January 7, 2008

Frankenstein's Bicycle

Inventor Karl Drais lived in Germany, across the border from Switzerland, where Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein. Among other things, Drais invented an early stenographic typewriter, a type of wood stove, a means of recording music on punched paper, and the screw-driven meat grinder still in use today. Just like Mary Shelley, Drais was influenced by the effects of the explosion of Mount Tambora. Mary crafted a story that became a modern myth. Drais invented the bicycle.

Drais’ original concept, a two-man, four-wheeled vehicle, predates the Tambora event. Drais had begun working on a simple, human-powered conveyance in 1812, but it was the devastation wrought by Tambora that accelerated his work. In 1816, while Mary Shelley started on Frankenstein, harvests failed and a food crisis gripped Europe. Horses were slaughtered for meat. Drais was moved to develop a means of horseless transportation. His early designs were simplified for use by a single rider. Two wheels were aligned, front and back. The rider straddled the vehicle and propelled — and stopped it — with his feet. Drais called the invention a Running Machine. It was sometimes referred to as a hobby-horse. It would become known as a draisienne, or draisine.

In 1817, even as Mary Shelley was writing her book, Drais staged demonstrations in which he drove his device long distances in record time. Enthusiasts began to experiment with the new vehicle. Going downhill without brakes produced near-inevitable crashes. Unpaved roads being too hazardous, draisines were tested on sidewalks, resulting in pedestrian collisions. By 1818, the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published, Drais’ early velocipede was being banned all over Europe. The inventor moved on to other things.

Karl Drais died in 1851, the same year Mary Shelley passed away.

The draisienne, of course, came to be improved upon with chain drives, brakes and reliable steering, leading in a direct line to today’s sophisticated bicycles and motorbikes.

Next time your ride your bike or fire up the Harley, have a thought for Karl Drais, Mary Shelley, and their volcanic inspiration.

A lively history of Karl Drais and his invention on New Scientist.

A biography, and the draisine, on Wikipedia.

An historical chronology of the bicycle.

1 comment:

rob! said...

cool. i like how youre expanding the themes and subject matter of the blog, making it all-encompassing.

and i love the new header, btw.

p.s. pierre--did you get the two emails i sent w/scans attached?