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The invention of the motorcycle

Michaux Perreaux steam VelocipedeThe earliest vehicles were powered by steam, which at that point were large engines unsuitable for anything other than sturdy carriages. However, as technology improved steam engines could be produced in smaller scale, allowing smaller vehicles to use the power of steam.

In 1867 Frenchman Michaux-Perreaux designed and built his steam powered velocipede. This two wheeled vehicle is considered by some as the very first motorcycle, although this is contested by some.

One point of contention, is that at a similar same time Sylvester Roper, an American inventor, developed a twin cylinder steam powered bike. He built 10 examples of his bike and demonstrated them around fairs over a number of years. However, this ended abruptly in 1896 when he was killed during a crash on one of his steam bikes.

Roper steam velocipedeBy 1885 Gottlieb Daimler installed a smaller version of the internal combustion engine that he and Wilhelm Maybach had been developing into a crude two-wheeled Reitwagen (Riding Wagon). Despite the steam motorcycles that had come before it, this is often referred to as the first motorcycle. Although, in reality it is the first internal combustion motorcycle.

It wasn’t until 1894 that motorcycles became more than small production novelty show pieces and were produced in larger numbers. The German manufacturer Hildebrand & Wolfmüller produced the first production motorcycle, and doing so also coined the phrase “motorcycle” (or more accurately ‘Motorrad’ as it is in German). Although two of the founders behind Hildebrand & Wolfmüller (Heinrich and Wilhelm Hidebrand) were steam engineers, the influence of fellow engineer Alois Wolfmüller led them to produce this first production motorcycle with an internal combustion engine.

Diagram of 1894 Hildebrand and Wolfmüller motorcycleThe Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle had nearly a four year production run, selling several hundred bikes. Despite this prosperous sounding start, the bike was somewhat of a commercial failure with high purchase prices and some elements of impracticality, such as not having a clutch. However, its general layout and appearance would set a common silhouette seen in motorcycles for the next 30 years or so.

Throughout these early pioneering days of the motorcycle, many more engineers, inventors and visionaries contributed to the invention and development of the motorcycle. Some are recognised, but as many early motorcycle were refabricated bicycles as home engineered projects, many more are not recorded. All we know is that their combined efforts, whether great or small have given us a frightening, but ultimately fun and cool way to get around.

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