Nobody could have imagined that the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history would inspire the invention of the most ubiquitous form of transportation in the world. However, that’s precisely what happened in the year 1817…
Whether on busy city streets or along quiet country lanes, the bicycle could well be considered the most popular way of getting around. It’s not expensive to buy, there are no fuel costs or road taxes, traffic jams are not a problem, and pedaling is good for the body and soul. The thrill of receiving one’s first bicycle as a child remains a powerful memory well into old age.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the concept of a wheeled, human-powered vehicle was first developed. In 1418, the Venetian engineer Giovanni Fontana designed a four-wheeled carriage powered by a rider pulling on a rope loop connected to the wheels by gears. A description and a drawing of his invention are included in his 1420 book entitled Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, now at the Bavarian State Library in Munich. For the following four centuries, various inventors proposed different solutions, but all were based on the four-wheeled carriage. Some of these models required two persons on board, one to steer and one to provide power by stepping up and down on treadles connected to the wheels. All these machines were too large and too heavy to be of practical use.
In April 1815, a tremendous event took place halfway around the world that would give new impulse to the invention of the bicycle. Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded. A humongous quantity of volcanic ash and gases was projected up into the air, where it remained suspended for three years. Blown around the globe, it severely disrupted weather patterns, caused temperatures to drop by up to 3°C in some areas, and wreaked havoc on agriculture. In Europe, crops failed and livestock starved. People were forced to slaughter horses for food. Famine and pandemics were widespread. 1816 became known as “the year without a summer”. *
Karl von Drais was a German aristocrat. One of his official duties was to patrol on horseback the forest paths belonging to the Duke of Baden. During his free time, he enjoyed tinkering with various mechanical contraptions. Faced with a shortage of horses following “the year without a summer”, in 1817, Drais came up with a new design that was a recognizable ancestor of the modern bicycle. It was made for one person, with two iron wheels in line, a wooden frame and a saddle mounted on the frame between the wheels. It had no pedals and was powered by pushing off the ground directly with one’s feet. The front wheel was steerable and the back wheel had a brake. Despite all its limitations, this proto-bicycle had the advantage of sustaining the weight of the rider and allowing the rider to coast, especially downhill. Drais was able to significantly cut down the time it took to do his rounds on the forest paths. He patented his creation in 1818 and called it the Laufmaschine, or “running machine”.
Drais displayed his invention in France and England, spawning imitations and variations across Europe and in North America. Significant technical advances came some decades later, when the term bicycle was coined in France. Depending on the historical source one chooses to believe, pedals were added either in Germany in 1853 or in France in 1863. However, there were still no gears or chains. The pedals were attached directly to the front wheel hub, meaning little mechanical advantage for the rider. It was the same as having a 1:1 gear ratio, with the rider having to pedal furiously without going very fast. The only solution was to make the front wheel bigger, leading to an extremely dangerous design for the rider. In 1869, the American William Van Anden invented the freewheel by placing a ratchet device in the hub of the front wheel, thus relieving the rider of having to pedal constantly. By the 1870s, bicycles were built with metal frames, wire-spoke wheels and solid rubber tires.
In the 1880s, the pedals were separated from the wheels by introducing the sprocket and chain mechanism attached to the rear wheel, thus allowing the two wheels to be the same size. Inflatable rubber tires ensured a much smoother ride and bicycles assumed the form familiar to us today.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN