Little is known about the world's first bicycle ride, 200 years ago on June 12th, 1817. Mannheim in southwestern Germany, and local aristocrat Baron Karl von Drais – then 32 – appeared in public, sitting on a wooden frame, with two wheels and an upholstered arm rest.
Using his home-made “laufmaschine” (running machine), later dubbed a “dandyhorse” or “draisine” after its inventor, the baron managed a 14km trip in less than hour. Faster than the post coach, this was a one-man mobility revolution.
“It’s a horse! A horse that eats nothing and isn’t a horse,” exclaims an alarmed housemaid onstage Mannheim’s Capitol Theater in a new musical reimagining that maiden trip in 1817.
It would be 40 years before Pierre Michaux presented the next bike at the Paris World Fair.
After that, there was no going back. In the two centuries since, an estimated one billion bicycles have been produced: British penny-farthings, Dutch gazelles, Chinese flying pigeons. Not even the post-war decades of car-friendly cities have killed off the bike. Quite the opposite: from Ireland’s successful city bikes to the ebikes that have taken Tel Aviv by storm, the bike revolution continues.
So why do we know so little about Baron von Drais?
“His contemporaries took little notice of him. We have just one portrait but aren’t sure it’s him,” says Thomas Kosche of Mannheim’s Technoseum, which is hosting an anniversary exhibition. “But we have no personal notes or diaries from him or questions of his character, that’s all speculation.”
We know that Karl Drais was born into an aristocratic family on April 29th, 1785, in Karlsruhe. Though his father wanted him to be a forester, Drais found his way into the inventing world in what, then as now, was the most innovative corner of Germany.
Long before other local sons such as Gottlieb Daimler, Carl Benz and Wilhelm Maybach invented the internal combustion engine and the car, Drais had dreamt up an early typewriter and a precursor to the player piano roll for recording music.
Neither of these entered serial production, unlike his early bicycle.
But from where came the inspiration? Some in Mannheim point to an 1815 volcano eruption in Indonesia, which spread ash around the world and caused the notorious 1816 “summer without sun”. Harvests failed, grain prices rocketed, famine spread and feeding horses was a luxury. Was necessity the mother of this invention, too?
“We lack a statement from Drais to that effect,” says Kosche. “Drais describes the benefits compared to a horse, but never says: ‘I did it to replace horses.’ We’re missing that link in the chain.”
Though gaps remain in the narrative, locals in Baden-Württemberg are determined to celebrate the Drais legacy and rescue him from obscurity. In Karlsruhe, the baron’s birthplace, local bike shop owner Martin Hauge rides around town on a rebuilt draisine in full period costume: tails, high collar and top hat.
Not to be outdone, Mannheim has put together a programme of exhibitions and events to mark the anniversary, from bike dressage shows to a mobile bike cinema (with electricity provided by bicycles).
Long after this anniversary passes, Mannheim city fathers are determined to lodge the bike in the city’s cultural memory – and its streetscape. The city has appointed a bike commissioner and has opened a massive indoor garage beside the main train station, where commuters can lock their bicycles.
“All big German cities had bike stations like this but they vanished in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” said Prof Heiner Monheim, a German traffic expert, to SWR television. “Now, 50 years later, we all realise we need to offer some service and, with great effort, we’re rebuilding these stations again.”
Mannheim’s palpable bike renaissance is reflected all over Germany, home to an estimated 73 million bikes. Not bad for a country with a population of 82 million.
Germany’s ADFC, a cycling lobby group in the AA model, says Germans no longer see cycling just as a healthy, environmentally friendly and cheap mode of transport. ADFC director Burkhard Stork says cycling is undergoing a “boom in people’s minds”.
Bikes are now accepted as the key component of modern mobility strategies in Germany’s car- and diesel-choked cities. In the ADFC bike-friendly city ranking, Berlin was horrified to land in 36th place and now plans to spend €50 million annually to improve its biking infrastructure.
Topping the ADFC list is Münster in Westphalia, population 300,000, thanks to its “continuous, generous and easy to understand bike network through the entire city”. And Karlsruhe, birthplace of Baron Carl von Drais? A proud second place.
The 2 Wheels, 200 Years exhibition is running at Mannheim's Technoseum: en.technoseum.de/