Historians agree that the bicycle began with an invention by a German, Karl von Drais (1785-1851). He invented the Laufmaschine (“running machine”) in Mannheim in 1817.
This was basically a plank with a wheel at each end, a seat in the middle and handlebars in the front. The user sat in the seat, grabbed the handlebars, and propelled the machine by running on the ground. There were no pedals like a modern bicycle, but the front wheel was hinged so that it could turn.
Von Drais’ invention caught on quickly. In France it was called the Draisienne, and in England the Draisine. In 1819 an American piano maker in Baltimore, James Stewart, introduced the machine to the United States. Stewart misspelled the Draisine as “Tracena.”
Early in 1819 Stewart placed an ad in a local newspaper introducing the Tracena. The advertisement says that Stewart:
…claims the merit of constructing and introducing them here, with improvements which he has patented, and is ready to execute them to order.
The ad also announces that Stewart was exhibiting the Tracena at the local Concert Hall for an admittance fee of 25 cents.
The ad explains that the Tracena is:
A new mode of travelling, combining the advantages of carriage, horse and foot. It has a saddle as a horse; it has wheels as a carriage, yet the rider derives his progress from his own feet. It exhibits the principle of skating on land.
The ad cheerfully asserts that:
These horses are cheap, they are safe and do not fall without the rider’s consent.
Stewart’s initial exhibition of the Tracena on February 6 apparently went well; four days later, he ran another ad announcing the exhibition would continue – with evening viewings as well – for the same admittance fee of 25 cents.
With interest in the Tracena growing, a District of Columbia newspaper reprinted an article from an English newspaper describing the popularity of the machine there. Apparently, von Drais’ Laufmaschine had picked up a new nickname in England: the “Pedestrian’s Hobby Horse.”
The English newspaper claims:
We some time ago predicted, that it would soon be all the rage, and we now find it is becoming more general daily.
The article reports that one local road had six of the machines operating at one time, and that two gentlemen had a race at Chigwellrow, betting 25 guineas to see who could cover the greatest distance in one hour. The race:
…was determined in favor of Mr. Brown, who did nearly eight miles, beating his antagonist a quarter of a mile.
This Springfield, Massachusetts, newspaper article reports that a Tracena was made in Water Street in Boston by a Mr. Salisbury,
…and has attracted the gaze of the crowd from the rapidity of its motion and the singularly of its shape.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.