History of Motorcycles - Part I

By Jeffry L’H. Tank

Throughout the centuries man has striven to expand his capabilities through the use of machines. His ever inventive mind has constantly devised ways to use tools to increase his abilities to explore the world around him, to go faster, deeper, higher and further than before. Coupled with his need to find new thrills, new adventures and new modes of transportation, the invention and refinement of the motorcycle seems an inevitable outcome.

For me, the early years of the development of the motorcycle are especially fascinating as they hold of some of mans most bizarre experimental machinery. Before we get started on the history of the motorcycle itself, I feel a short review of it's predecessor, namely the bicycle, is in order, an invention without which the motor bicycle, as they were first called, may well have never come about.

It would seem that Michelangelo conceived of the bicycle as early as the 14th century and his drawing shows a remarkable resemblance to the modern day bike. It had wheels of similar size and even pedals and a leather "chain", albeit without any apparent means of steering.

Though never built, it was a remarkably cleaver design, and early bicycle makers would have done well to study his concepts. There have, in fact, been 4 machines built based on his drawing, attesting to the viability of his design. (see authors note below)

The first attempt at actually producing any sort of 2 wheeled conveyance fell on the shoulders of one Comte de Sivrac in the late 1791, though hardy a bicycle as we understand the meaning today. It was crude affair made entirely of wood with no pedals, brakes or even steering. This early machine was referred to as a hobbyhorse and was considered nothing more than a curiosity, or rich mans folly, an attitude that remained for a number of years, until the late 1800's. A person simply sat upon it and pushed it along with their feet in a sort of gliding walk.

Then in 1816-17 (depending on the source) Baron van Drais revised the concept to include a steerable front wheel, but his machine still lacked pedals or brakes, so was not much of an improvement.

Weighing some 50 pounds it was not much better than walking and I for one wouldn't have wanted to try it on any sort of hill, either going up or down! The lack of comfort and condition of the roads at the time gave rise to the term "boneshaker" which stuck with two wheeled vehicles for some time.

Then in 1869 some inventive person named William van Anden in New York added pedals directly to the front wheel, now at last we approach what can be called by modern terms, a bicycle. It also had free-wheeling pedals that allowed the wheel to turn while the pedals remained stationary and had a friction brake on the rear wheel operated by twisting one of the hand grips. Oddly enough these innovations did not appear on many other machines for quite some time.

It quickly became apparent however that the only way to increase speed or distance traveled per rotation of the pedals was to increase the size of the front wheel, leading to what became known as the High Wheeler.

Unfortunately because of the high center of gravity and forward position of the rider, not only was some skill required to mount and dismount this contraption, but should the front wheel suddenly stop, the rider was thrown forward on his head, thus giving rise to the term "Taking a Header".

To overcome this difficulty, the small wheel was moved to the front giving rise to the High Wheeled "Safety" bicycle.

Because of the difficulty in riding a high wheeler with the style of skirts worn by women at the turn of the century they were mostly confined to three wheelers specifically designed with them in mind.

It was not until the very late 1800's that the chain was invented and metallurgy became refined enough to allow the manufacture of one light enough for human powered machines. Along with brakes, pedals and air-filled tires this became the standard and the true safety bicycle came into being. As bicycling became more popular, women, as well as men, began to enjoy the sport more often and many historians credit this new sport with liberating women from the attire of the time, the full skirts, bustier and other such clothing, that limited their ability to enjoy this new form of transportation. It is also credited with the advent of the "bloomer", thus allowing women to ride without showing too much leg.

So now, after nearly 400 years, bicycles returned to the original configuration that Michelangelo had originally envisioned, with a few improvements along the way!

Now that we've looked at the precursor to the motorcycle lets turn our attention to the first motor bicycles.

Curiously enough the first attempts to motorize a two wheeled vehicle were made before the high wheeler had been replaced by the modern safety bicycle, thus explaining why the first motor bicycles had a much larger front wheel, with one exception. In 1818 an attempt was made to fit a steam engine to a Drasiane hobbyhorse (see above) which had two similar sized wheels. This however, did not succeed in capturing a market, as can well be imagined when looking at the picture below of the Vocipedraisiavaporianna, and I therefore only mention it in passing.

It wasn't until 1869 that the first serious attempts were made to produce motor driven bicycles. These very first were powered by steam, and driven by leather belts or as in the case of the Roper Steam Velocipede of 1869, by a system of levers attached to a crank on the driven wheel. At the same time these early two wheelers were being developed, three and four wheeled pedal powered vehicles were being modified to accept engines to create self-propelled vehicles. Although these 3 and 4 wheelers are not motorcycles in the true sense, they were directly involved in development of the motorcycle so I will include them here. All of these early attempts were based on vehicles currently available, with the exception of Ropers' steam driven design, to which motors of one kind or another were being attached. It wasn't until several years later that Gottlieb Daimler designed the Daimler and the first true motorcycle was produced, in that the entire machine, including frame, engine, and wheels, was built specifically for motorized use and was powered by an internal combustion engine. Although still made entirely of wood, and having small outrigger wheels, most motorcycle historian seem to be in agreement that this indeed was the first true motor bicycle.

Besides the need for a reliable power plant, frame geometry, (Stanley, 1886), pneumatic tires (Dunlop, 1888 and Michelin, 1895), roller chains, (Renold, 1880) were needed to be able to produce a fully functional motorcycle that could provide (relatively) reliable two wheeled transportation, be mass produced and sold to the public with some hope of success. The problem of the power plant was solved as early as 1876 by Nikolaus Otto, who based his design of an internal combustion engine by Alphonse Beau de Rochas from 1862. As these various aspects were being resolved almost simultaneously, the motorcycle was taking shape in numerous ingenious minds of the time both in the US and aboard. Keeping in mind that since the first attempts were made prior the advent of such inventions as mentioned above and given the condition of the roads of the time, these early machine were extremely uncomfortable to ride, thus perpetrating the name "bone shakers" as was often used to refer to early bicycles. Not only were some made of wood, but the wheels were solid wood or metal much like wagon wheels, and none had any sort of suspension system.

In order to better reconstruct the various attempts at building the first motor powered bicycles a timeline of the early machines seems appropriate here.

A TimeLine of motor cycles through 1900

1818 Vocipedraisiavaporianna

This curious contraction was supposedly built in 1818 and is shown in this French print under testing in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on April 5 of that year, thou actually invented in Germany. This print is from the collection of the Science Museum in London. It was a Drasine hobby horse being powered by a steam turbine engine in both front and rear wheels. It would appear to be somewhat top heavy, and never made it into production, which is probably just as well!

1816 Cynophère, France

While this could hardly be considered a motorcycle I couldn't resist including this wonderful contraption. It does, after all, possess the feature of having a fully self-contained power source, reminds one of the old "squirrels in a cage" concept.

1868-69 The Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede, Germany

This, to me, is a truly elegant machine. Build on the Michaux "boneshaker" bicycle, the frame was modified and seat raised to allow room for the Perraux steam engine and pulleys and drive belts were added to power the rear wheel. Note that the front pedals were retained. He also built a tricycle version based again on one of his own designs

1869 W. W. Austin, USA

This seems to be a reverse of the one above utilizing the high wheeled "safety" bicycle as the large driven wheel is in the rear. I was unable to find much information on this machine other than on a French web site, which is curious as this supposedly was an American design. It had a two cylinder steam engine, and used a system of pulleys mounted just in front of the handle bars, to transfer power to the rear wheel.

1869 The Roper Steam Velocipede. United States

Here again is a steam powered motor bicycle, this one however is notable due to the fact that like the early Daimler it had controls mounted on the handle bars in the form of twist grips like today's motorcycles.

1877 Daimler-Maybach, France

This is reputed to be the first version of Mr. G. Daimler motor bicycle. This again is from a French site and the best translation I could come up with for the caption is quoted below.

"IT had a limited autonomy, but accomplishes anyway traverses it Paris to German Saint (15 Km) to the speed of 15km/h. The tricycles to vapor of Meek in 1877, of Parkyns and Paterman in 1881 itself (in violation) with the law. Parkyns, was condemned for dangerous driven in 1865. In fact, the laws stipulated that the vehicles to (with) motors did not (could not) have to surpass the speed of 6 km/h on road and 3 km/h in city. In addition, the machine had to be driven by at least two persons, more a third one that had to walk in front of this one to a group of around fifty meters while brandishing a red flag to warn of his arrival !!!!!!!!!!!!"

It further states that at the time, if one went faster than a horse at trot one was libel to be arrested! This was known as the English "Road" or "Locomotive" Act which was repelled toward the end of the century. These sort of laws were common in the US for a time as well. My favorite is one that stated that should a motor driven vehicle encounter a horse drawn carriage and spook the horse, the operator of said vehicle had to disassemble it to the point that the horse was no longer shy of it, allow the horse to proceed some yards past, and only then could he reassembly the vehicle. Seems they didn't like us any more back then than now!

1880 The Long Steam Tricycle. United States

Built by George A Long and patented in 1882 this is can been seen in the Smithsonian Museum in DC. It was dismantled after some years of use and then in 1946 Mr. J. H. Bacon collected the parts together once again and put it back into working order. He later gave it, as well as Ropers' Steam cycle, to the museum.

1881 The Parkyns-Bateman Steam Tricycle. England

This featured a two cylinder double-acting steam engine attached to a Cheylesmore pedal tricycle. Since it was fired by petroleum, it could be considered as having the first "gasoline" fueled engine, though it was not an internal combustion engine. The laws of England being what they were at the time (see above note on the Daimler-Maybach) prevented this from becoming a financial success.

1885 The Daimler, Europe

This is considered by many as the first true motorcycle or motor bicycle, as it was the first to employ an internal combustion engine and was designed from the ground up to be motor powered. Designed by Gottlieb Daimler it was powered by an Otto-cycle engine producing about ½ horse power. Note this design again employed wooden wheels and Daimler dropped the twist grip controls from his 1877 design in favor of leavers on the frame.

1892 The five cylinder Millet, France

The interesting feature of this machine was the five cylinder rotary engine mounted in the rear wheel. The cylinders turned along with the wheel while the crank was stationary. This was not the last time that such a motor was used in a motorcycle, although the next one to use this design had the motor mounted in the front wheel.

1894 Hilderbrand and Wolfmuller, France

Worlds first production motorcycle. It came with a 1428 cc water cooled four-stroke motor producing 2.5 bhp. and a top speed of 25 mph. The motor was parallel twin with one forward piston and one rearward with the connecting rods running to a crank mounted on the rear wheel. Instead of using a flywheel to store energy between firings, it used large elastic cords, one each outbound of the pistons. It was first made in France under license for one year under the name Petrolette and remained in production until 1997.

1898 Orient-Aster, USA

The first American made production motorcycle was this entry built by the Metz Company, in Waltham, Mass. It used an Aster engine that was a French copy of the DeDion-Burton, reportedly the forerunner of all motorcycle engines. It predates Indian by 3 years and Harley-Davidson by four, both of which first used engines based on DeDion-Burton design. Note also the location of the engine which was mounted in the lower part of the frame where it has remained to this day (with a few exceptions) and is chain driven, another feature which remain in use to this day

While there are many other machines that I could include here and no doubt many that were never recorded in the annals of history, I think we have arrived at a good stopping point for this first article in the series. In the next I plan on going into greater detail as regards the progress of early engine design, specifically the internal combustion engine. It was several years before the spray-carburetor and electric ignition was developed, the early attempts at providing fuel atomization and ignition are in themselves worthy of note, not to mention the intricacies of manual spark advance, hand operated transmissions (a few even had two gear cases and could be operated by either passenger or driver!), total loss lubrication systems, exposed valves and water-cooled and air cooled designs.

So until next time, keep the rubber side down and be thankful for all the advances in motorcycles we enjoy today!

Authors Note:

(added October, 2007)

The Michelangelo Bicycle Hoax

Some time ago I received a rather interesting email from the Curator of a Museum in Germany informing me that the supposed drawing of the famous Michelangelo Bicycle was in fact a hoax. From the information he provided and some research of my own I must correct my earlier statements and provide you the real story of this drawing attributed to Michelangelo.

In 1974 there was a rather sensational claim made by a member of the team involved with the restoration of a recently discovered text by Michelangelo known as the Codex Atlanticus. This individual claimed that among the pages of this manuscript there was found a sketch of a bicycle closely resembling its modern counterpart. Needless to say this caused quite a stir and for some years it was taken at face value. Unfortunately, it turns out that this was in fact, a hoax, the drawing was not done by Michelangelo at all. Rather it would seem that the sketch was added some time later around the turn of the 19th century, but by whom no one can say for sure. Yet even with the rather convincing evidence that has been circulated as recently as 2005 an exhibit in Canada told its visitors that “the wooden bicycle displayed in the 'Traveling with Leonardo da Vinci' exhibition was constructed to a design sketched by the Renaissance master.” (from )

So it would seem that I am in good company as I too was taken in by this rather clever hoax as evidenced by my first writing of this article.

While there are numerous articles on the subject, the most authoritative that I have come across is the one I found on and I have included the link to the article below.


© Jeffry L’H. Tank

Part II | Part III

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