“A wheeled vehicle without a horse
is a thing so preposterous to the eyes of
aldermen that it must be forbidden altogether.”
The New York Herald Article
Early in 1817 the Baron built out of cherry tree wood and softwood a “running machine”, which he called a Draisine or a Laufmaschine. The machine was more pony-sized than horse-sized so that the riders feet reached the ground for propulsion.
This early bicycle consisted of a saddle seat, handlebars and a steerable front wheel. Testing and improving it throughout the next few years, the Baron finished his invention and patented the running machine in January of 1818.
Almost overnight the Baron’s Laufmaschine became a sensation. News of the running machine spread westward across Europe. Enthusiasm grew among a small circle of young aristocratic men known as “dandies”. Demonstrating one’s manly abilities was key for “dandies”, and the Laufmaschine was a novelty too challenging and exciting for any dandy to pass up.
The Laufmaschine name was a bit foreign to British, so they renamed it the “dandy horse”. Before long, every young gentleman who aspired to the dandy ideal owned a dandy horse. A basic dandy horse in 1818 cost the equivalent of about $900 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.
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 one from crashing it into a hedge.
So, what happened to the Baron Drais? He went on to also invent the earliest typewriter with a keyboard (1821). He later developed an early stenograph machine which used 16 characters (1827), a device to record piano music on paper (1812), the first meat grinder, and a wood-saving cooker including the earliest hay chest.
The Baron had the misfortune to belong to the losing political party when the Prussians took over Baden, and had his title and property stripped. At age 66, on December 10, 1851, he died penniless and forgotten.
Without the Baron’s aristocratic plaything he invented, the history of the bicycle might have been very different, and certainly less colorful without the creative endeavors of the Baron Drais.