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History of the motorcycle
The history of the motorcycle begins in the second half of the 19th century. Motorcycles are descended from the “safety bicycle,” a bicycle with front and rear wheels of the same size and a pedal crank mechanism to drive the rear wheel.
Despite some early landmarks in its development, the motorcycle lacks a rigid pedigree that can be traced back to a single idea or machine. Instead, the idea seems to have occurred to numerous engineers and inventors around Europe at around the same time.
First commercial products
In the decade from the late 1880s, dozens of designs and machines emerged, particularly in Germany and in England, and soon spread to America. During this early period of motorcycle history there were many manufacturers, since bicycle makers were adapting their designs for the new internal combustion engine.
In 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller became the first series production motorcycle, and the first to be called a “motorcycle” (German: Motorrad). However, only a few hundred examples of this motorcycle were ever built. The first instance of the term “motor cycle” also appears in English the same year in materials promoting machines developed by E.J. Pennington, although Pennington’s motorcycles never progressed past the prototype stage.
Excelsior Motor Company, originally a bicycle-manufacturing company based in Coventry in Warwickshire (England), began production of their first motorcycle model in 1896, available for purchase by the public. The first production motorcycle in the US was the Orient-Aster, built by Charles Metz in 1898 at his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts.
In 1898, Peugeot Motocycles presents at the Paris Motorshow the first motorcycle equipped with a Dion-Bouton motor. Peugeot Motocycles remains the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
In the early period of motorcycle history, many producers of bicycles adapted their designs to accommodate the new internal-combustion engine. As the engines became more powerful and designs outgrew the bicycle origins, the number of motorcycle producers increased. Many of the nineteenth-century inventors who worked on early motorcycles often moved on to other inventions. Daimler and Roper, for example, both went on to develop automobiles.
At the turn of the 20th century the first major mass-production firms emerged.
In 1901 English quadricycle- and bicycle-maker Royal Enfield introduced its first motorcycle, with a 239 cc engine mounted in the front and driving the rear wheel through a belt. In 1898 English bicycle-maker Triumph decided to extend its focus to include motorcycles, and by 1902 the company had produced its first motorcycle—a bicycle fitted with a Belgian-built engine.
A year later it was the largest motorcycle-manufacturer, with an annual production of over 500 units. Other British firms included Norton and Birmingham Small Arms Company who began motorbike production in 1902 and 1910, respectively.
In 1901 the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company, which had been founded by two former bicycle-racers, designed the so-called “diamond framed” Indian Single, whose engine was built by the Aurora Firm in Illinois per Indian’s specifications. The Single was made available in the deep blue. Indian’s production was up to over 500 bikes by 1902, and would rise to 32,000, its best ever, in 1913.
Indian produced over 20,000 bikes per year. The oldest surviving Russian-manufactured motorcycle, the Rossiya, dates from 1902. The American company Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles in 1903.
During this period, experimentation and innovation were driven by the popular new sport of motorcycle racing, with its powerful incentive to produce tough, fast, reliable machines. These enhancements quickly found their way to the public’s machines.
Chief August Vollmer of the Berkeley, California Police Department is credited with organizing the first official police motorcycle-patrol in the United States in 1911. By 1914, motorcycles were no longer just bicycles with engines; they had their own technologies, although many still maintained bicycle elements, like the seats and suspension.
Pedal to Start
The start of the motorcycle frenzy began with the bicycle craze. Before the bicycle, the primary modes of transportation for most Americans were trains and horses.
Their options were limited. Consequently, many people were open to new alternatives.
The Beginnings of Two-wheeled Self-Transport
According to Smithsonian, the core benefits of riding a bicycle in the late 1800s were:
1) It was cheaper and less time-consuming than owning a horse.
2) Bicycle riders were able to save money they would have otherwise spent on train tickets.
3) Bicycle riders could commute more freely because their time and travel were not constrained by train schedules or train routes.
The bicycle gave people newfound freedom. Sound familiar? Incredibly, this notion of freedom and free-spiritedness has transcended through time from bicycle to motorcycle culture. There were even riding clubs in which men went touring with one another.
However, touring was a bit different back then. For starters, there were few paved roads. Therefore, bicyclists had to ride over rugged and rocky terrain. Talk about tough!
Unfortunately, head injuries became increasingly common, especially amongst those who rode high-wheel bicycles. If they hit an object, they could easily fly over the handle-bars.
Plus, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the closest thing to a bicycle helmet, as we know it today, wasn’t created until 1970. Unfortunately, the head protection created prior to its invention was not particularly effective.
Thankfully, bicycling wasn’t too dangerous as there were not many cars and, of course, automobiles in the late 1800s weren’t nearly as fast as they are today.
in the late 19th century
It’s interesting to see the commonalities between the perceived/actual dangers of riding bicycles in the late 19th century and riding motorcycles in the present day. Thanks to advances in science, we now understand the full importance of head protection.
Helmets have even become an integral part of motorcycle fashion. And, the addition of face shields and visors not only provide additional protection but also add to the cool mystique and badass image of being a rider.
For most Americans, the pros of bicycle riding obviously outweighed the cons. And, people everywhere fell in love with this machine. So much so that it evolved into something even bigger. And, thus, the American motorcycle was born.
It was indeed powered by a single-cylinder Otto-cycle engine, and may have had a spray-type carburetor. (Daimler’s assistant, Wilhelm Maybach was working on the invention of the spray carburetor at the time).
If one counts two wheels with steam propulsion as being a motorcycle, then the first one may have been American. One such machine was demonstrated at fairs and circuses in the eastern US in 1867, built by one Sylvester Howard Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts. There is an existing example of a Roper machine, dated 1869. It’s powered by a charcoal-fired two-cylinder engine, whose connecting rods directly drive a crank on the rear wheel. This machine predates the invention of the safety bicycle by many years, so its chassis is also based on the “bone-crusher” bike.
Most of the development during this earliest of eras concentrated on three and four-wheeled designs, since it was complex enough to get the machines running without having to worry about them falling over. The next really notable two-wheeler was the Millet of 1892. It used a 5-cylinder engine built as the hub of its rear wheel. The cylinders rotated with the wheel, and its crankshaft constituted the rear axle.
The first really successful production two-wheeler though, was the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller, patented in Munich in 1894. It had a step-through frame, with its fuel tank mounted on the downtube. The engine was a parallel-twin, mounted low on the frame, with its cylinders going fore-and-aft.
The connecting rods connected directly to a crank on the rear axle, and instead of using heavy flywheels for energy storage between cylinder-firing, it used a pair of stout elastic bands, one on each side outboard of the cylinders, to help out on the compression strokes. It was water-cooled, and had a water tank/radiator built into the top of the rear fender.
In 1895, the French firm of DeDion-Buton built an engine that was to make the mass production and common use of motorcycles possible. It was a small, light, high revving four-stroke single, and used battery-and-coil ignition, doing away with the troublesome hot-tube.
Bore and stroke figures of 50mm by 70mm gave a displacement of 138cc. A total loss lubrication system was employed to drip oil into the crankcase through a metering valve, which then sloshed around to lubricate and cool components before dumping it on the ground via a breather. DeDion-Buton used this 1/2 horsepower powerplant in roadgoing trikes. But the engine was copied and used by everybody, including Indian and Harley-Davidson in the U.S.
Although a gentleman named Pennington built some machines around 1895 (it’s uncertain whether any of them actually ran), the first US production motorcycle was the Orient-Aster, built by the Metz Company in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1898. It used an Aster engine that was a French-built copy of the DeDion-Buton, and predated Indian (1901) by three years, and Harley-Davidson (1902) by four.
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