The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse was the first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine during the Regency. Originally patented by a German Baron, Karl von Drais, in 1817, the Dandy Horse was first produced in France. It enjoyed instant popularity among fashionable members of the middle class.
An innovative London coachmaker named Denis Johnson picked up the idea and created a new and improved patent in his workshop in Long Acre. His design featured an elegantly curved wooden frame, allowing the use of larger wooden wheels. Several parts were made of metal, which allowed the vehicle to be lighter than the continental version.
Johnson created hundreds of “hobby horses” and, to prove his skills as a marketer, even established a riding schools in the Strand and Soho where prospective clients could try out his new machine. Johnson then introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts. It was an instant success. Fashionable young men of the day known as dandies led the craze, and during the spring and summer of 1819, the hobby-horse was all the rage in fashionable London society.
The velocipede came with an adjustable saddle for steering. Atiller mechanism controlled the front wheel. A dashboard behind the front wheel helped with steering and pushing. Intrepid riders propelled the wooden 'hobby-horse' velocipede by pushing their feet on the ground. Going uphill was probably a challenge but one could coast downhill. There were no brakes; one simply dragged his or her feet on the ground to stop. I have no doubt there were a number of accidents, as a result.
The pedestrian hobby horse had many names; velocipede, hobby-horse, dandy-horse, accelerator, swift walker, and a number of other names.
For about six months, the hobby horse enjoyed a high profile in London. Once the novelty had worn off, the craze died out. Johnson's son undertook a tour of England in the spring of 1819 to exhibit and publicize the item but by then, the velocipede’s glory days were over. No doubt the London Surgeons who issued a health warning against the continued use of the hobby horse added to its demise.
Few English or French cycling literature the hobby-horse use after 1820, but apparently in central Europe hobby horses were made and sold into the 1830s.
The hobby horse enjoyed a bright, short burst of fame. However, it did lead to the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s. Based on Johnson's design, the machine was resurrected and improved; rotary cranks and pedals were attached to the front-wheel hub of a velocipede. I could find no data on when the brakes were added but that would have been a major selling point for me.