Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts


Looking back at the aftermath of the eruption, it had worldwide ramifications on crops, which led to famine and disease all over the globe. The deaths from starvation have been estimated at around a million, but when you add the death toll from disease, especially the cholera epidemic which spread much more freely because of the disaster – the death toll in the aftermath may be as high as 10 million. In China the unseasonable weather killed off large numbers of trees, crops, water buffalo, and people. Changes in weather patterns caused the Yangtze basin to flood. This does not seem one of the bigger floods the basin has had throughout history, but it certainly added to the misery of the year without a summer.

Torrential downpours throughout south and central Asia allowed localized cholera outbreaks to spread like wildfire – all the way from Bengal to Moscow. Europe was at the tail end of the Little Ice Age when Tambora exploded – and this still had massive effects, causing crop failures across the continent – from riots in Switzerland, protests in France, Germany and Ireland. Climate change refugees in Wales packed up their belongings en-masse and headed for the towns and cities of England looking for opportunities. The Irish, decades away from a worse famine still were hit heavily. Eight weeks of non-stop rain ruined crops, and led to a typhus epidemic across Ireland which took an estimated 100,000 lives. What crops did survive became costly commodities. Now oats were a favorite for horses – much needed for transport and agriculture at this time. Suddenly it became extremely costly to keep a horse. Many horses subsequently were put down.

In Germany post Tambora, necessity proved the mother of invention for a German Baron and civil servant named Karl Von Drais. Drais was a prolific inventor who tried his hand at numerous inventions including an early version of the typewriter. He also worked as a forestry official. A responsibility of his job was to go round the forest checking the tree stands- platforms from which hunters could shoot from – were still safe. One day while thinking about how long a distance it was to walk from tree stand to tree stand, Drais comes up with an idea.

Now, to say Karl Von Drais invented the bicycle is not entirely accurate. In 1790 or 91 a French aristocrat named Comte Mede de Sivrac was reputed to have made the first wooden horse. Named the Celerifere, then later the Velocifere, these vehicles were two wheeled contraptions with no steering wheel, and no pedals. This meant sitting along the crossbar and building up momentum by running like you were Fred Flintstone in his car, then picking your feet up as the bike got some momentum. To turn you had to pull a wheelie and place the wheel back down in the direction you hoped to go. These devices were very popular among a set of people who liked to have races down long, paved roads like the French Champs Elysees. Drais innovated on the velocifere, adding a turnable front wheel, a padded seat, and padded elbow rets allowing the rider to put more weight on the vehicle. His bike, first developed in 1817, and exhibited the following year was called the Laufmaschine, later the velocipede. On its first test Drais too the bike out on a 14 kilometer roundtrip ride, and made the journey in a little over an hour.

The laufmaschine was definitely a step in the right direction, but only had limited appeal. To develop a new technology is a great thing, but if the infrastructure is not quite there is can prove troublesome. Most of the roads at the time were unpaved, and deeply scarred by track marks for carriages. Riding a bike along the more worn roads was quite dangerous. Many figured it was safer to ride them along footpaths. It was safer for riders, but not so much for pedestrians. While the ‘dandy-horse’ enjoyed some initial popularity, safety concerns saw them banned from the USA to Britain, Germany, and parts of India, something we are now seeing in cities around the world with electric scooters. This did Baron Von Drais no favours, nor did his growing sense of empathy for the proletariat, leading to his denunciation of his title, growing rifts with society, and eventual death in poverty in Baden in 1851. Coincidentally two blocks down the road from a then six year old Carl Benz. Drais’ idea would be picked up however.

In 1839 a Scottish inventor named Kirkpatrick MacMillan is believed to have invented a mechanism allowing riders to pedal a velocipede, however the design did not take. In 1863 a French blacksmith called Ernest Michaux did away with Flintstones motion by adding a rotary crank with two pedals to the front wheel of a velocipede, creating the first modern bicycle. While these bikes were also popular at first – in 1868 in the USA it was noted a few coach makers began mass producing bikes, young students at Harvard and Yale universities fell in love with the bicycle, and riding schools popped up everywhere – the bike was still too cumbersome for most, and many cities were unwilling to lift their bans of the bicycle.

In 1871 British engineer James Starley innovated by creating a much faster, lighter, more efficient bicycle. Often referred to as the Ordinary – Starley had named it the Ariel – but better known, owing to it’s large front wheel and smaller back wheel as a penny farthing (in reference to the big penny and smaller farthing). Starley’s bicycle was a big step up, in more ways than one – and spurred a resurgence in the late 1870s.

The danger in taking a header, to tumble head first over the handlebars, still had many concerned. Various inventors worked to build a safety bike, which put the rider on two wheels of the same size, and moved the gears to the back wheel via a chain. James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley finally broke the mold in 1885 with the Rover Safety bike – the great precursor of most of the bikes we ride today.

There is so much could be said about the bicycle. Perhaps that it allowed women a level of freedom of movement in western societies, which helped the first wave feminists- especially after the safety bike – coordinate better. Despite moral panics, men often claiming riding a bicycle could cause ‘bicycle face’ effectively something like telling a child not to pull faces in case the wind changes and they get stuck that way- the pioneering feminists took to their bikes, and won the right to vote, in some cases property rights, the right to their own earnings, run their own businesses and enter professions.
One could point out, bicycles led to employees being able to move further away from their places of employment – which in turn led to the rise of suburban living, and all the good and bad that entails. You could make a point that as bicycles became really popular in the 1880s, governments finally began throwing some serious money behind laying paved roads everywhere. The aforementioned Mr Benz’s invention, the motorcar only around the corner; and with the limitations of rail becoming apparent by this time bikes literally paved the way for the later automotive boom. One could point out a story of two brothers, bicycle builders by trade, using their expertise to create, and test an incredible flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th 1903.
One could also point out another bicycle maker in New Zealand, 25 year old Richard Pearse, used his expertise to probably beat the Wright brothers to the punch, on March 31st 1903.

I am very wary of overselling the upside to Mount Tambora in this act – make no mistake all up over 10 million people died as a result of the eruption, and subsequent year without a summer – but it did create a need, and necessity being the mother of invention, we did step up. That one invention did help usher in important steps towards a more equal society, gave many freedom to roam, and helped usher in the transport innovations of the 20th century.


1 thought on “Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts

  1. Pingback: Podcast Episode 8: Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts (Acts III and IV) | Tales of History and Imagination

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