2 Wheels – 200 Years. Freiherr von Drais and the History of the Bicycle

On June 12th in 1817, Baron Karl von Drais (1785 – 1851), a former state-employed forester and an eager inventor, made the first ride on his invention called Laufmaschine (“running machine”), the early velocipede and the forerunner of today’s bicycle. His ride took him out of the town of Mannheim to the closer surroundings and back. On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle the TECHNOSEUM presents the major exhibition “2 Räder – 200 Jahre. Freiherr von Drais und die Geschichte des Fahrrades”.

The exhibition aims on showing the technical development of the bicycle since Karls Drais’ first ride on his wooden Laufmaschine to the present cycling culture and the future role of the bicycle as a means of solving the steadily increasing traffic volume in larger cities. Divided in four sections, the exhibition also focuses on the historical and social developments, the meaning of the bicycle as a sports vehicle in earlier days as well as its social status and its present role as a lifestyle and design product.

The first section is dedicated to Karl Drais’ invention, his life and the historical and technical circumstances in the first half of the 19th century. Social, political as well as environmental causes had a deep impact on the perception and the success of the Laufmaschine. At the time Karl Drais introduced his Draisine, people had faced hard times: more than 20 years of war with Napoleonic France, new territorial and political structures had reformed Europe and a volcanic eruption in Southeast Asia had a strong impact on the climate in North America and Europe. Crop loss caused a tremendous rise of the oat price and people were exposed to a hunger crises. Obviously, only the middle classes and peers could afford such an expensive vehicle. Its fabrication was expensive as Drais only sold the technical sketches and a license badge. The Laufmaschine itself had to be built by a wainwright. An additional factor of the short success of the Draisine was its operation mode, which was considered as foreign to many people: Adapted from ice skating, the driver had to balance it by lifting his feet alternately. Taking these facts together, Karl Drais was ahead of time. Only 60 years later he gained the well-deserved honor, which will also be outlined in the exhibition. Numerous Draisines will be on display, including originals with his license badge. A wainwright’s will give an insight in the manufacturing of a Laufmaschine.

Drais’ invention was followed by a long pause of more than 40 years in the development of the bicycle, restarting in the 1860ies, which is also the beginning of the exhibition’s second section. In 1867 Pierre Michaux (1813 – 1883) successfully introduced his velocipede, later called “boneshaker”, with front-wheel propulsion at the Paris International Exposition. Yet soon many disadvantages of the iron construction and its wooden wheels came up: Due to its heavy weight, riding was exhausting and the pace was slow. In order to improve this, the front wheel became bigger throughout the years, resulting in the still well-known high-wheeler or penny-farthing. However, also this construction had disadvantages. The sitting position right above the front suspension caused a top-heaviness which resulted in very bad crashes. The solution to all these complications finally seemed to be the safety bicycle, mostly promoted in England. Featuring two equal wheels, a diamond frame, chain drive and transmission on the back wheel, cycling became safer. The pneumatic tire finally made cycling more comfortable and contributed a very decisive part to the invention of the automobile.

Significant objects will demonstrate the development from the “boneshaker” to the safety bicycle and the connection to the first automobile by Carl Benz. Parts of a bicycle factory will provide an insight into the sophistication of the manufacturing. The exhibition will also deal with the social aspects of cycling: Who was able to afford a bicycle and when had it become tolerable for women to cycle? Furthermore, the development of cycling as a competition will be depicted. The role of the bicycle during World War II and the postwar period will also be presented. Experiments and the staff from the museum education will explain why it is possible for us to cycle without even falling.

The third section will explain the bicycle’s vanishing importance in the 1950ies during the automobile boom and its slow comeback with the emergence of the folding bike. Many bike factories that did not focus on children bikes had to close as only women and children predominantly used the bike as a means of transportation. A reconstruction of a bicycle shop will give an insight into the look of the bicycles at that time. Only with the upcoming folding bike in the late 1960ies the bicycle slowly returned as it could be easily packed in the back of the car. The famous high riser made cycling fashionable for the youth in the 1970ies that still was not old enough to drive a motorbike or a car. The bicycle was always an interesting object for technology enthusiasts. A selection of modified bikes designed by a former entrepreneur from Mannheim show the various attempts of changing the drive.

The present bicycle trend started in the 1970ies with the oil crisis of 1973, when people became aware that the fossil fuel resources will come to an end. Organizations for the protection of the environment were established and the bike became an alternative means of transportation. In the 1980ies, the emergence of the mountain bike and the fitness movement from the United States finally reached Europe. More people started riding the bike leading to the present status of the bike as a fashionable accessory and comfortable means to get around in cities with a high traffic volume. The adaption of an alternative bike shop will be the center of the last section, where people can also learn how to fix a flat tire for example. A fixed gear bike and other objects will present the bike’s current status as an accessory and lifestyle product for young adults in larger cities. Building your own bike according to your own style has become very popular, but also retro and cargo bikes for families are an important part of Europe’s cycling culture. But as more and more people use the bike, cities face the problem of lacking a bicycle friendly and safe infrastructure. Related examples from bicycle friendly cities such as Copenhagen as well as essential means for safe cycle paths and an infrastructure where pedestrians, cars and bicycles are equal will be a try to show what bicycle friendly cities of the future need.

Every section of the exhibition is accompanied by personal experiences with the bike as well as limitations and orders of that specific time period. In a separate area next to the exhibition, visitors will be able to ride different kinds of bicycles.

The exhibition will be presented on an area of 800 square meters and a ceiling height of 3,8 meters. 100 bicycles, combined with 175 exclusive objects, will illustrate the history of the modern bicycle along a reconstructed cycling path.