Imagine a bicycle with no brakes and no pedals and you have an idea of what it was like to ride a velocipede, or the dandy horse, in the early 19th century.
“The dandy-horse was a two-wheeled vehicle, with both wheels in-line, propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet as in regular walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar assembly was pivoted to allow steering.” (Wikipedia)
This meant that the man riding this contraption not only looked ungainly while riding it, but had very little control over what he was doing and where he was going, especially on uneven and hilly ground.
The earliest usable and much copied velocipede was created by the German Karl Drais and called a Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”), which he first rode on June 12, 1817. He obtained a patent in January 1818. This was the world’s first balance bicycle and quickly became popular in both the United Kingdom and France, where it was sometimes called a draisine (German and English), draisienne (French), a vélocipède (French), a swiftwalker, a dandy horse (as it was very popular among dandies) or a Hobby horse. It was made entirely of wood and had no practical use except on a well-maintained pathway in a park or garden. – Wikipedia
Learning how to ride one of these vehicles wasn’t easy. As seen in the image above, a man would propel himself with his legs and brake with them. The image below is from the archives of Westminster City Council, and is of a postcard of Dennis Johnson’s (c.1760-1833) velocipede school. The school was founded in 1818 by Johnson, the coachmaker, who had made some improvements on Drais’ machine. He managed to make around 320 of his pedestrian curricles, as he called his patented machines. Then in 1819 the craze for velocipedes went out of fashion: Mr. Johnson returned to making carriages. (Velocipedes.) It wasn’t until towards the end of the 19th century that the velocipede began to be perfected and started to resemble the bicycle we know today.
Below are a few lines from the pamphlet:
[They] ran along together straight,
Until they reached the turnpike gate,
Where a coach had made a stop;
So they both got upon the top,
And after their disastrous falls,
At length in safety reached St. Paul’s.
The print below shows a dandy “forced off his hobby-horse and subjected to brutal punishment by the two professions most threatened by the new technology: a blacksmith and a vet.” (Wellcome Library)
It is sad to think that Jane Austen, who died in 1817, never had the chance to observe a gentleman riding a velocipede. With her wit and keen sense of observation, what would she have made of the sight?
More on the topic:
- The The Dandy Horse, Or how a German Baron and a Volcano Invented the Bicycle
- Dandy Horse: Fabulous post with numerous Regency images of dandies on velocipedes
- Life in Early America: Freewheeling adventures with velocipedes
- Climate change and bicycles
- Mauritian Philatelic Blog
- The velocipede, its past, its present & its future, By Joseph Firth Bottomley, 1869, Google eBook