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Motorcycle History 101

Invention of the Motorcycle

Jennifer Rails (December 2018)

If you look at today's motorcycles you might just wonder exactly how and when the history of these amazing machines started. You would think that there would be a simple answer to an easy question, but unfortunately there is no direct answer. There is debate about whom really invented the first motorcycle and when, so you will just have to make the judgment for yourself.Vintage Motorcycle

When you begin to study the history of the motorcycle, you quickly realize that it is actually the combination of three creative inventions, the bicycle, and the steam/gas engine and rubber tires. Without these three clever creations the technological advances that followed, there could be no motorcycle.  These three unique inventions were conceived during different time periods, but were eventually combined to create what many consider the most marvelous simple machine ever invented, enjoyed by millions all over the world.

The Bicycle

The history of the bicycle is also somewhat debatable, but many historians point to the German Baron von Drais, who in 1817 built a type of walking machine that, had two large wheels, a front type of steering wheel, and a frame that you could hop on. This odd contraption did not have any foot pedals, so in order to get moving one would have to push with their feet on the ground.

The next major improvement that was made in 1865 when foot pedals were added directly to the front wheel of the bicycle. Known as the velocipede, which in French means “fast foot”, this form of the bicycle continued to evolve to the common, everyday form of transportation that we see today. (For more information about the history of the bicycle, try the International Bicycle Fund)

The Tire

We know that the wheel was invented sometime around 3500 BC, but early wheels were made out of stone and then wood, which of course meant travels were very hard and bumpy.  More importantly, a wooden wheel has horrible traction, and is designed to be pulled.  A wheel that “drives” a vehicle requires traction, so we'll consider the invention of the tire an important component to the motorcycle. It wasn't until the year 1839 that Charles Goodyear found a way to keep rubber in a solid state.  Rubber in its natural state is very sticky during hot weather and contracts a great deal when cooled. It was largely unusable before Goodyear discovered his special procedure.

Robert William Thomson actually invented the first pneumatic wheel in 1845, but due to manufacturing costs, the product failed.  It wasn't until 1888 that John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, developed the first practical pneumatic tire for his son's tricycle.

The Engine

You may be thinking, why include the steam engine? Well, as you may have guessed, the first motorcycles were operated by steam engines. The first steam engine can be traced back to the Greek engineer and geometer Heron of Alexandria sometime before 300 BC. Many engineers since then have experimented with various types of steam engines, but it wasn't until 1769 when the Scottish inventor James Watt developed the first practical steam engine by improving the Newcomen engine design. (Some sources say that the Newcomen engine was the first true steam engine, but there was an even earlier steam engine made by Thomas Savery in 1679).  Moving forward to 1867, the German designed Otto-Langen atmosphere engine was developed and about five years later with the help of Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach they designed the first four-stroke engine.  You can see what these revolutionary engines looked like look here:
Hero's aeolipile
Newcomen Atmospheric Engine


Putting It All Together

There may be some dispute over when the actual first motorcycle was assembled, but one thing is for sure; the 19th century was the century in which the earliest motorcycles were being developed.

Some might say that the first motorcycle was built by American inventor Sylvester Howard Roper, who built a two-cylinder steam powered version 867.  This “motorcycle” was credited with achieving speeds up to 36 mph. Unfortunately Sylvester Roper died of a heart attack while trying to break his own speed record while showing off his machine at a state fair (he did break the record at 40mph!).  Knowing that, you could say this guy was certainly qualifies as one of the first “motorcyclists”!  Here is a picture of that history-making machine.
At roughly the same time as the Roper machine was being built, the French brothers Ernest and Henri Michaux along with their father Pierre were putting a Perreaux steam-powered engine on a velocipede (bicycle), and in 1868 they renamed their new invention the Michaux - Perreaux Steam Velocipede.

Some also argue that the credit could go Gottlieb Daimler, a German automotive engineer who placed a one-cylinder 264cc Otto-cycle engine on a wooden bicycle with the wheels being made of iron with wooden spokes. His engineering partner Wilhelm Maybach test rode the “motorcycle” for about 2 miles, but with the iron wheels, it only achieved about 7.5 mph.  The first “factory ride”?

The first motorcycle to actually resemble today's machines was the Millet Motorcycle, built by the Frenchman Felix Millet in 1892. This machine had pneumatic tires and a five-cylinder rotary engine built into the rear wheel.
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