Evidence of this concept is in one panel of a stained-glass window that dates back to 1590. It was moved from a church ruins in Italy to be incorporated in a window of a very old church in the village of Stoke Poges in England, near London.
The window panel, only 9 inches square, depicts an imaginary gnome, naked of course, astride a heavy wooden frame to which wheels are attached, front and back.
In the summer of 1972, I leaned on my 15-speed, Peugeot PX-10 and stared at that colored glass window, assumed to be the world’s first representation of a bicycle.
Gnomes are small human-like, folklore characters who were thought to have a sort of occult knowledge of the Earth because they dwelled deep inside it.
This gnome is rolling along on his imaginary two-wheeler, riding on a cloud, tooting a horn to clear the way ahead. His bike is suspended in space by a rope tied from the back of the bike frame to a wooden "sky hook." The other end of the rope is loosely attached higher, to the blazing sun!
Two hundred years after the window was known to be in Italy, a Frenchman, decked out in top hat and tails, rode a heavy wooden plank with two wooden wheels somewhat like the gnome in the stained-glass widow.
He and his "stick horse" were the laughingstock of strollers in Palais-Royal Garden in Paris. His motions were described as "thumping the ground with his feet in long strides." However, with his homemade toy, Comte de Sivrac "attained unbelievable speeds." In spite of ridicule, the idea spread rapidly as a pastime for the adult male aristocracy!
Baron Von Drais, a German forester, used a similar stick horse over rough, hilly ground, so he added a padded seat, an armrest and, most important, a mechanism for turning the front wheel right or left with his hands. He is generally credited with originating in 1817 the first two-wheel vehicle that was at all practical.
The English improved on the baron’s "draisiene," and they called it a "hobbyhorse" or a "dandy horse." Some of the heavy, wooden-frame variations had a horse’s head carved by hand.
In America, special shoes were clad with metal plates on the front to last longer than the conventional leather soles while propelling a wooden "horse."
The machines became very popular in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere, more than 40 years before anyone added workable cranks and pedals, iron wheels or comfortable saddles. The term "boneshaker" was used to describe the walk-along horses and also for the earliest two-wheelers. Many changes came in a flood, matching the interest in this new sport.
Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t have predicted that his scribbled concept of gnome and rider would inspire engineers and craftsmen to change the way two-wheelers fit into our 21st-century needs for fun, transportation and competitive sports!