Fire and Bikes – How a volcano sparked the invention of the bicycle

By Kate Bongiovanni, class of 2020.

Image created by author using images by PavelBokrGordon Johnson and nandinduarte via Pixabay.

Did you know volcanic eruptions have inspired great works of art such as “The Scream” by Edvard Munch and Mary Shelley’s tale of Dr Frankenstein’s monster?  Have you heard how volcanoes led to scientific discoveries like the atmospheric jet streams that help aeroplanes fly faster?

This is the story of how a volcanic eruption brought the bicycle to our streets.

An almighty blast in the past

On the 5th April 1815 the little known Indonesian volcano, Mt Tambora rumbled to life and over the next week the mighty volcano exploded in the greatest eruption in recorded history.  The catastrophic blast was ten times more explosive than the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption and hundred times larger than the 1981 Mount St Helens explosion.

The Mt Tambora eruption sent 175 cubic kilometres of volcanic debris high into the atmosphere, which is enough material to fill over 100,000 MCGs or bury the whole of Melbourne 20 metres deep.

Volcanic ash clouds block out the sun and bring freezing wintery weather.  Image by Yosh Ginsu via Unsplash.

“The year without a summer”

The ash and gas blocked out sunlight and caused dramatic changes to the weather and daily life of people around the globe.

Snow fell in parts of America and Europe in July and ominous rain clouds lingered over Europe in the usually clear warm summer months.  According to geologist Charles Lyell “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in [Indonesia] was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.”  The summer of 1816 was unlike any summer in living memory, and 1816 became known as “the year without a summer”.

The unusually cold summer months and freezing winters caused crop failures and famine, and food prices soared.  Thousands of people perished from disease and famine, adding to the toll of 70,000 who died directly from the eruption.

Many people couldn’t afford food for themselves, let alone to feed livestock such as horses.

“An ever saddled horse which eats nothing”

This is where German aristocrat and inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, enters the scene.  A resident of southwest Germany which had been ravaged by awful weather and floods following the Tambora eruption, Drais was inspired to design a human-powered vehicle that wouldn’t rely on horses or any other livestock.  Drais experimented with a number of machines before settling on a two-wheeled contraption where the rider propelled themself around by pushing off the ground with their feet, just like the toy bikes a toddler might play with.  Drais patented his invention as the Laufmaschine, or “running machine” in 1817.  The Laufmaschine (or later Draisine) quickly gained popularity across the streets of Europe.

In the 1860s, pedals and gears were added to Drais’ machine and names like “bone-shaker” and “penny-farthing” entered everyday language.  These names referred to the shape of the vehicle and the very bumpy journey the rider experienced on a machine with no suspension on the haphazard cobbled streets.

Since then, the invention that was conceived by Drais in volcanically-devastated Germany has continued to evolve to the modern bicycle we know and love today.

Evolution of the Bicycle.  Image by Al2 via Wikimedia Commons.

Other sources of interest: