“Truly, the bicycle is the
most influential piece of
product design ever.”
It was the early-18th century in Western Europe when man first began experimenting with human-powered vehicles. In the beginning, these vehicles consisted of four or more wheels and could accommodate up to seven passengers. Much different than carts or carriages, they had handles or ropes for men on foot to push or pull. They were attempts at replacing horses with humans.
Even back in the 1800s, the purchase of a horse was expensive for the working man. No fit and wealthy gentleman would be without a horse for pleasure riding. They usually had horses for drawing carriages, but most affluent European men owned horses for leisure riding.
That all changed in 1815 when the world was thrown into turmoil. A turmoil not from a war or an economic crisis, but because of a small island over six thousand miles from Europe in the South Pacific.
On April 10, 1815, halfway between Asia and Australia, Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. It was to become the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history as well as claiming the most fatalities. Mount Tambora’s eruption killed well over 71,000 of its people. This once silent volcano erupted with the power equivalent to 1,000 atomic explosions, blasting about 38 cubic miles of ash, pumice and other matter into the atmosphere.
Ashes reflected the sun’s light and cooled the earth’s surface. Temperatures dropped below freezing in July from Mexico to Vienna. Unexpected snowstorms and rainstorms brought travel to a stop. Farms and grain stores were washed away. Crops failed. Livestock died by the tens of thousands. The world was gripped by the worst famine in a century, and infectious diseases such as typhus was rampant. The year 1816 would become known as “the year without a summer.”
With all the soot and ash engulfing Europe, there was one ray of hope to this gloomy disaster. He was a 31-year-old aristocrat, an expert in forestry, an enthusiastic and passionate horseman as well as an avid inventor from Baden, Germany. His name was Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais, otherwise known as Baron Drais von Sauerbronn. Baron Drais’ beloved horses died from environmental causes from the volcano eruption, and set the Baron on a journey to invent the bicycle.
It’s not known for sure what the impetus was for the Baron to think about the problems confronting the horses, and how those factors affected gentlemen who rode for pleasure. But somehow, his grief from losing his horses, led him to thinking about the basic form of the horse and its accommodations for a rider. He began with experimenting with a wooden and wrought iron frame and a pair of carriage wheels in tandem. The result would be recognized by anyone today as, the ancestor of all bicycles.