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The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse

The story of the bicycle begins with the hobby-horse, the first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine. A German Baron, Karl von Drais, patented the machine in 1817, and it was initially produced in France where it enjoyed considerable popularity among fashionable members of the middle class. Shortly thereafter, the concept was picked up by a number of British manufacturers, the most notable being Denis Johnson of London. Johnson demonstrated considerable marketing skills by establishing a riding school where prospective clients could experience riding the new machine. During the spring and summer of 1819, the hobby-horse was all the rage in fashionable London society.

Lithograph, Denis Johnson riding a hobby - horse 1819.This period illustration shows how riders propelled the machine by striking the ground with their heels.(CSTM)

Johnson's hobby-horse was a more refined version of von Drais's machine and provided the inspiration for the English-made hobby-horse featured in the exhibit (810202*). The machine was built around 1819 and was originally owned by the Duke of Argyll (its maker is unknown). It was eventually acquired by a Canadian cycle collector, Lorne Shields, who subsequently donated it to the Museum. Like all machines of this style, riders pushed along the ground with their feet to propel it. Once riders got going, they could coast, particularly on hills. The machine was equipped with an adjustable saddle and a tiller mechanism to control the front wheel. A dashboard, located immediately behind the front wheel, provided additional support for steering and pushing. To brake, riders dragged their feet.

After the hobby-horse craze of 1818-19, interest in the machine seems to have died out almost as quickly as it began. Once the novelty had worn off, the machine appears to have fallen into relative obscurity. There are very few references to hobby-horse use after 1820 in English or French cycling literature, although in central Europe there are reports that machines were made and sold into the 1830s. Nevertheless, the hobby-horse provided the basis upon which further developments were made.

*The numbers in brackets are the accession numbers of artifacts held by the Museum.