Human innovation has done wonders. From inventions like simple flint tools to hunt and farm, which advanced humankind by leaps and bounds, to airplanes which have advanced to the point of circling the world in a matter of hours instead of days.
One of those boggling inventions is the motorcycle.
The consensus is that the first motorcycle was a descendant of the “safety bicycle” and was created around 1868. Though, arguably, the first automated bicycle was actually invented the year before in Paris. A French blacksmith by the name of Pierre Michaux is credited with creating the first bicycle with pedals, he called theses velocipedes. His son Ernest created the first steam-powered bicycle in 1867 by attaching a steam engine to one of these velocipedes. Ernest’s steam engine was fired by alcohol and twin belt drives powered the front wheel.
The man most commonly credited with the creation of the first descendant of the modern motorcycle is the American inventor Sylvester H. Roper. He created the first two-cylinder velocipede in 1867 as well, but it took a year of showcasing it at fairs and circuses for the design to truly take off. The American version of this steam-powered velocipede was based on coal. Roper, who also invented the steam-engine car, was killed in 1896 while riding his steam velocipede.
A few years after Roper’s creation, in 1881, an inventor named Lucius Copeland of Phoenix developed a smaller steam boiler that could drive the rear wheel of a bicycle at the amazing speed of 12 mph. In 1887, Copeland formed a manufacturing company to produce the first so-called “Moto-Cycle,” though it was actually a three-wheeled contraption.
The first commercial motorcycle design was a three-wheeler built by Edward Butler in Great Britain in 1884. It employed a horizontal single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted between two steerable front wheels and connected by a drive chain to the rear wheel. He exhibited his plans for the vehicle at the Stanley Cycle Show in London in 1884, and his vehicle was also the first design to be shown at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition in London.
It’s widely acknowledged that the first to use a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was the creation of German Gottlieb Daimler and his partner Wilhelm Maybach, who developed the Petroleum Reitwagon, riding wagon, in 1885.
The Reitwagon kick-started a huge wave of future innovation and was the precursor to all other forms of transport devices that use gasoline internal combustion engines.
In 1894, the German company, Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, became the first to establish a production line factory to manufacture the vehicles, which now for the first time were called “motor-cycles.” In the U.S., the first production motorcycle was built by the factory of Charles Metz, in Waltham, Massachusetts.
No discussion of motorcycles can exclude the most famous U.S. manufacturer, Harley Davidson.
Many of the 19th-century inventors who worked on early motorcycles often moved on to other inventions. Daimler and Roper, for example, went on to develop automobiles and other vehicles. However, some inventors, including William Harley and the Davidsons brothers, continued to exclusively develop motorcycles. Among their business competitors were other new start-up companies, such as Excelsior, Indian, Pierce, Merkel, Schickel and Thor.
In 1903, William Harley and his friends Arthur and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The bike had a quality engine, so it could prove itself in races, even though the company initially planned to manufacture and market it as a transport vehicle.
During the early 1900s, experimentation and innovation were driven by the popular new sport of motorcycle racing, with its powerful incentive to produce tough, fast, reliable machines. These enhancements quickly found their way to the public’s machines.
By 1914, motorcycles were no longer just bicycles with engines; they had their own technologies, although many still maintained bicycle elements, like the seats and suspension.
During the First World War, the manufacturing of motorcycles skyrocketed. The traditional messenger on horseback was replaced with a dispatch motorcycle rider. Also during that time, Harley-Davidson was devoting 50 percent of its factory output to the military effort.
The British company Triumph Motorcycles sold more than 30,000 of its Triumph Type H model to allied forces during the war. With the rear wheel driven by a belt, the Model H was fitted with a 499 cc air-cooled four-stroke single-cylinder engine. It was also the first Triumph not to be fitted with pedals, so it was a true motorcycle.
In fact, the Model H is regarded as being the first “modern motorcycle” with its four-stroke engine and three-speed gearbox. It was so successful and popular with its users the Model H became known as the “Trusty Triumph.”
After the war, in 1928, German company DKW managed to become the largest motorcycle maker in the world, surpassing American builders Indian and Harley-Davidson. This crown was overthrown, and in 1959 the Japanese company Honda became the largest manufacturer in the world.
This introduced a 30 year period of Japanese dominance in the market. In the 1960s, British motorcycles began fading away, with companies being replaced by more Japanese creators Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when American and Italian companies began expanding their markets, that competition increased for Japanese manufacturers. Today, besides Japanese companies, several other manufacturers hold sizable pieces of the market. Most notably are BMW, Ducati, Victory and, of course, Harley-Davidson.
We aren’t at the peak of innovation when it comes to motorcycles. However, we are leaps and bounds ahead of those first steam-powered velocipedes.