The “Running Horse,” a Precursor for the Modern Day Bicycle

220px-KarlDrais.jpg I have changed my diet and added exercise to my daily regime. I am avoiding sugar and glutton, while adding a good bike ride or a long walk to my day. Naturally, as my brain is likely to do, I began to wonder who invented that first bicycle. I had heard that Pierre and Ernest Michaux, the French father and son team of carriage-makers, invented the first bicycle during the 1860s. Historians now disagree and there is evidence that the bicycle is older than that. 

Born 4 April 1785, Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr (= baron) Drais von Sauerbronn is credited with the first bicycle. Drais was a German inventor, who performed as a civil servant for the Grand Duchy of Badenia’s forest service. He was later a professor, teaching mechanical science. He is credited with inventing  a device to record piano music on paper, a stenograph using 16 characters, two four-wheeled human powered vehicles and the two-wheeled velocipede, also called Draisine or hobby-horse, which he presented first time on June 12, 1817 in Mannheim. 
Drais invented the “Laufmaschine” or “Running Machine,” a type of pre-bicycle. The steerable Laufmaschine was made entirely of wood and had no pedals; a rider would push his/her feet against the ground to make the machine go forward. Sauerbronn’s bicycle was first exhibited in Paris on April 6, 1818. The celerifere was another similar early bicycle precursor invented in 1790 by Frenchmen, Comte Mede de Sivrac, however, it had no steering. 


Public Domain ~ via Wikipedia ~ Karl von Drais on his original Laufmaschine, the earliest two-wheeler, in 1819

Drais was a fervent democrat and supported the wave of revolutions that swept Europe. In 1848, he dropped his title and the aristocratic “von” from his name. After the revolution in Baden collapsed, Drais was mobbed and ruined by royalists. His enemies attempted to have him declared insane. In 1838 he survived an assassination attempt.

“The baron’s numerous inventions include a typewriter with 25 keys, the meat grinder, a contraption to record piano music on punched paper, the stenotype machine and a pedal-powered quadricycle. While modern versions of Drais’ meat grinder are still in use in countless butcher shops and households today, the invention that made him famous in 1817 is the Laufmaschine (running machine) – the ancestor of the bicycle.” (The Hobby Horse: 1817

1817_Draisine ~ a primitive bicycle without a drivetrain. The frame and wheels were made of wood, the steering already resembled a modern handlebar. Riders sat on an upholstered leather saddle nailed to the frame and pushed themselves forward with their feet. The contraption weighed about fifty pounds.


via Wikipedia ~ A Draisine, also called Laufmaschine (“running machine”), from around 1820. The Laufmaschine was invented by the German Baron, Karl von Drais, at Mannheim in 1817. Being the first means of transport to make use of the two-wheeler principle, the Laufmaschine is regarded as the archetype of the bicycle. The above Draisine was built with cherry tree wood and softwood. One is displayed at the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg, Germany.

On the American side of the Atlantic, the Baltimore Morning Chronicle declared the invention, Every species of transatlantic nonsense, it would seem, is capable of exciting curiosity, no matter how ridiculous.

Horses were expensive to own, and so the invention held promise. Inventing his vehicles, Drais took notice of the sequence of poor harvests, which started in 1812 and culminated in the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815, setting off what was later called “The Year Without Summer.” In Europe, it snowed during in the summer of 1816, and crops failed. Horses were slaughtered for lack of food even available. The velocipede, therefore, became a potential alternative to horse-based traffic. On Thursday, June 12, 1817, Drais conducted an experiment.  He rode his invention from the centre of Mannheim, Germany, toward Schwetzingen, using Baden’s best road. “After little less than 5 miles (13 kilometers) (half the distance), he turned at the Schwetzinger Relaishaus (located in the today Mannheim’s suburb of Rheinau) and headed home. The round trip took him little more than an hour, but may be seen as the big bang for horseless transport.” (New Biography of Karl Drais) A mid August of the same year, he rode 60 kilometers in four hours, incorporating an umbrella to protect him from the rain and a sail for a windy day. 

Initially, Drais knew success in Paris and London, but as his invention had no brakes, people were soon looking elsewhere for their amusements. During this time, Drais also developed a tricycle and a bicycle built for two version of his running machine. “And although Drais had been granted a privilege – an early type of patent – by the Grand Duke of Badenia in 1818, the running machine never earned a lot of money for its creator. The privilege expired after five years, and the concept of intellectual property rights was still in its infancy. Numerous wagon builders simply copied the design. 

“Yet Drais’ idea did not disappear entirely: In 1819 British coachmaker Denis Johnson started production of an improved draisine in London. Johnson used an iron fork in front and two iron stays in the rear instead of the clunky wooden braces used by Drais. The steering was also much improved and already bore a slight resemblance to a modern headset.” (The Hobby Horse: 1817)


likely the world’s first bike ad for the running machine of Baron Carl von Drais


Hamer, Mick. “Brimstone and Bicycles”

Karl Drais – the new biography © 2006/2010/2014 ADFC Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club, Kreisverband Mannheim

The Hobby Horse: 1817 – Karl Drais and His Running Machine

The Inventors “History of the Bicycle” 

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in history, inventions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “Running Horse,” a Precursor for the Modern Day Bicycle

  1. Katrin Siebler says:

    at the moment, Mannheim is celebrating Drais and his “Laufrad” with various exhibitions and activities!
    Greetings from Heidelberg, just 25 km away from Mannheim

Comments are closed.