How a Volcano Led to the Invention of the Bicycle

It can be argued that a volcano led to the development of the two-wheeled transport known as the bicycle. When Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, it darkened the skies and created a ‘year without summer’ in 1816. As a result, crops failed and horses, the main mode of transportation, died in huge numbers due to starvation.

Three years later, as Europe struggled to get by without horses, a German inventor succeeded in creating a mechanical alternative. German inventor Baron Karl von Drais had patented a machine he called a velocipede. It looked nothing like a modern bicycle except for the general shape and the wheels. It was mostly made of wood and must have been a very hard ride. But von Drais had put in motion what was to become a favorite method of getting around and getting fit, and what would become a multi-billion-dollar industry. The volcano did more than starve the horses, it helped make them redundant.

The new invention wasn’t universally welcomed at first. Balancing on two wheels was something the human race hadn’t tried before, with the result that they kept running into each other and everything else. The velocipede was banned in some European cities simply because it was too dangerous. At least horses were easier to sit on and steer.

Better Technology created a better ride

But you can’t keep a good idea down. Obviously, what was needed was better technology. French inventors Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement enlarged the front wheel and added a crank drive, evolving the new invention into the well known Penny Farthing. In Scotland, Thomas McCall tinkered with the velocipede and added a rear wheel crank drive. But it wasn’t until 1885 that the newfangled, much-modified gadget started to look like a modern bike. It was the English inventor John Kemp Starley who came up with the well-known `Rover’ design, complete with the instantly recognizable chain drive and same-sized wheels.

The bicycle, as it became known, had reached its peak of safety design. Anyone could ride it, and because Starley overlooked patenting his design, anyone could make it and sell it. Once almost impossible to steer, maneuver and even sit on safely, the bike was now safe for men, women and children and the craze quickly swept Europe and America into a golden age of two-wheeled freedom. American women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony waxed lyrical, calling it `the freedom machine’, and indeed it did far more for women’s emancipation than chaining themselves to railings.

H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, loved bicycles and said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race.” He too saw this new machine as representing the spirit of freedom and adventure and wrote a novel about a bicycling holiday called Wheels of Chance.

Present Day and Beyond

Today, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the dominance of the motor vehicle, bicycles are more popular than ever, both for sport and recreation. Steady advances in technology have made the old `boneshakers’ a distant memory, and some European cities actively encourage the use of bicycles by making free bikes available to everyone.In disadvantaged countries, bicycles provide cheap transport, and in the future may save us all from the growing pollution and fuel problems caused by motor vehicles. Sometimes, it seems, even a volcanic explosion can have a surprisingly good outcome.