency House Party" featured some of the cast of their "reality TV" show riding a rather crude reconstruction of a small dandy horse. The portion of the episode with the dandy horse begins at about 7:40 (sorry I can't excerpt the clip).
Within a year, other inventors and tinkerers modified Drais’ dandy horse. Someone substituted carriage springs for the solid wooden “forks”, another installed stirrups for the feet, when coasting. The brilliant French inventor Nicéphore Niépce added an adjustable seat, which may qualify as the least impressive of his many accomplishments. Nevertheless, he had to rename it something suitably French: the "velocipede".
And then, nearly as quickly as it appeared, the dandy horse disappeared. By 1820, the price of oats was back down to pre-1815 levels, and horses were readily available to those who could afford them. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1860s that someone had the idea to put pedals on the front wheel of a dandy horse, giving it an improved means of locomotion, as well as a scrub brake for the rear wheel; an improvement for stopping over crashing it into a hedge.
And our Baron Drais? He had the misfortune to belong to the losing political party when the Prussians took over Baden, and he had his title and property stripped; he died penniless and forgotten two years later. But without the Baron and the aristocratic plaything he invented, the history of the bicycle might have been very different, and certainly less colorful.