The First Bicycle Is Introduced In New York City, 1819: History Of The Velocipede
In 1819, the bicycle rolled across the Atlantic into the Big Apple all the way from Europe. Known as "velocipedes" or "swift walkers," these strange contraptions created by Baron Karl von Drais were a sign of coming change and a new way of getting from place to place. Though there were plenty of early adopters, many New Yorkers were unsure if these new two-wheeled vehicles could really provide ample transportation or if they would just create clutter. Ultimately, they did neither: They were banned in New York City mere months after their release and fell out of fashion in favor of better means of transportation.
The Dandy Horse
The first version of the velocipede was initially ridden on June 12, 1817 and patented in January 1818. Von Drais's creation was much like the modern bicycle, it was just propelled by the rider's feet rather than cranks or pedals. Upon its introduction in Europe, the early bicycle was immediately picked up by dandies, earning it the nickname "dandy horse." According to the May 31, 1819 edition of the Connecticut Mirror, the dandy horse could move at speeds of "eight or nine miles an hour" on dry, firm roads, and "on a descent, it equals a horse at full speed."
Velocipedes In New York
In May 1819, the velocipede made its debut in New York City. Only about 100 of them were available, so New Yorkers practically fought each other for them. Those who got their hands on one of these bad boys rode them over the bumpy roads of the Big Apple alongside horse-drawn carriages and carts, weaving in and out of pedestrians however they liked.
Those who declined to commit to a purchase or just couldn't find one in stock paid $0.50 to rent one, although renters were limited to scooting around a specially created rink. Riding "downhill at high speed was a particularly enjoyable activity," according to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
This Horse Bites
Dandies and regular riders alike pretty much immediately came to the conclusion that velocipedes were dangerous and impractical. Aside from the fact that pushing a velocipede across New York was the fastest way to tear through the soles of your shoes, they were also impossible to maneuver on the sidewalks without bumping into people. The effort required to push them through the streets also regularly gave their riders hernias.
The Velocipede's Swan Song
It wasn't long before velocipedes were deemed unfit for public use. On August 19, 1819, the Common Council passed a law to "prevent the use of velocipedes in the public places and on the sidewalks of the City of New York." They were kicked out of the spaces where they most prevalent, like City Hall Park, Bowling Green, and the Battery, where anyone caught scooting themselves around on a dandy horse was fine a whopping $5. That led to an entirely new problem, however: a bunch of velocipedes just lying around. There may have only been 100 of these velocipedes in the city, but they were still cluttering the sidewalks much like the now-unfashionable Lime scooters of today. The velocipede was such a failure that people started to question whether any form of bicycle was a viable transportation alternative.
Out Of The Ashes
Velocipedes didn't usher in the transportation revolution that Karl von Drais hoped they would, essentially disappearing like any other fad of the day, but they provided an initial design for inventors and amateur hobbyists to build on. Finally, in 1863, a prototype featuring rotary cranks and pedals was unveiled, creating the bicycle as we've come to know it. Following the Civil War, the pedaled bicycle made a comeback to the Big Apple. They were hailed as "nuisances which imperil life and limb and impede free and easy locomotion," as they are still known today.
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