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Mysteries in Chrome: Motorcycle Origins
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Mysteries in Chrome: Motorcycle Origins

You won't find police tape or detectives here. And there's nothing elementary about this mystery either. But... this sure is a great whodunnit! Someone had to figure out that an engine could be added to a bicycle in order to increase the vehicle's conveyance potential. Oddly, finding this information in history's pages is trickier than it appears. 

Two-wheeled bikes became popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1867, the earliest prototype of a self-propelled cycle appears in the shop of Pierre Michaux. Michaux fashioned velocipedes - pedal powered cycles. His son then added a steam engine to one of these curious vehicles.

Some debate about the original plans for the steam-powered velocipede exists. One Michaux employee claimed to have engineered such a bicycle 4 years earlier. This man, Pierre Lallemont, stated that he had developed such a motor-propelled creation while filing for another traditional pedal bike. In 1868 another inventer in Roxbury, Massachusetts demonstrated a twin-cyclindered, coal fired bicycle, but died in an accident while demonstrating the machine!

The first motorized three-wheeler termed the "Moto-Cycle" was patented by Lucius Copeland of Arizona. This astonishing cycle looked more like a delicate firehose pump. It held a small boiler under the handle bar, one small front wheel and two imposing, unicycle sized rear ones.  The invention reached an amazing, for the time, 12 miles an hour (automobiles were hitting 15-20 mph)!


England's Edward Butler designed the first commercial motorcycle in 1884. This cycle looked nothing like modern bikes - the "velocycle'" was a stout and boxy three-wheeler that appeared to be a hybrid of a child's toy and giant clock gears.

While not recognizable to modern riders, German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, designed the first combustion engine driven, wooden "riding car" -the Reitswagon. This cute wooden bike consisted of a petroleum engine (the internal combustion) and two stabilizing rear wheels. The outline and woodwork paralleled that of a motorized rocking horse with the stability of a tricycle.

It was the fine-tuning of the internal combustion engine that spurred Hildebrand and Wolfmuller to build the "motorcycle" that we would immediately recognize today. In 1894, the "Mottorad" was produced in a very limited run, only to be followed by the Excelsior Motor Company's motorcycle and the iconic "Orient-Astor" produced by Metz in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Turning a century

The 1900s seized engineering and production process innovations to supply vehicles to the public. Royal Enfield advertised it's motorcycle and this was quickly followed in 1902 by Triumph's own version of the self-propelled bicycle. The United States jumped on for the ride submitting one of the most recognizable brands of bike - the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company - in 1901. By 1913 Indian was fabricating 20,000 bikes a year. A truly astonishing accomplishment.

We often think of this era as the Golden Age of automobiles, but it makes sense to tip our hats to the people that put motorized velocipedes on the road!

Extra fact: Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903! It was the second motorcycle company to not only weather the Depression, but to rise to the pinnacle of the motorcycle standard.


Photo Courtesy: Flickr (1914, Iver Johnson/Angelique Eeek)

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  1. Written In Chrome Crew
    Written In Chrome Crew
    This is seriously fascinating stuff! Thanks so much for the post!


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