Motorcycle Pre-History – the 1800s
(Copyright (c) 2007 VerticalScope Inc. All rights reserved)

“Before the beginning of great brilliance and beauty there first must be a period of complete chaos.” — I Ching

The story of the “motor-cycle” begins back in the early 1800s when bicycles were basically wooden hobby horses that you sat upon and paddled around using your feet, as these primitive devices lacked pedal and crank technology. Good for shoemakers, bad for the spine.

The original Wild Ones tear up a dirt track in this 1819 painting of the Hobby Horse by French artist Maurice Rosseau. At least you got plenty of exercise.

More efficient cranks and pedals attached to a wheel didn’t appear until 1861 when a Frenchman put it all together. Over the next two decades, a succession of two-, three- and four wheeled steam- and gasoline-powered cycles huffed, puffed and sputtered themselves into existence as the evolution of the motorcycle spawned ever newer, and occasionally better, designs across Europe and America.

By 1865, large front wheel/small rear wheel bicycle designs came to the forefront, eventually evolving into extremely tall front-wheeled cycles (aka the “penny-farthing”), some of which required a ladder to reach the saddle. A fall from such heights could have unpleasant consequences, so an effort was made to bring the velocipede rider closer to terra firma.

“Carburetor Carl,” restorer of vintage carbs, likes odd, old things with wheels, the odder the better. His original late-1800s bicycle still sports an acetylene headlamp.

By1869 the first chain-driven bicycle was built, the same year the public was introduced to the first ever bicycle show which was held in Paris. The designs shown were a quantum leap forward, featuring lightweight metal frames with front suspension and solid rubber tires mounted on wire-spoked wheels. The growth of the bicycle industry also prompted the mass production of ball-bearings which in itself would engender far-reaching technological advances in general.

But with the disruption caused by the Franco- Prussian War in 1870-71, France would lose its lead, dropping the ball-bearing, so to speak, and thus opening the way for Britain to take the dominating role in bicycle production, which in turn would lead to other forms of the “cycle.”

The Dawn of the Twilight Zone of Motorcycles – Trikes

While today trikes are thought of as a modern variation somewhere in limbo between bike and car, three-wheelers or Tri-Cycles were a prevalent species, both on the street and at race events, at the end of the 19th century in England, Europe and the U.S. Three wheels made for a larger frame to carry the big powerplants of the day.

However, resistance was strong to such motorized contraptions, particularly from the fans of the horse. In fact, two promising motorized English tricycles, the Meek of 1877 and the Parkyns & Pateman of 1881, were squashed by the road vehicle laws of the day, particularly the Locomotive Acts of 1861 which restricted speeds to 4 mph and required footmen carrying lanterns to give warning of the beastly machine’s advance.

Three and four-wheeled contrivances came in all sizes and purposes. This 1889 “Motor Scout” carried a Maxim machinegun, 1000 rounds of ammo and 120 miles of fuel and was designed and built by British manufacturer Frederick Reginald Simms.

Steaming Into the Future

The question as to who built the first motorcycle, like many “Firsts” in history, has engendered many answers put forth by various professional and homespun historians who nominate their choice for owners of that crown. The variables that enter the not particularly clear picture of the primordial days of motorcycling include naturally the definition of a “motorcycle,” the locomotive force and the fuel consumed thereby, how many wheels, and largely the fickle factor of memory.

Richard Hough and L.J.K. Setright may have set it right (sorry) in the 1977 revised edition of their 1966 published “A History of the World’s Motorcycles,” wherein the authors point to steam as being the first driving force of what tentatively qualifies as a motorcycle. As far back as 1818 via German cartoons and drawings were showing a two-wheeler “hobby horse” equipped with a rear-mounted boiler.

More accurate accounts attest to the actuality of a steam powered “bone shaker,” a machine built in 1868 by the Frenchman Michaux, utilizing a single-cylinder Pereaux steam engine driving the rear wheel by pulley. According to moto historian Charles Falco in his “Motorcycling at the Turn of the Century,” the Michel steam-powered bicycle reached a claimed speed of about 9 mph.

Meanwhile, American Sylvester H. Roper was working on his own steam-powered motorcycle that first debuted in 1869. Roper, a New Hampshire resident, developed his interest in steam power during the Civil War era while working at the Springfield Armory.

The road to a self-propelled, single-track vehicle we know as the motorcycle starts with this steam-powered two-wheeler built by American Sylvester Roper.

Three years after that conflict ended, he had constructed his steam-powered “bike,” the twin-piston boiler planted in a vertical position under its seat, a crank motivating the rear wheel. This compact boiler also served as a water reservoir. The amount of steam released was controlled by a throttle twistgrip design on the handlebar, and may well be the first appearance of the now standard twistgrip throttle, although Glenn Curtiss (and later Indian) was credited with establishing that innovation.

Roper was definitely an advanced thinker and tinker of his day, and he went on to design four-wheelers while further developing his motorcycle designs. In June 1896 at the ripe age of 73, he rode one of his further-developed steam motorcycles around a Harvard-area bicycle track to an astounding 40 mph. As it turned out, he went out in a blaze of glory. Roper fell from his mount at the track and expired – not from the crash, but rather from a heart attack.

Although the internal-combustion engine eclipsed early steam-powered motorcycle design, we give a shout-out to Roper who earned his place among the Milestones of Motorcycling.

The Dawn of the Internal-combustion Engine in Motorcycles

The road to a self-propelled, single-track vehicle we know as the motorcycle starts with this steam-powered two-wheeler built by American Sylvester Roper.

In 1885, German Gottlieb Daimler came up with the first motorcycle powered by an internal combustion engine, a wooden-framed device called the Einspur or “one track,” a choice of names that would also echo the beginning of the motorcycle phenomena that would keep “on track” literally through the centuries.

The next milestone in the evolution of the bicycle – and one that literally smoothed out its evolution – took place in 1888 in Belfast, Ireland, where a horse veterinarian came up the first air-inflated pneumatic tire. His name, John Boyd Dunlop, now rolls off all biker’s tongues.

Inventors came up with additional enhancements for the bicycle, including sunshades that also could be used as sails. Even less successful adaptations appeared in the form of tricycles, quadricycles and even octocycles, the larger sizes configured to carry more weight, but only placed the burden on the rider, and so these peculiar designs passed out of favor.

The “Bicycle Boom” hit Europe in 1890, the public clamoring for the safer, more user-friendly forms of the machine with a resulting meteoric growth of the industry. There’s no missing link between the bicycle and the motorcycle, as even the names gives away the natural evolutionary leap.

Remember that the first Indian was labeled a “Moto-Cycle.” Plugging a motor into a spindly bicycle frame came naturally as the combustion engine appeared on the scene. As bicycle production for sport, leisure and daily transport became dominated by British companies like BSA and Triumph at the leading edge, they were the natural birthplaces for motorcycles.

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