Laufmaschine, Nicknamed the Dandy Horse

Karl Drais was a prolific German inventor who invented the Laufmaschine (“running machine”), nicknamed the dandy horse. Later, the Laufmaschine was called the velocipede, draisine (English), or draisienne (French). Drais first rode his horseless invention on 12 June 1817, about a month or so before Jane Austen died. The ride took over an hour, involved a distance of less than 5 miles, and began at Mannheim and ended at a coaching inn named Schwetzinger Relaishaus.

Laufmaschine, nicknamed the dandy horse: Karl Drais

Karl Drais. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

An account of the velocipede and its management was given by Drais and published in 1819. It is provided below (nearly verbatim) and begins with four points related to the machine’s properties:

  1. That on a well maintained post-road, it will travel up hill as fast as an active man can walk.
  2. On a plain, even after a heavy rain, it will go six or seven miles an hour, which is as swift as a courier.
  3. When roads are dry and firm, it runs on a plain at the rate of eight or nine miles an hour, which is equal to a horse’s gallop.
  4. On a descent, it equals a horse at full speed.

Its theory is founded on the application of a wheel to the action of a man in walking. With respect to the economy of power, this invention may be compared to that very ancient one of carriages. As a horse draws, in a well-constructed carriage, both the carriage and its load much easier than he could carry the load alone on his back: so a man conducts, by means of the Accelerator, his body easier than if he had its whole weight to support on his feet. It is equally incontestable, that the Accelerator, as it makes but one impression, or rut, may always be directed on the best part of the road. On a hard road the rapidity of the Accelerator resembles that of an expert skater; as the principles of the two motions are the same. In truth, it runs a considerable distance while the rider is inactive, and with the same rapidity as when his feet are in motion; and, in a descent, it will beat the best horses in a great distance, without being exposed to the risks incidental to them, as it is guided by the mere gradual motion of the fingers, and may be instantly stopped by the feet.

It consists of two wheels, one behind the other, connected by a perch, on which a saddle is placed, for the seat of the traveller. The front wheel is made to turn on a pivot, and is guided in the same manner as a Bath chair. On a cushion in front, the fore-arm is rested; and by this means the instrument and the traveller are kept in equilibrio.

Drais's original Laufmaschine.

Drais’s original Laufmaschine. The earliest two-wheeler in 1819. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Its Management

The traveller having placed himself in the position represented in the cut, his elbows extended, and his body inclined a little forward, must place his arms on the cushion, and preserve his equilibrium by pressing lightly on the side which appears to be rising. The rudder (if it may be so called) must be held by both hands, which are not to rest on the cushion, that they may be at full liberty, as they are as essential to the conduct of the machine as the arms are to the maintenance of the balance of it (attention will soon produce sufficient dexterity for this purpose); then placing the feet lightly on the ground, long but very slow steps are to be taken, in a right line at first; taking care to avoid turning the toes out, lest the heels should come in contact with the hind wheel. It is only after having acquired dexterity in the equilibrium and direction of the Accelerator, that the attempt to increase the motion of the feet, or to keep them elevated while it is in rapid motion, ought to be attempted.

The saddle may be raised or lowered, as well as the cushion, at pleasure; and thus suited to the height of various persons.

The inventor proposes to construct them to carry two persons, and to be impelled by each alternately, or by both at once; and also with three or four wheels, with a seat for a lady; besides the application of a parasol or umbrella, he also proposes to avail himself of a sail, with a favourable wind.

This instrument appears to have satisfied a desideratum in mechanics: all former attempts have failed, upon the known principle that power is obtainable only at the expense of velocity. But the impelling principle is totally different from all others: it is not derived from the body of the machine, but from a resistance operating externally, and in a manner the most conformable to the nature — the resistance of the feet to the ground. The body is carried and supported, as it were, by two skates, while the impulse is given by the alternate motion of both the legs.


Karl Drais’s Laufmaschine. Author’s collection.

Unfortunately for Drais his Laufmaschine never really took off. Part of the problem involved roads that were unimproved and horse-driven carriages that created such deep ruts, it was difficult for riders to balance and rid simultaneously. Riders therefore moved onto sidewalks, which endangered pedestrians. Consequently, authorities in such countries as Germany, Great Britain, and the United States banned its use, which thereby ended any possibility that it might become popular. 


The Laufmaschine or draisienne. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • The European Magazine, and London Review, 1819, p. 246.

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