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The Motorcycle’s Long and Winding Evolution

Drawing of 1886 Roper steam velocipedeThe inventor of the first motorcycle didn’t survive his invention. Sylvester Howard Roper created a steam driven two-wheeled contraption in 1867. It was called a “moto-cycle,” which was basically a bicycle, with the pedals on the front wheels – and a coal-powered steam engine on the back. This invention started us down the road to today’s modern cycle. Back then it could go about 30 mph.

Today you can find the moto-cycle in the Smithsonian. The practicalities of having a 300-degree boiler between a rider’s legs ensured that inventors would work hard to improve on Roper’s idea.

Lucius Copeland and his steam bicycle, 1884At around the same time, Ernest Michaux of France created the same contraption, but it was fueled by alcohol, not water. (Today’s leather wearing hardcore chopper riders could probably insert a bad joke here, “Yeah, my bike is still powered by liquor.” But we digress.)

In 1881 an inventor in Phoenix created his own version of the moto-cycle, a three-wheeled steam powered bike. By 1887 the inventor, Lucius Copeland, started manufacturing these machines. It took ten years, but gas engines would eventually relegate the moto-cycle to the history books.


Have Gas Will Travel

1885 sparked the invention of the first gas-powered bike created by Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. It was powered by the first internal combustion “Otto Cycle Engine,” named after Nicolaus Otto. This new bike had outriggers to keep it from toppling over on turns. Picture training wheels on a contraption half way between your bicycle and an old Indian Motorcycle; it was laughingly called the “boneshaker.”

A Reitwagen replica at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

A Reitwagen replica at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

In 1889 another invention would change that jarring ride forever; John Boyd Dunlop’s air inflated pneumatic tire made for a much smoother experience.

The last puzzle piece to lead us to the bikes of today came in 1895 when DeDion-Buton of France created a 4-stroke lightweight engine. This set the stage for Charles H. Metz, an American entrepreneur who started mass-producing what he called the “motorcycle.”

But really, they were just getting rolling.

Cool Bikes Start Moving

There’s a reason why Mike Wolfe of American Pickers goes nuts when he finds an old Indian motorcycle. They are a genuine part of American history. The first one rolled off the assembly line in 1901. These bikes were top sellers right up to World War I. The company still puts out one mean motor scooter.

1901-02 Indian

1901-02 Indian

No history of the motorcycle would be complete without the legendary Harley-Davidson. In 1903 the first Harley, with its soon to be signature V-twin engine, started to heat up competition against rival Indian.

Other manufacturers included motorized bikes from Schwinn, who stopped creating them in 1931. There was a bike in the Sears catalog in 1914, along with a plethora of other brands that have since faded away.

Throughout WWI and WWII, these tough, durable machines were used to deliver messages. According to How Stuff Works, in 1917 one-third of all the Harley’s produced were used by the U.S. military. German manufacturer BMW created the motorcycle sidecar, while Triumph and BSA also benefited from military sales.

Serial Number One", the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, displayed at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.

Serial Number One”, the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, displayed at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.

After the Second World War, the motorcycle gained in popularity with civilians.

By the 1950s, motorcycles became the hot commodity, irrevocably linked to freedom and lawlessness thanks to films like The Wild One. Motorcycles were used in competition and in commuting, and manufacturers responded by creating faster bikes for us to tool around on.

In the early 70s Japanese manufacturers began to seriously compete with American brands – and to dominate the markets. By the 80s manufacturers phased out the 2-stroke engine to comply with stringent emission standards.

The Future of Motorcycles

BMW has a cool website that gives you a visual on what we can expect from the bike of the future. Their concept includes an environmentally friendly electric offering, which looks like a combination between a scooter and a motorcycle. While electric cars are gaining in popularity, motorcycle manufacturers have been slower to respond. Zero Motorcycles is currently the biggest seller of EVs – so far.

Zero XU 2012

2012 Zero XU

Over the past decade, motorcycle gear has become big business, focused on safety features such armor plating on jackets and gloves to protect riders.

But the biggest evolution of the future-bike, most believe, will come from the melding of wearables with technology. Bluetooth motorcycle helmets are a start, certainly, but smart glasses instead of helmets and smart clothing that automatically warms or cools you depending on the ambient environment, are all innovations that we’ll surely see in the next few years.


Photo Credits

Drawing of 1886 Roper steam velocipede – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Lucius Copeland and his steam bicycle, 1884 – Wikimedia Creative Commons

A Reitwagen replica at the Mercedes-Benz Museum –  Wikipedia Creative Commons

1901-02 Indian – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Serial Number One – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Zero XU 2012 –  Wikimedia Creative Commons


Guest Author Bio
Tina Bahadur

Tina is a co-founder of Motorcycler. At Motorcycler, she manages the creatives and leads the community outreach program. Tina is a travel addict and a coffee junkie.




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