Monday, July 12, 2010

Running On Empty

Magnet # 290:  Symbols of Karlsruhe

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Elke

I love it when a magnet has a date printed on it - that makes my job so much easier. Yep, if you take a look at the bottom line of this one, you'll notice it's dated 12 July, 1817 (when translated). And just what happened on this day, way back when? Well, that was when Baron Karl Drais, pictured on the magnet, took his invention, the running machine, out for its first spin.

Drais was born in 1785 to an upper class family in Karlruhe, a German town near the French border. Although he was an aristocrat, he became a democrat and later supported the 1848 Revolutions, which sought to unite the German speaking states, but were a failure.  By all accounts, he was an intelligent young man who attended the University of Heidelburg. He went on to take a position as a forestry official with civil service, but later was suspended from active service so he could both continue to work on his inventions and collect his salary. Drais went on to create several noteworthy inventions - the first typewriter with a keyboard, a wood-saving cooker, a meat grinder - but his most famous invention was the Laufmaschine, or running machine.  It was the first vehicle that placed two wheels in a line and while it wasn't a bicycle, it was an important step toward creating the bicycle.  On Drais' creation, there were no pedals and the rider's feet propelled the machine.  He felt his invention was important in achieving social equality as those who could not afford a horse or carriage would be able to get further faster than they would by walking.   It's believed that 1816, the notorious Year Without a Summer, when crop destruction across Northern Europe lead to the death of many horses, thus impeding travel, was what inspired him.  And on this day in 1817, Drais took to the roads for the first time on his new creation.  That day, he traveled about 13 kilometers in an hour to the city of Mannheim.  And when he set out a few months later, traveling 60 kilometers in four hours, Drais created a big uproar.  Suddenly, everyone had to have one of his running machines.

Unfortunately, the interest in Drais' Laufmaschine was strong, but short-lived, and it proved to be just a fad.  It was very popular in Paris and Britain, where many young, fashionable men with an excess of money known as hobby horses took to it, inadvertently giving it the nickname of a hobby horse.  As the hobby horse had no brakes and road conditions were often to difficult for it to navigate, many ended up riding it on the sidewalk, leading to plenty of collisions with passersby.  Before long, the Laufmaschine had been banned in cities around the world.  That, combined with a hatred for the contraption from much of the general public finally led to the downfall of the Laufmaschine.  As for Drais, he never received much money for his creation due to the fact that patents were still not very well defined in his day.  But he kept on inventing, even creating variations of his running machine such as trikes, quads, and tandems.  He also went on to become a professor of mechanics and traveled to Brazil as part of a German expedition there.  However, his democratic ideals proved to be his downfall.  An attempt on his life was made in 1838 and when the Revolutions of 1848 were over, those who Drais had stood against tried to have him declared mentally incompetent and he fell into poverty, eventually dying.  But that was not the end of Drais, who has gone on to be acknowledged for his contribution to the creation of the bicycle and is now a favorite son of his home town, Karlsruhe - heck, this magnet is proof of just how popular he is there.  And the running machine has experienced a resurgence in Europe, with followers of Drais running all over the continent, and even a miniature version for children has appeared.  Life may have had its ups and downs for Baron Karl Drais, but at least he has now received the credit he was due for so many years. 


  1. Even though I had lived in Germany and not far from Karlsruhe, I have never heard of Baron Karl Drais. It's always good to learn something new.

  2. It's funny how some people receive widespread fame and others are remembered only in certain places. But yes, I liked learning about Drais as well.