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In 1817, a former forester by the name of Karl Drais undertook an excursion on the paved road from Mannheim, Germany to Schwetzingen, just west of Heidelberg, and back. These eight miles took him just an hour (a stagecoach would have needed about four). Instead of merely walking, he drove himself or rode on a special vehicle he had constructed for himself: the Draisine, or dandy horse, made from wood. The local newspaper didn’t even take notice. We don’t know if Drais was aware of the importance of his vehicle, which we remember today as the prototype of the first bicycle — in other words, the first mechanical individual means of transportation without a horse.

The revolutionary aspect of the Draisine was the fact that it had two wheels in a line rather than next to each other. Drais acquired something like a patent in his home state of Baden, and later in Prussia and France. However, his invention was not yet a bike in the sense that we know today. It didn’t have pedals yet, and was propelled by the rider pushing on the ground with his or her feet. This direct connection with the ground gave riders the feeling of being somewhat in control, while the bike as we know it today requires more trust in the device. It was something the people back then simply didn’t have. More… “Revolution on Two Wheels”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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