Dandy-Horse for children, c. 1818

 © Technisches Museum Wien, Photo: Peter Sedlaczek
Collection Area
Traffic & Transport
Road Traffic
1800 - 1849

Was it a volcano erupting on the Indonesian Sunda Islands or the fun of playing a children’s game? There are vastly differing theories as to how the bicycle came to be invented.

At the time that Karl von Drais, inventor of the “running machine”, was tinkering away on his new vehicle, famine was widespread in Europe. Dust eruptions from the Tambora volcano on the Indonesian Sunda Islands had even resulted in summer snow in the northern hemisphere. Given the failed harvests engineers and inventors were looking for ways of replacing horses, which after all consumed their fair share of grain.

The principle behind the running machine was to replace the driving force of horse power with human muscle power. Drais named his vehicle a velociped (from Lat. velox = fast and pes = foot). The running machine was subsequently called a draisine after its inventor.

The type of movement required was not unlike skating. The velocipedist sat on a seat between two wheels and used his feet to propel himself forward, using his upper body to maintain his balance. The fact of shifting body weight from one leg to the other meant that the running machine was a single-track vehicle. It was therefore subject to far less resistance than a three- or four-wheeled vehicle. This was important not just because country roads were in such poor condition in those days. As the running wheel was made of wood and iron, it was not exactly lightweight.

But was the running machine really a serious contender as a vehicle? The English term indicates that it was used mainly as a toy, for fun. Children and young people would disport themselves with this running machine. They learnt to ride the machine at special driving schools.

Riders of running machines were to be found mainly in the parks of Europe’s major cities. Critics railed against this pointless exercise and poked fun at the sweat-soaked riders on their “thrashing machines”. It was only in the late 19th century that the running machine gradually evolved into what we know today as the bicycle.

Inv.Nr. 1405

Member of