A group of students talk as one tests a pedal-free bicycle they have built.
Architecture students at the University at Buffalo work on their own "laufmaschines." Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Architecture students in Buffalo built their own versions of the "laufmaschine," a proto-bike invented in response to a 19th-century environmental crisis.

In April 1815, Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The material cast into the atmosphere, including ash and an estimated 60 megatons of sulfur, prevented so much sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface that the average global temperature dropped by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius).

The first and worst affected were Sumbawa and surrounding islands, but western Europe and eastern North America experienced colder weather too: The year 1816 was dubbed the “year without a summer.” Unseasonable cold (caused at least in part by the eruption) led to crop failures and even famine. Although people typically relied on horses to travel, some people killed their horses for lack of food to feed them (or themselves).

The laufmaschine, draisienne, or “dandy horse,” ancestor of the bicycle, was invented by Baron Karl von Drais. (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

In light of this crisis, a German forest official and inventor named Karl von Drais devised what would be a precursor to the bicycle, the laufmaschine (“running machine”), also known as the “dandy horse.” Intended to replace the feed-guzzling horse as a mode of transportation, it was a two-wheeled contraption that Drais used his own feet to push. Essentially, it was a bicycle minus the pedals.

Just as there was a need in Drais’s time to find an alternative to horse-based transportation, climate change demands alternatives to cars and trucks that don’t produce greenhouse-gas emissions. So early this year, architecture professors at the University at Buffalo (Nick Rajkovich, Brian Carter, Elaine Chow, Ken MacKay, and Brad Wales) taught their third-year students the history of the laufmaschine. Then, they had groups of students develop 15 of their own human-powered vehicles.

a photo of an architecture student riding his laufmaschine
(Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo)

The experimental vehicles had to have a frame, be “stable” and “steerable,” accommodate one person in a sitting position, and have at least two wheels in contact with the ground at all times. Students weren’t allowed to use pedals, chains, or any other propulsion mechanism besides their feet and hands. While the structure of each “dandy horse” had to be constructed out of wood or metal, non-structural components could be made from other materials (like plastic and fabric).

One group constructed theirs out of hockey sticks. “Hockey sticks are … basically plywood, but it’s reinforced with fiberglass resin,” said student Adara Zullo, who played hockey as a kid. “When you take a slap shot, right at the point of impact where it takes the most force, it’s reinforced with fiberglass. So we said, ‘Okay, let’s see how many sticks we need to make a laufmaschine.’”

Another team incorporated bent wood into the support frame. The students soaked pieces of oak, steamed them, and set them on a jig that curved them. “The curves kind of show the narrative of something that’s in motion,” said student Kevin Medina.

a photo of students building their laufmaschine
(Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo)

“What’s pretty amazing is, among the 15 vehicles and among these dozens and dozens of students, there’s not one solution that’s exactly the same,” Rajkovich, one of the professors, told CityLab.

students riding their laufmaschines
The students test out their laufmaschines during a relay race in Cleveland’s Flats. (University at Buffalo)

Now the students are developing ideas for a community center in the Flats area of Cleveland that would double as a bike institute. They’re considering how climate change would affect the building, looking at factors like temperature and precipitation. A subset of the students’ work will be presented at an upcoming climate-resilience conference in Cleveland.

a photo of students riding the laufmaschines
Adara Zullo strikes a celebratory pose after Team Zamboni finished first in the relay, winning by 10 seconds. (University at Buffalo)

Rajkovich said that the value in the exercise is “seeing many different ways that you can approach the problem of climate-related resilience”: “The laufmaschine was designed 200 years ago in response to a climate crisis. It still holds valuable lessons today, because there’s a lot of interest in the bicycle as a carbon-neutral mode of transportation.”

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