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The automotive industry has a long history of invention and innovation. In the mid to late 1800s, the race was on for automakers to develop their engine ideas into a usable product that they could share with the world. The invention of motorcycles was the inspiration for automobiles and truly paved the way for the creation of the first car.
When was the first motorcycle invented?
The answer to this question really depends on who you ask, and the parameters of the word “motorcycle,” as a number of individuals created machines that could be considered early versions.
According to the U.K. website for the History Channel, the earliest ones that could be deemed motorcycles were velocipedes (essentially bicycles) adapted with alcohol or coal-burning steam engines.
Bicycle builder Ernest Michaux of France, was one of the first to create such a contraption during the mid-Victorian era, enabling people to travel without pedal power.
Valley Driving School notes that simultaneously, in 1867, Sylvester Howard Roper created a similar machine, but on a less advanced velocipede.
In terms of what we might today consider a true motorcycle with an internal combustion engine (ICE), the first emerged in 1885, according to Hot Cars.
The first internal combustion engine motorcycle
German partners in invention Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach invented the Daimler Reitwagen. This was the first time ever that anyone had combined a gas-powered engine with a traditional bike. It was a giant milestone in motorcycle and automotive history—the Reitwagen actually predated ICE automobiles, which would come a year later thanks to their groundwork.
Hot Cars explained that the Reitwagen was a wooden bicycle equipped with a “one-cylinder Otto-cycle engine and included a spray-type carburetor.”
Daimler's 17-year-old son, Paul, was lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to be the very first test rider. Unfortunately, the vehicle ended up overheating, causing the seat to catch on fire several times during the test drive, mainly due to the placement of the ignition system.
The Reitwagen’s engine was unique to other combustion engines from this era, as it was both small and powerful, producing 0.5 hp at 600 rpm and top speeds of just under seven miles per hour, according to Hot Cars.
It may be hard to believe in comparison to modern engine capabilities, but this represented a significant technological advancement for 1885, and the designs for the engine and bike were patented the same year.
The progression of motorcycles through years
In the following years, more inventors threw their hats in the ring, attempting to design newer and better versions. The History Channel reports that Almost a decade later in 1894, two German engineers named Hildebrand and Wolfmuller produced the first commercially marketed motorcycles.
The pair beat out British automakers Royal Enfield and the Excelsior Motor Company, and an American manufacturer called the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company who were hoping to do the same, and soon did.
According to The Mining Journal, motorcycle races started between 1901 and 1903, spurring popularity and the need for more powerful designs.
Harley-Davidson is probably top of mind for most of us when we think of brands synonymous with motorcycles. Founded in 1903, the manufacturer devoted half of its total production to efforts in World War I, according to the History Channel.
Fast forward roughly 20 years to World War II, and motorcycle technology had progressed immensely, with some (such as the Brough Superior out of England) capable of speeds up to 100 mph.
Japanese automakers began to create more affordable and better performing motorcycles, and the American and European manufacturers who had previously enjoyed such success couldn’t match them.
Eventually, as the machines got sportier and louder, motorcycles became more of a culture that reflected a lifestyle—perhaps of edgy, thrill-seekers’ making.
Why were motorcycles invented?
According to Valley Driving School, three factors drove much of the automotive progress throughout the Industrial Revolution and into the 19th century and beyond: efficiency, accessibility, and a need for speed.
It's simply human nature to want to improve and evolve the tools we have at our fingertips. We evolve and grow along with our knowledge, as do our inventions, in turn.
Before the invention of motorcycles, transportation was pretty much on foot or by animal. Motorcycles made traveling much more convenient—not to mention fun!
The successful invention of the motorcycle was a huge leap in technological and automotive knowledge. It allowed us to progress towards the first automobiles, which set the stage for the incredible industry that has accelerated transportation and continues to flourish today.