From penny farthings to steam-powered cycles to modern motorcycles, the motorcycle has come a long way. Like most inventions, the motorcycle evolved gradually, over a long period of time. This makes it impossible to pinpoint a single inventor or engineer who could lay sole claim on the invention.
The earliest prototypes of the motorcycle were introduced by inventors and engineers across Europe during the 19th century. Most of these inventors had the same idea- to make the already successful model of the safety bicycle faster, durable, powerful and most importantly, self-propelled.
Early Steam-powered Bicycles: The Start Of A Journey
In the 1860s, a French blacksmith, Pierre Michaux, founded the first company to manufacture bicycles propelled by pedals. These earliest prototypes, called Velocipedes or “Michaulines”, were actually quite similar to modern day bicycles. With this discovery, inventors around the world began formulating their designs of an automated, self-propelled version of the velocipede.
With the help of primitive technology, inventors designed several prototypes that would eventually pave the way for the invention of modern motorcycles. Pioneering the steam-powered bicycle was American inventor Sylvester H. Roper. He constructed the first two-cylinder steam-powered velocipede in 1867. Many consider this to be the first-ever motorcycle.
For his contribution, Roper was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. Roper, a brilliant inventor, is also credited with the invention of the steam-engine car. Unfortunately, he died in an accident in 1896, riding one of his own inventions.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Frenchman Ernest Michaux designed his own version of a steam-powered velocipede. The design was fired by alcohol and twin belt drives that powered the front wheel.
In 1881, Lucius Copeland, an inventor from Phoenix, Arizona, designed a steam boiler that could accelerate the rear wheel of a bicycle up to impressive speeds of 12 mph. Later, in 1887, Copeland founded a manufacturing company producing a three wheeled contraption called the “Moto-cycle”.
The Invention Of The Gas-engined Motorcycle
Over the next 10 years, numerous designs of self propelled bicycles appeared across the world. It is widely acknowledged that the first implementation of a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was done by a German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler. Daimler along with his lifelong business partner, Wilhelm Maybach, formulated designs to create small, high-speed engines that could be mounted on any locomotive device.
In 1885, Daimler and Maybach finally developed the Petroleum Reitwagen, which translates to the riding car. For this invention, Daimler is often credited for engineering the first-ever motorcycle. Daimler’s design was constructed mostly of wood and the wheels were iron-banded and wooden-spoked wagon type wheels.
The prototype was powered by a single cylinder, Otto-cycle engine, and most likely had a spray-type carburetor. This was a landmark moment in motorcycle history as the dual development of a gasoline-powered engine and the modern bicycle were combined to create the motorcycle. Many consider this to be the moment when motorcycles were invented.
The Otto cycle engine was a four-stroke internal combustion engine developed by Nicolas Otto. Daimler combined this with a bicycle model to create the Reitwagen. Oddly though, the Reitwagen did not possess a maneuverable front wheel. Instead, it relied on a pair of outrigger wheels to keep the bike upright while steering. This was quite similar to training wheels found on modern bicycles these days.
Daimler was a prodigious engineer and went on experimenting with gasoline-powered motorboats. He was also a pioneer in the commercial car manufacturing arena. His company, Daimler Benz, eventually evolved into the automobile giants we know today, Mercedes Benz.
Most of the development during the earliest eras of motorcycle history concentrated on three or four-wheeled designs. Since then, balancing these vehicles was a major concern. However, in 1892 came the Millet, the next notable two-wheeler since Diamler’s Reitwagen. It used a 5-cylinder engine which propelled the rear wheel.
However, the first successful production of a two-wheeler was by Hildebrand and Wolfmueller, which they patented in Munich in 1894. They established a production line factory to manufacture motorcycles. This was also the first time that we hear the word “motorcycle” being used to describe these two-wheeled self propelled vehicles. These motorcycles had a parallel twin engine mounted low on the frame. The motorcycles were water-cooled and had a radiator/water tank built into the rear fender.
In 1895, the French company De Dion-Bouton, would build an engine that would make the mass production of motorcycles possible. The Dion-Bouton motor is often labeled as the mother of all motorcycle engines. It was a high-revving four stroke engine that was light, small and relied on battery-and-coil ignition. This engine was later copied and used by several manufacturers, including Harley Davidson.
In the U.S, the first production motorcycle was the Orient-Aster. This machine was built by the Metz Company in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1898. The motorcycle used an Aster engine, which in fact, was a copy of the French engine created by De Dion-Bouton.
The First Commercial Products And Modern Motorcycles
In the early period of motorcycle history, many bicycle manufacturers adapted their designs to make prototypes accommodating the internal-combustion engine. However, as engines became more powerful, their designs outgrew the lightweight framework of bicycles. This led to an increase in commercial motorcycle manufacturers.
The turn of the 20th century saw the first major mass production firms emerge. In 1901, English bicycle manufacturer Royal Enfield introduced its first motorcycle. The motorcycle accommodated a 239 cc engine mounted in the front, driving the rear wheel through a belt. The American company Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles in 1903. By 1920, Harley-Davidson became the largest motorcycle manufacturer with dealers in over 67 countries.
During this period, innovation was driven by the new and highly popular sport of motorcycle racing. The sport provided a powerful incentive to produce faster, tougher and more reliable machines. These enhancements quickly found their way into motorcycles produced for the masses. By 1914, motorcycles were no longer just bicycles with engines. Motorcycles now had their own technologies. Although many still included bicycle elements, motorcycles now were faster and more robust than ever before. As motorcycles got faster the need for good helmets and other safety gears also grew.
While there is no definitive answer to when was the motorcycle invented, There are several key landmarks in motorcycle history that cannot be ignored. The ingenuity of several inventors and engineers led to the creation of motorcycles as we know them today. Even now motorcycle technology is constantly evolving, taking the industry to the next level.