The Incredible History of Motorcycles
How Motorcycles Became More than Just Powered Bicycles
For over 150 years, motorcycles have been capturing the enthusiasm and excitement of riders all over the world. But few know how this fascinating form of transportation went from steam-powered, coal-burning bicycles to the gas-powered choppers of today.
To start from the beginning, you have to backtrack all the way to the 1800s and the invention of the bicycle. It's not surprising that today's motorcycles share common DNA with some of our past pedal pushers. However, you maybe surprised at how the first motorized bicycles operated.
The Velocipede and Steam Power
Have you ever heard of the Velocipede? No, it's not a dinosaur. It's actually Latin for "fast foot" and represents any wheeled device that is operated by the use of human power and pedals. The bicycle is just the most popular of the velocipedes.
Yet since the invention of the wheel, there have been ingenious men and women finding ways to make it roll faster. The first of many inventors to impact the development of the motorcycle was a French-born man by the name of Ernest Michaux. In 1867, he placed a small steam engine on his "velocipede" and created one of the first motorized bicycles.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a man by the name of Sylvester H. Roper of Massachusetts had a similar idea when he put a twin-cylinder, coal-filled boiler between the wheels of his velocipede. However, in one of the earliest documented motorcycle accidents, Roper died in 1896 demonstrating one of his steam-powered velocipedes.
Early Internal Combustion Motorcycles
By the late 1880s, internal combustion engines arrived on the scene, which changed the face of motorcycle development. One of the earliest documented internal combustion motorcycles was the "Petrol Cycle," invented in Britain in 1888. This 3-wheeled iteration was one of the first of its kind. It looked like a wheelchair with its gas-powered third-wheel propelling it from the back. It came equipped with a throttle lever and no braking system to speak of.
At the same time in Germany, Gottlieb Daimler – a preeminent name in automobile development – was busy working on a two-wheeled gas-powered motorcycle. It was successfully built, but it's handlebars were locked and unable to turn on their axis. It was ultimately just a test bed for their new automobile engine, rather than an attempt to make a true commercial motorcycle.
The Great War and What Came After
In 1901, English bicycle maker Royal Enfield debuted its first motorcycle – a rear wheel driven bike with a belt attached to the front-mounted 239 cc engine. That same year in the U.S., Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company designed the first "diamond framed" motorcycle named the Indian Single. Their first production year saw 500 Singles made. By 1913, they would produce over 20,000 bikes per year. In 1903, Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles in America.
Motorcycles played an important role in World War I and World War II, as they were a quick, efficient way of transporting important communication to the front lines. Harley-Davidson devoted nearly 50% of its factory output toward the war effort. And Triumph Motorcycles provided the allies with over 30,000 of its newly developed Type-H bikes in WWI alone.
Post-War Motorcycle Boom
After both World Wars had ended, returning veterans took to the excitement and fun associated with motorcycle riding. This drove the post-war market and development of motorcycles in America. Bigger, faster bikes were produced and became iconic for the industry.
Meanwhile, in Europe, motorcycle development focused on efficiency and ease of transportation, leading to the development of mopeds in Italy and the U.K.
The Rest – They Say – Is History
Through its amazing development from steam-powered bicycle, to communications transport in World War I, to the bikes of modern day, the motorcycle has always found a home with those who enjoy the adventure and ingenuity of this great invention.
On roads throughout the world, motorcycles are a common, enjoyable way to travel. However, motorcyclists are often at risk of greater injury than your average car driver. Since motorcycles don't offer a rider the physical protection a car body offers, accidents can cause serious injury or even death.
Always Watch for Motorcycles
It's always important to be aware of any motorcycles on the road. Whether it's pulling out of intersections or turning across traffic, make sure you look twice for these two-wheeled travelers.
Motorcyclists often try to make themselves as visible as possible, but car and truck drivers still need to be on the lookout. For more information about motorcycle safety, visit our Motorcycle Safety Resource Center.
If you're ever injured in a motorcycle accident, contact our law firm for a free consultation. We'll help you understand the best course of action after your motorcycle injury.