History of Balance Bikes

Balance bikes are simply designed bicycles that teach young children how to balance and steer. They do not have pedals, so, the children propel themselves forward by pushing the ground with their feet. They also don’t have stabilizers as the kid’s feet can always touch the ground. Children learn how to balance by putting a foot to the floor or ground when the bicycle leans over. The history of balance bikes is not known by most people. Below, find a detailed history of the origin of the balance bike.

The Inventor: Karl Drais

Karl Drais is credited with the invention of the balance bike. Karl Drais was born in 1785 in German and was one of the foremost German inventors of his time. His many other inventions include a 25-key typewriter, a meat grinder, a contraption used to record piano’s music on punched paper, a pedal-powered quadricycle and a stenotype machine. However, the invention that made him popular is the Laufmaschine – running machine – which is the ancestor to today’s bicycle.

Specs of the Laufmaschine

The running machine did not have a drivetrain, and thus, it cannot be called a bicycle in the modern sense of the word. However, as Serena Beeley, a British bike historian, argues, the invention of the running machine triggered the bicycle’s development. It was the pioneer vehicle to have two wheels placed in line. Its wheels and frame were constructed from wood, and the steering was akin to the modern handlebar. The running machine riders sat on an upholstered leather saddle pinned to the frame and thrust themselves forward with their feet. The machine weighed close to fifty pounds.

The Spread of the Laufmaschine

Albeit short-lived, the Draisine became an instant hit on the international scene, going by different names. In Germany, it was known as the Draisine or velocipede (fast feet). In France, it was called the Draisienne. And in England it was regarded as the dandy horse or the hobby horse due to the fact that most of the hobby horse’s riders were young, moneyed and flamboyant men with a lot of money on their hands.

Not everybody received the running machine with so much enthusiasm. In America, critics were cynical of the invention. In fact, a pundit once remarked thus in the Baltimore Morning Chronicle in regard to the Draisine: Every species (invention) of transatlantic nonsense seems able to excite curiosity, no matter how ridiculous.

The Idea Behind the Laufmaschine

Drais’ invention was founded on a democratic idea of finding a muscle-powered alternative for the horse so as to allow many people faster movement than walking or riding a coach. Then, horses were expensive, required a groom and generally were expensive to maintain even when not in use.

The First Ride

Drais’ first documented ride on a Draisine was on July 12, 1817, when he set out from the city of Mannheim, covering a distance of almost 13 kilometers in an hour, which was a surprising feat then. A few months after, he created another huge sensation by riding 60 kilometers in under four hours.

Drais made a marketing to Paris where the hobby horse became so popular. The contraption quickly spread to Britain.

Limitations of the Laufmaschine

The Draisine did not enjoy its success for long, though. That is because the machines were difficult to ride, and were also heavy. Safety was also a concern. Draisines lacked cranks, pedals, and brakes. Coupled with the dreary conditions of most roads then, running machines rode on the sidewalks often colliding with unsuspecting pedestrians. Thus, in 1818, the Draisine started to vanish from European roads. Not long after its invention, the contraption was banned in many American and European cities. There was also telling hostility from some quarters.

Privilege (Patent)

Due to the fact that the concept of intellectual property rights was in its nascent stages, Drais did not benefit so much from his invention. Though he had earlier been granted a privilege – the equivalent of a patent- the privilege expired after just five years. Thereafter, wagon builders copied his design.

The Evolution

Draisine’s idea did not completely die. In 1819, Denis Johnson, a British coachmaker made a more improved draisine in London. Johnson’s Draisine had an iron fork in front and in the rear, two iron stays in place of the wooden braces used by Drais. Johnson also improved the Draisine’s steering thus making it more like a modern bicycle.

The running machine continued to evolve. It quickly gave way to more practical designs that had pedals for efficiency and brakes for safety. Soon, the modern bicycle was born. As the original Draisienne careened to obsolescence, it was forgotten.

The Modern Day Children’s Balance Bike

Somebody, however, made an important discovery in the modern day. There is a demographic for whom the ancestor to the bicycle is appropriate.

Ryan McFarland reinvented the running machine. When Ryan brought his two-year-old son a tricycle and bike with training wheels, he was frustrated watching his son struggle with the complexity of the bikes. Ryan then started thinking of a way to make the bikes more suitable for his son. He got rid of the bike’s pedals, permitting him to lower the bicycle’s center of gravity, thus, stabilizing the bike. This way, the son could sit on the ground, dabbling both feet on the ground and thus getting full control of motion.

Just that way, the running machine or draisienne was reinvented. In 2007, McFarland founded Strider Bikes, a company that has seen explosive growth. His business has sold more than 695,000 units reaping millions of dollars.

Conflicting Claims of the First Reinventor

However, there are many conflicting claims on who was first to (re)invent the children’s bike. The German makers of the PEDObike claim in their website that they were the first to design a wooden balance bike for children in the early 1990s. Only a handful of people know that the actual concept goes back close to two centuries. It is difficult to tell if those reinventing the running machine are doing so from scratch or stumbled upon the idea from Drais. Undisputedly, the modern children’s balance bike and Drais’ running machine share so many similarities. First off, they both don’t have pedals and the riders propel themselves forward by their feet touching the ground. Most children’s balance bikes don’t have stabilizers and brakes also just like Drais’ dandy horse.