Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day
Lord Byron, Darkness, 1816
The world has changed. It is not something we normally notice – change is slow and memory surprisingly selective. Nothing has altered but everything’s changed, as the song says, paraphrasing Jean-Paul Sartre. We have little idea of how our parents really grew up – their lives were very different from ours. People were reading more, in the absence of in-house screen entertainment. Looking at books written in the 19th century, you’ll find that the writing often was complex. And these complex writings were read by ordinary people who nowadays might read a tabloid. (Spending too much time in The Sun can be bad for you.) In those days, Dostoyevski mesmerized. Nowadays it takes effort to read him – the written word has become simpler but he hasn’t changed. Hygiene was another major difference. The world (and houses and people) of old were a lot smellier. But perhaps the most significant difference is transport. Travel was slow, and even 50 kilometers away was foreign. Long distance holidays did not exist. Modern transport has changed our society beyond their imagination. Now we have moved beyond even that: the worldwide on-line community which our children inhabit would have been alien to our parents. But this community grew out of a transport revolution.
Before this revolution, just two centuries ago, life was lived in the slow lane. There were no cars, trains, or planes, and ships were slow beyond believe. Carriages provided wheeled transport, but they required pulling power. This was invariably provided by horses. But horse-and-carriage had limits. The roads were often not optimal for them. The wheels would create deep ruts which could make them near impassable wherever maintenance faltered. And even paved roads were not always optimal. Take for instance the famous Roman roads which were the glue of an empire. They were straight as an arrow, completely oblivious to the topography of the land. The ascends were therefore often steep, far too steep for a horse and carriage. Roman roads were made for walking, excellent for mass transport of armies but unsuitable for cargo.
The biggest problem about transport, though, was cost. A horse was very expensive. One draft horse could be as much as the annual income of an average farmer. (A war horse would be ten times as much or more but was less useful to the average peasant. Being a knight required wealth.) Rent-a-horse or share-a-horse was often the only option.
But everything changed in the early 19th century. And it involved a volcano.
The trouble began on April 5, 1815, when distant cannon fire was heard. Indonesia had become British in 1811, to prevent the French from taking over; Sir Raffles, the governor in Java, send a regiment of troops to investigate the attack. No enemy could be found. The next day, some ash was falling and the sun appeared as in a fog. It was evident that a volcano had erupted, but no one knew which one. Earthquakes were felt in the east of Java on the 11th, and the Sun darkened further: visibility was reduced to 300 meters. On April 12, the morning in Batavia was late. People woke up in darkness, unsure of the time, and breakfast was held in candle light. The darkness began to lift a little by 10am, by which time the first birds finally began to chirp. The sun became faintly visible only by the end of the day.
The unknown culprit was more than 500 km away, to the east. Tambora had only recently revealed itself to be volcanic. Three years earlier, people living closer to the events first noted that Tambora had acquired a summit cloud which the wind would not disperse. Later, occasional thunder was heard. In 1814, a ship which passed close to the coast reported significant activity at the mountain. A cloud of ashes blackened one side of the horizon, looking to the world like a threatening tropical squall. In fact, it was mistaken for one and the commander of the ship took in sail, and prepared to encounter it. On approach, the real nature of the phenomenon became apparent, and ashes even fell on the deck. The stories finally reached Batavia, and a Mr. Israel was dispatched to investigate. Mr. Israel reached Tambora on 9 April 1815. He did not survive.
The main phase of the eruption started on April 5, 1815, with violent explosions. The first full-blown explosions had in fact already been on April 1, but this news never reached Java. The big event came on the evening of April 10, a day after the arrival of Mr Israel. It changed what had been a VEI-5 event into the third (or even second) largest eruption of the millennium. It caused a day of darkness 500 km away; nearer Tambora complete darkness lasted for several days, and the air didn’t fully clear until the monsoon rains resumed on the 17th. Some activity continued until July 15 but this was minor compared to the two major eruptions of April 5 and 10. The mountain had been as high as 4 km before the events (the actual height is not recorded); the two explosions reduced this to less than 3 km afterwards. The devastation around Tambora was total: the area was wiped by the explosions, ash fall, whirlwinds (probably pyroclastics), a tsunami, and afterwards starvation. Estimates range between 60,000 and 120,000 casualties. The nearest known survivor was 20 km from the summit, and it didn’t include Mr. Israel. His demise was part of the largest natural disaster ever to hit the British Empire.
Tambora’s demise was the biggest explosion on Earth since 1453, or perhaps since 1257. An interesting aside is that the 1815 and 1257 explosions happened within sight of each other: from the remnant of Tambora, the peak of Rinjani at 160 km distance is visible on the horizon.
The eruption had an enormous effect on Indonesia. But the rest of the world would not escape. It just took time.
World without summer
Boston, June 1816
The weather was atrocious. It had been a fairly mild winter with less snow than usual, whilst spring had been colder than usual. March and April were cold and dry, and the grass would not grow. Cold fronts regularly penetrated far south and there was frost in May where normally the last frost would have been in April. Merchantmen had reported fields of ice floating in the Atlantic, east of the St. Lawrence. But June started out warm – it looked like summer had finally begun. Crops began to grow. That was much needed as by now the winter hay had run out. June 5 was the warmest day of the year. But on June 6 a strong northwesterly wind set in, and it brought dramatically cold weather. Temperatures plummeted and snow flurries began to fall.
In Boston’s history, snow so late in the season remains unique. Northern New York State and parts of New England had a full-blown snowstorm, dumping 6 inches in places. Frost badly damaged the still tender crops; households had to restart the winter fires to stay warm. Comments in various diaries include “the most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen” and “this is beyond anything of the kind I have ever known”. The cold and frost lasted for five days. Birds, lambs and corn died.
The Reporter (a Vermont newspaper) gave an account of the strange weather:
“The Season — It is believed that the memory of no man living can furnish a parallel to this present season. From every part of the United States, north of the Potomac, as well as from Canada, we have accounts of the remarkable coldness of the weather, and of vegetation retarded or destroyed by untimely frosts. In Montreal, on the 6th, 8th, and 9th of June were falls of snow, and from the 6th to the 10th, it froze every night. Birds, which were never before found except in remote forests, were then to be met with in every part of the city, and among the [flocks], and many of them benumbed with cold, dropped dead in the streets. From the northern and western parts of New York, and from Maine, we have received accounts of summer snows, and winter lingering in the lap of June; and the most gloomy apprehensions of distressing scarcity are entertained by those who witnessed the phenomena.”
(The Sun would have used simpler and more colourful language. And blamed Europe.)
The strange weather continued throughout the summer. The remainder of June was warm but there were more cold snaps in July and August, and frost was recorded every month. Some summer days had temperatures below 5 C (40 F) as far south as Connecticut. The summer of 1816 was 2 C colder than average, the coldest on record. And it wasn’t just cold. Extraordinary drought did as much damage as the frost. Hay, fruits, and vegetables became scarce. Corn seemed to recover in a gloomy August but two further frosts killed the crops. The corn harvest was as low as 10% of normal in some areas. The drought finally broke in September but this was too late. One of the many victims was Thomas Jefferson: he had just left the presidency and returned to farming, but his crops too failed and he was left in debt. It became known as the years when farmers both froze and starved.
There was much discussion on the cause of the terrible weather. Some blamed the sun spots which were visible, whilst others blamed a total solar eclipse. Some just quoted Job, ‘By the breath of God frost is given‘. None connected the weather to a volcano which they had never heard of. Only in 1920, more than a century later, was this connection finally made.
The climate downturn also affected China, but here it started earlier. There was frost in Hebei in September 1815, followed by freezing weather in Yunnan where famine conditions would occur in the following year. Yunnan (next to Burma) is a rice-growing area, and frosts wiped out the rice. Taiwan had snow and frost in December, something that is very rare. The monsoon rains were less than usual for the following three years.
Europe, too, was badly affected in the summer of 1816. It shared with New England the cold weather but missed out on the drought. The diary of pastor Arnold Borret from the Netherlands provides some details. It reports snow on May 13 and later says that the weather was very wet. The winter fires were kept burning until July. The weather improved in August, but the first half of September was again very wet, with extensive flooding. A mosquito plague brought thick layers of dead flies on the canals. It was difficult to store the hay. Later in September the rain came again, and the second hay harvest was completely lost. Food prices rose, and much of the cattle had drowned. The alternation between drought and excessive rain continued until March 1817. From February 1816 until March 1817, sunny weather never lasted more than two consecutive days. On 10 March 1817 the sun returned and the weather finally improved. It is notable how much the weather is mentioned in his diary!
It can be difficult for us to envisage what a mosquito plague was like. I have seen clouds of them thick enough to black out lamp posts. But that was 40 years ago and now you only see a few at a time. The plague in the Netherlands is in contrast to New England which had a mosquito-free year thanks to the drought.
We know from other records that frost occurred in Europe in June and in August. London had snow on 30 August. Central Europe had snow in June 1816, reportedly coloured red and brown in Hungary; this may have been from Saharan dust which can reach these regions fairly frequently. The coldest weather was reported from France and Switzerland. Rain and storms are mentioned, for instance Merionethshire (Wales) had only 3 or 4 days without rain between May and October 1816. Geneva too reports an almost perpetual rain in June 1816.
It hadn’t been this bad everywhere. Russia and the Ukraine had slightly warmer weather than normal, and north Scandinavia had normal temperatures.
Facts, numbers, and units
Weather descriptions from diaries can be telling, but they often lack hard numbers. A description of ‘snow’ gives a good indication that temperatures were near or below freezing, but ‘cold and wet’ is open to interpretation. To know what really went on, numbers are needed. By 1815, actual weather measurements were taken at many places, and so such data is available, at least for the western world. Both atmospheric pressure and local temperature were measured.
But using these historical data can be complicated. For instance, the measured pressure is affected by the local temperature: a correction needs to be made if the temperature changes. These temperatures were listed at ‘professional’ locations (often observatories) but are rarely available for the many ‘amateur’ locations. Science, in these days, often was done as a hobby rather than by professionals (and isn’t that what VC is about as well?).
Another problem is that the metric system had not yet been universally adopted. Each country still had its own measurement system, and the listed numbers cannot be interpreted unless the units are known. Pressure was measured in inches – but not all inches were the same. The UK and America used the English inch (25.40 mm). Some countries used the Paris inch (27.07 mm). But other countries used neither. Sweden used the Swedish inch (29.69 mm), Austria the Vienna inch (26.34 mm), the Netherlands had an inch of 26.15 mm, and Spain used one of 23.22 mm.
The barometric measurements are listed in long tables. These normally give the number of inches, followed by a subdivision (the remainder). The scales used either 4, 12 or 16 subdivisions, depending on country, apart from Sweden and the UK where decimal subunits were used.
Temperatures were normally given in Fahrenheit or on the Réaumur scale. The latter was a French system where the freezing point of water was set to zero and the boiling point to 80 degrees; it is still sometimes used in food production. Fahrenheit originally defined his scale using zero degrees as the melting point of an equal mixture of water and salt, 32 degrees for the freezing point of water, and 96 degrees as body temperature. The latter was measured from alcohol kept in the mouth of a healthy (not feverish) person (for which he used his wife). He used the number 96 for this because it is divisible by 16, the number of subdivisions he used. This is also the reason why the freezing point of water corresponds to 32 F. There is some dispute whether he actually used the water/salt mix. The Fahrenheit scale has since been redefined and the new Fahrenheit scale differs by a few degrees at the highest and lowest temperatures from the old one. By 1814, the new Celsius scale was just beginning to become established; it had been adopted in France and in Sweden.
Calendar dates had been unified in most places (but not Russia). Time was normal given as local solar time – there was no single time system even within a single country.
Distances were also far from unified. For example, for measurements made from a ship in 1816, the location was often given in ‘seemeile’: this could be an English nautical mile, but the same word was also used for a ‘league’, which is three nautical miles. You can imagine the confusion.
Correcting for all these complications, it has been possible to numbers on the post-Tambora weather, and to interpret its patterns. The first winter, 1815/1816 was a bit colder than usual in Europe, but not extreme. Initially it had been fairly mild, but the cold weather hit in late January and early February 1815. The barometric measurements indicate a typical blocking high pressure system over Scandinavia, and low pressure systems in the Mediterranean, giving rise to easterly winds from Siberia. On Feb 10, the temperature in London dropped to -19 C (measured at 2 meters height, not at the ground). This was the lowest measured temperature there since 1797. Scandinavia was a tad colder, with Härnösand (central Sweden) reporting -37 C and Ylitornio, on the northern Swedish-Finnish border, -40 C. This also was colder than average but not extreme. January 1814 and December 1817 (before and well after Tambora) were colder.
Now the weather deteriorated: the spring brought little warmth and the summer never came. In early July, central Europe reported temperatures a staggering 7 C below average.
Here is a plot of average temperatures over these years. The winters were not extreme, but the summers were cold. In hindsight, the cold summer weather first appeared in July 1815.
The weather in 1816 was unique. But why the delay of one year? And what was the weather pattern?
Tambora erupted in April, at the start of the southern winter. The surface wind was from the southeast, and most of the ash went into the sea. But at higher altitudes the airflow was different. The tropical jet which distributed Krakatau’s (and Toba’s) ashes around the world does not blow in April. Instead, the normal circulation of the higher atmosphere is such that most of the sulphate may have gone south. Indeed, some studies (but not all) show that more sulphate from Tambora was deposited in Antarctica than in Greenland.
In that case, why was the weather impact so significant? This may be because Tambora did not stand alone. A major (but unidentified) eruption in 1808/9 had already pre-cooled the climate. Tambora amplified an already existing situation. (The Mayon eruption in 1814 may have had a small effect as well.) This is very similar to the eruption pair in 536/540. However, it should also be noted that the single Rinjani eruption from 1257 had an even worse impact on weather. VEI 7’s do carry a lot of power.
Pressure measurements indicate that the summer of 1816 had a weak Azores high and a strong Icelandic low in the North Atlantic. The resulting airflow was sending frequent low‐pressure systems on a generally westerly and northwesterly route towards Europe. Hence the cold weather and the incessant rain. The back flow brought warmer weather than usual to the Ukraine. North Scandinavia escaped the weather systems and had average to above average temperatures. Climate models support this pattern after a tropical eruption: it corresponds to a positive North Atlantic Anomaly. Immediately after a major volcanic eruption, Western Europe tends to have a mild and wet winter, while Spain has a dry one.
The North Atlantic was cold with more reports of sea ice than normal, but there was an exception around Greenland where there was less sea ice than normal. East America was very cold, but the west of the continent appeared to have had warmer weather than normal as indicated by tree rings. Thus, it was not uniformly cold across the northern hemisphere: a significant part of the weather came from the changing circulation. The average temperature was still among the lowest recorded, but it was down by much less than the weather in Boston and Europe would have suggested.
The climate models confirm that the coldest phase occurs a year after an eruption. They also show that the southern hemisphere is much less affected, because it is mostly ocean and this has a more stable temperature (ocean has a much higher heat capacity than continents). The heating of the stratosphere (where the sulphate absorbs sunlight) makes the polar vortex stronger. As the sulphates slowly descend, the warm layer in the atmosphere descends with them.
The models also show that the Asian monsoon weakens, bringing drought to southeast Asia and India. This may be related to the Yunnan famine. Drought is also predicted in the tropics, two years after the eruption. This may indeed have happened in Indonesia, suggested by tree rings.
The effect on temperatures shows that there must have been a significant sulphate haze in the stratosphere. But there is remarkably little mention of this in documents of the time. Starting from 15 May 1815 until the end of the year, London reported lurid sunsets, with red and orange colours streaked with dark bands. In May 1816 Washington D.C. was worse affected: “the whole atmosphere is filled with a thick haze, the inconvenience of which is not diminished by the clouds of impalpable dust which floats in the air“. At the same time in Virginia it was reported that “the atmosphere is continually impregnated with a fine dust, very injurious to respiration“. But this dust cannot have come from Tambora and more likely was associated with forest fires, caused by the drought. More relevant is perhaps a report from Boston in July 1816: “The Sun’s rays, it has been frequently remarked, have not their usual power.”
There was also no report of blue and green suns, as was seen after Krakatau. Part of the reason for this could be that much of the ash and sulphate initially was blown to the south. The coloured suns of Krakatau were mainly seen in the first month after the eruption: after that the particles of the particular size (1 micron) to discolour the sun had dropped out of the atmosphere. The sulphate layer may only have reached the North Atlantic region midway through the summer, by which time the lack of warmth of the sun could have felt like normal progressions of the seasons. A weakened sun may even have been quite nice in the harvest season.
Still, modelling of the sulphate deposits, plus reports of sunspots visible in the daytime (which requires considerable dimming) suggests that the sum must have been dimmed considerably. The models suggest this peaked in September 1815 but the dimming may have been significant even three years later.
In Europe, few seem to have noticed a lack of power in the sun. The people may have been accustomed to haze by the sheer number of eruptions around this time. The lurid sunset in London in 1815 have already been mentioned. But similar sunsets had also been seen in 1814, caused by a major eruption from Mayon in February 1814. In Italy, Vesuvius was in a long-lasting eruption which caused frequent ash clouds across the country. And of course, people still remembered the disaster fogs from 1783 which covered much of the continent – all new fogs paled in comparison to the memory of that. A weak sun and a dry reddish fog was noted in 1814 in Italy (presumably from Mayon), but there are no similar reports from 1815 and only one fog report from 1816 (9 and 10 July 1816). In January 1817, a fog was reported stretching from Sicily to England, but it is not noted whether this was dry fog or a normal winter fog. Perhaps the exceedingly poor weather was hiding the sun so much that the high level haze was missed.
Hunger and disease
The weather of 1816 led to the last major subsistence crisis of the western world. Food prices rocketed throughout 1816 and 1817. The US was hit. It had sufficient resources nation-wide and overall there was enough food to last until the good harvest of 1817. But individuals had a hard time: people went bankrupt, and suffered hunger and starvation. The UK was hit but managed thanks to massive food imports in 1817, mainly through the port of Liverpool. However, the hardship was still evident from the increased migration to America. The cold and damp of 1816 also claimed victims, including the author Jane Austen. Ireland was hit worse, and 44,000 died of typhus: the epidemic was linked to the malnutrition after the poor harvest.
Central Europe was worst affected. The continent had been devastated by years of war (the battle of Waterloo was only two months after Tambora). It shared in the poor harvest across Europe: wheat production was down by 75% across France, England and Ireland, but Central Europe had the added problem that food transport within the continent was slow – this was before the railways, still the age of the horse. And people were generally poor. After the wars, many ex-soldiers were looking for work, but there was none. This was the year of potato riots. Perhaps 200,000 people died of famine. Different countries dealt with the issue differently. Some imported as much wheat as they could (the Netherlands, France, England). Others used an export ban on wheat (Southern Germany, Canada). But the export bans didn’t work as well as the food was still priced out of reach of the needy. And it led to mis-distribution of food. There was mass starvation in Appenzell, while nearby Basel had plenty of bread but was not allowed to export it to another Swiss canton. Sometimes good intentions had unintended consequences. The crowded conditions around the soup kitchens which had sprung up led to the spread of typhoid.
Cholera followed. It started in India and rapidly spread worldwide, reaching London in 1818. The link between the cholera epidemics and Tambora is not proven, but the timing agrees with the impacts of Tambora. The explosive spread of the disease is perhaps related to the failed Asian monsoon.
The cultural impacts of the missing summer were different for each country. In Indonesia, where the local area was devastated, the local culture and language was effectively wiped out. Elsewhere, the impact was less drastic but not unimportant.
In America, the area west of the Appalachians had been opening up, and the starving farmers saw an opportunity. They began to migrate. Reports from North Carolina and Ohio talk about ‘roads covered with wagons’, with numbers of migrating farmers ‘exceeding belief’. The nation was changed forever by this westward migration. This was the time when the bible-belt from Ohio to the Great Lakes and the burned-over region in western New York state became important. The people moving there brought with them a strong religious identity, but also an individualistic mindset. This mindset was strongly set against slavery. The abolition movement which would eventually lead to war was led from this area. Here also was the first college to accept black students. Joseph Smith was part of a family which moved here in 1817 from Vermont: he went on to found the Mormon church. In a way, the Mormons too can trace their roots to Tambora.
Europe responded differently. The best-known cultural memory of the non-summer of 1816 remains the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (at that time still called Mary Godwin). This novel was written while they (young Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and his personal physician) were staying in Geneva. They had been planning to spend the time sailing on Lake Geneva, but the appalling weather prevented this. Once their conversation ran out, they challenged each other to write ghost stories. This was the start of the Romantic movement, a culture which to us now seems both impressive and depressive. It was deeply susceptible to the gloom of a summer that never came. Frankenstein came out of this.
A shift was also seen in science. Until the 18th century, western thinking could rely on the promise that the Earth was designed for humanity. This view is found even in the ‘Theory of the Earth’, the master piece of the Scottish geologist James Hutton. But cracks had been appearing. George Cuvier, from his study of fossils, has concluded that there had been various catastrophes and upheavals. Comte de Buffon, in ‘Les époques de la nature’ (1778) claimed that the Earth had undergone a process of gradual cooling since its creation and proposed that it would eventually become too cold to be inhabitable. The three opposing views constituted a vigorous argument. The current climate is in some ways a rerun of these arguments, since it too involves people who believe that it will all work out, people who predict catastrophe, and people who believe that any action is futile. This was the world into which Tambora exploded and brought its year-long winter, seemingly siding with Comte de Buffon. Percy Shelley wrote about the glaciers of Mont Blanc, and envisaged how they would expand until they overran the entire valleys. He quoted de Buffon ‘I will not pursue Buffon’s sublime but gloomy theory — that this globe which we inhabit will at some future period be changed into a mass of frost by the encroachments of the polar ice, and of that produced on the most elevated points of the earth.’
Romanticism developed while this discussion was on-going, and it tried to deal with the sense of a world in which humanity was marginalised. Frankenstein lives in this conflict. The novel is about a search for a place of safety which the Creature never finds. In the end, the Creature prefers the ice and cold: ‘These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than your fellow beings’. The Creature is better suited to the new world than his creator who abandoned him. If this was the world of Comte de Buffon, the future was for him, not for us. In the lost summer, other people suffered hunger. The Romantics suffered despair.
Romanticism was a response to the loss of the certainty of a caring world, a phase any teenager has to get through. Tambora did not cause Romanticism. But Tambora did give it its lasting power.
And there was one further, long-lasting impact. The widespread hunger led to questions whether governments should step in to help. The philosophy up to this point had been that it shouldn’t. Governments were for governing states, not to help individuals. Malthus had argued that relief of the poor “relieves them for a short time, but leaves them afterwards in a condition worse than before”. Others claimed that funds raised for employing destitute people were wasted. The most inhumane was perhaps the otherwise ‘enlightened’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that “it is quite a good thing that a certain number of people should get killed now and then” in the interest of population control. The famine of 1816 and 1817 began to change opinions, and governments started to accept that it should protect all citizens, not just favoured groups, even if this required direct public intervention. Change was slow. The process would come to a head three decades later during the Irish famines, made so much worse by the failure of the government to act. (In fact this future disaster was already foreshadowed in 1816/17: the English government took care of its own people, but completely ignored the plight of the Irish.) This change of thinking was as significant to Europe as abolition of slavery was to America.
Tambora did not change the world on its own. Just as it amplified the effects of another eruption which had happened seven years earlier, so it accelerated social and cultural changes that were already in progress. It exploded into a volatile and unstable world.
Horse power: the end
But one development brought about by Tambora changed our world more than any other. And it began in a badly hit part of the world: southern Germany.
Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn (1785-1851) lived in Karlsruhe, and as the long name implies, came from an important family even though he was a bit of a student radical. He is also known as Baron Karl Drais (a ‘Freiherr’ was a baron), Karl von Drais, or just Karl Drais (after he foolishly surrendered his title late in life). He studied physics in Heidelberg, and afterwards, with plenty of spare time (being wealthy but not needed), became an inventor.
His time came in 1816. At this time, horses were still the only means for fast transport. However, they had drawbacks. A horse and carriage takes up a lot of space, which limited the number of people on the road. They were not really suited for mass transport. (In fact, traffic jams began to develop at this time.) In cities, horses were far from ideal because of their biological exhaust system. And when famine hit, horses were not spared. They were eaten, or starved. (If you don’t fuel a car, it will still be there a year later. If you don’t fuel a horse, it isn’t.) A transport crisis was looming.
In response, Karl Draise came up with a two-wheel, feet-powered conception. He brilliancy was in realizing that two wheels can be stable, something that is not obvious from looking at it. In this he perhaps was helped by his physics education. The contraption was first demonstrated in June 1817: he managed to cover 14 km in one hour. It was three times faster than walking, without any horse being involved.
His two-wheeled ‘velocipede’ became known as the Draisine. It was nick-named the hobby-horse. The driver sat between the wooden wheels, and used his feet on the ground (a bit like a modern Flintstone ) to propel the Draisine forward. Once some speed has been reached, feet can be lifted, at least for a short while. The hobby horse needed no feeding, no servants, produced no exhaust, and was several times faster than walking. It was a winner.
Or at least it should have been. It turned out that the deeply rutted roads of the time were not well suitable to it – and do realize how heavy this wooden machine was. The Draisine took of as wildfire, but people used it to ride not on the rutted roads but on the city pavements where their speed cause mayhem and accidents. City after city banned it. Eventually the bicycle was developed from it, but only when the roads had been improved to suit this new, environmentally friendly, non-biological transport.
Karl Drais had an eventful life, punctuating new inventions with some poor personal choices. But he is remembered for this hobby horse. It paved the way for our modern society, shaped by fast, cheap transport. When he died in 1851, just down the road from him lived a young Carl Benz. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Tambora blew it, the weather affected Europe and America many months before news of the eruption reached. The people living through it never made the connection: the volcano acted from the shadows. It happened at a time when the world was ready for change. It pushed us toward a change in thinking, a change in caring, and a change in moving. The French revolution had been a failure, as human revolutions normally are. Tambora’s explosion caused a revolution that lasted; it reshaped our world. The climate soon returned to the situation before Tambora. The world never did. Nothing has altered, but everything’s changed. George Cuvier would have approved. Volcanoes are the movers and shakers of our world. Our lives are their legacy.
Albert, September 2019