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Bumpy ride into history

Baltimore, home to the first received telegraph message (Samuel Morse, 1844, sent from Washington), the first umbrella factory in America (1828), the first Ouija board (1892) and — to note what really matters — the first baseball player to win MVP awards in both leagues (Frank Robinson, 1966) and the first Olympian to win eight gold medals in a single games (Michael Phelps, 2008).

As if that doesn't engender enough civic pride for any municipality, it seems Charm City, according to the Maryland Historical Society, can add another first to its list: birthplace of the American bicycle.

"It's another first for Baltimore," says a delighted Burt Kummerow, the society's president and CEO. Through Saturday, he and the society are playing host to the 25th annual International Cycling History Conference: some 100 historians from around the world discussing and debating all things bicycle. Which makes this a perfect time to crow about Baltimore's key role in cycling history.

"It's a very important moment, I think, in American history and world history," says Kummerow, who has had his hands full over the past couple of years promoting Baltimore's key role in the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But Kummerow is more than happy to celebrate any local history, especially if it resonates beyond the city's borders.

Still, let's not let our heads swell too much. What was crafted here in 1819 was the first American model of a bicycle prototype known variously as a draisine (after its German inventor, Karl von Drais), a hobby horse or a dandy horse (because dandies tended to be the sort of people who would ride one). A two-wheeled contraption with no pedals and often no brakes, the hobby horse was propelled strictly by foot- and legwork — you straddled the bar connecting the two wheels and ran astride it, propelling yourself forward.

Its builder was a local piano-maker named James Stewart, who apparently got his inspiration from a British hobby horse that found its way to these shores. He started building some of his own, placed ads for them in the local papers and even earned a review in the Feb. 6, 1819 edition of the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser.

It's hard to say for sure, but it appears the writer was impressed.

"The constructor feels very confident, that it may answer all the purposes of a land carriage; but in this we fear he is too sanguine," the anonymous correspondent writes. "It appears to be suited only for good level roads; and cannot, therefore, be introduced in that character here, at least for some time. But, it is, as an instrument for graceful and manly exercise, that it deserves attention."

It's unknown whether any of Stewart's hobby horses survive, says Paul Rubenson, exhibitions manager at the society and one of the conference's organizers. Vintage draisines of any type are rare. But among some 40 antique bicycles and their ancestors, some of which are on display at the society's museum for the duration of the conference, is a reproduction hobby horse. Yellow and about the size of a child's bike, with a narrow seat, primitive handlebar and iron tires, it must have been unbelievably uncomfortable.

But it seems to have piqued people's interest.

"You just ran," Rubenson says. "And you could take running strides. The things are not as silly as the idea would sound. You can do it. It becomes very cumbersome up hills, and I'm sure that your crotch hurt. But the idea did work."

Stewart's hobby horse caught the eye of Charles Willson Peale, one of the era's pre-eminent painters and the man behind one of the country's first museums, in Philadelphia (his son, Rembrandt Peale, established Baltimore's now-defunct Peale Museum). While traveling through Baltimore, Peale saw Stewart's hobby horse and was impressed enough that he later commissioned a Philadelphia blacksmith to make him one.

"He demonstrated them at his museum in Philadelphia," Rubenson says. "But it's well documented that that was after he had first seen them here."

Alas, the hobby horse craze, at least in the U.S., was pretty much over within a couple of years. And the development of the bicycle would remain stalled for nearly a half-century. In 1866, French immigrant Pierre Lallement added pedals to the hobby horse, demonstrated his invention in New Haven, Conn., attracted an investor and secured a patent. Bicycling soon took off.

So does Baltimore's claim to bicycle fame ring true?

Sure, says author and bike historian David V. Herlihy, in town from Boston for the conference and author of "Bicycle: The History." But there's an important caveat, he notes.

"I wouldn't call a hobby horse rider a bicyclist," he cautions. "You could take certain pride in having built the first hobby horse, but you might need an asterisk. To extend that to say 'bicycling begins in Baltimore' might be a stretch."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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