Going Back to the Very Early Days of the Bicycle


‘Running Machine’ or Hobby Horse invented by the German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. (see: History of the bicycle in photos)


Great things often start from small ideas. This hobby horse, is not exactly a bicycle, but it an oft-sighted example of a forerunner to the bicycle. It is the first invention which really captures the basic bicycle shape, which 200 years later is still based on basic concept of two wheels about a foot apart. The hobby horse was introduced in 1817  by an aristocratic German who thought is was a jolly fun way to idle a few hours away around ones country estate’s, and perhaps impress a few of the ladies into the bargain.

With a certain amount of effort and dexterity, it was probably slightly quicker than walking. At the very least, you could enjoy a little coasting on the downhill. The hobby horse was quite a good invention, but never really caught on outside a limited European aristocratic circle with too much time on their hands. It wasn’t exactly going to revolutionise the world when it was still quicker and cheaper to still walk…

But, the basic idea of people using two wheels to get around obviously inspired others to consider how this could be developed into something which was actually useful. I’m sure the hobby horse was a key idea behind the development of the early bicycles.


Anyway, it’s funny how things can go full circle. With all the technology in the world, you sometimes are forced to revert back to this very primitive form of bicycling. It once happened when my chain snapped. But, also recently to include in my ‘latest tails of woe from the one legged cyclist’.

After hopping around NY, I booked an appointment with a physio in Oxford. One look at my leg, combined with two long haul flights and he didn’t want to give any treatment without first checking it wasn’t Deep Vein Thrombosis. Suitably concerned at the prospect of carrying around a clot in the lower leg, I drove off to the local A&E, with a note from physio saying please treat, pretty quick. Now if cycling with leg is difficult, don’t try driving with one leg. I stalled the car, more times than I care to remember, but getting my leg checked up seemed more important than looking after my clutch.

After spending time in America, you’re always grateful for the good old NHS and the universal free treatment approach. But, of course as people often remind us, there’s no such thing as a free dental check-up. One slight drawback of our free treatment is that A&E persistently has a waiting list of around 4 hours. The problem with a four hour wait is that it’s really stretching the concept of what constitutes ‘an emergency’. It’s probably a breach of trade description act to be called A & E when the  queue moves as fast as a hobby horse with a flat tyre.  But I guess A & E sounds better than ‘Accident & Then quite a long time to wait before you get seen by some overworked doctors.. ” – .I felt sorry for one chap who had a slight cut to his head, and after 3 hours waiting for it to be treated decided it was probably better already and left to put a plaster on himself.

Anyway, after a considerable wait, I got looked at by a very nice doctor (who by coincidence was actually a racing cyclist for Geoffrey Butler cycles.) At first, she wasn’t entirely sure about my leg, but in the end sent me off with a relatively clean bill of health, but to come back next day for a scan to confirm it is a calf strain.

Now, here comes the interesting bit of the whole story. Not wanting to drive with one leg, I adapted my commuting bike to put on a speedplay pedal so I could easily cycle one legged to the John Radcliffe hospital with clipless pedal.

I was doing OK, until after one mile, the speedplay pedal fell off – and no amount of coaxing would put it back on. So I was stranded in the middle of Oxford – one bike, one pedal for a bad leg, and no pedal for the good leg. How to get home? Well, I wasn’t going to hobble, and I couldn’t pedal so the only thing was to invoke the spirit of Baron Karl Von Drais and use my bike as a one legged hobby horse. Pushing against the ground with my one good foot (and expensive Shimano shoe), making painfully slow progress.

All I can say is I’m really glad the hobby horse did evolve into something more useful with chain and all that. I never knew certain hills existed on Cowley road before. That was an adventure, but not one to necessarily repeat.



One Response to Going Back to the Very Early Days of the Bicycle

  1. steve April 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Looking at that picture with the chest brace it would surely have been trivial to attach a crank to the rear wheel forming a semi-recumbent bicycle. I reckon that would have been much more practical than the penny-fathing?

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