National Bike Month: Draisines are the new fixies

Cycling Hipsters, if you were truly worth your ironic sideburns and artisanal grease stains, you'd abandon that fixie and mount one of these bad boys. The Smithsonian honors National Bike Month with a dive into the image archives for this photo, the forerunner of the modern bicycle: a draisine from around 1818. More about this "dandy horse," below.

In 1817, Karl Drais, a young inventor in Baden, Germany, designed and built a two-wheeled, wooden vehicle that was straddled and propelled by walking swiftly. Drais called it the laufmaschine or “running machine.”

A forester for the Grand Duke of Baden, Drais used his laufmaschine to inspect the Duke’s forest. The laufmaschine soon became a novelty among Europeans, who named it the “draisine.”

By 1818, the draisine craze reached the United States. Charles Wilson Peale, a well-known portrait artist, helped to popularize the draisine by displaying one in his museum in Philadelphia. Many American examples were made, and rentals and riding rinks became available in Eastern cities.

By 1820, the high cost of the vehicle, combined with its lack of practical value, limited its appeal and made it little more than an expensive toy. The two-wheeled vehicle would not become sustained until pedals were added in the late 1800s.

Donated to the Smithsonian in 1964, this draisine is the oldest cycle in its collection of 61 cycles. They reflect social trends and technological developments that have shaped the growth and popularity of riding since 1818.

Lots more wonderful old things like this in the Smithsonian's exhibition, "America on the Move." (thanks, Jessica Porter Sadeq)


  1. Just saw a local Chinese immigrant on a bike, jogging along. It took me a second to realize there was no chain or pedals involved. Pretty fast for an obvious septagenarian, and it had a hand brake!

  2. From the BBC show Three Men in a Boat Go to Ireland, comedians Dara O Briain and Rory McGrath pedal a draisine while  Grif Rhys Jones rides.  I was watching this just last night.

  3. This looks pretty much like the Skoot-type bikes that small children are receiving nowadays. Except older, natch.

    1. Yeah, there’s one in our house, still in its box, waiting for me to put it together in time for our daughter’s second birthday.  She’s been getting super excited about bikes and trikes lately, so the timing should be good.

    1. Yes, it is. But it is used correctly here, too. Many words have more than one meaning. These things are still made. Or were in the 1970s. A neighbor kid had one.

      1. Fair enough, I was under the interpretation that this draisine was a rail bike, the precursor to the dandy-horse. The term “draisine” was also once the common name for the dandy-horse.

        The more you know…

  4. If you like bikes than bike rod and custom has the coolest, also it’s the creator was the producer of the vintage Saturday Night Live “Mr.Bill” spots:

    I even got my old custom bike in the gallery:

  5. This is National Bicycle Month ?

    How about that. I’ll take it as a sign – I just started back on my bike after a two-year lay-off. 

  6. That’s how I ride when the grease in my freewheel gets stiff in the cold and the pawls won’t engage or when I break a crank or a pedal. Bikers must have been tough back them- passing motorists feel emboldened to make rude remarks which invite a thrashing when a cyclist rides in such a manner.

  7. …and let me remind you, a draisienne (the way I was taught it was spelled) is still faster than most horses, and the best way to learn how to ride for young and old. 

  8. I can imagine one of these being pretty fun in the right environment, more so than a bicycle would be, like in a small park with a couple hills. It must feel more out-of-control (and thus more exciting) than a bicycle with silly things like brakes.

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