When you think to buy or rent a car or motorbike today we don’t often think about where it all began, and the incredible people who had the vision in the first place. The first motorcycle is like most inventions in that it didn’t all happen in one day or without developmental stages. It evolved into being in gradual stages, and there isn’t just one single person who can claim it as purely their invention, and there were a few versions that were introduced by a number of inventors during the 19th century.
The development of the first gas-engine motorcycle has its roots in steam-powered bicycles. American Sylvester Howard Roper invented a two-cylinder, steam-powered velocipede in 1867 powered by coal (a velocipede is an early form of bicycle with the pedals attached to the front wheel). In fact, Roper was also the inventor of the steam-engine car. Around the same time, across the pond in France, Ernest Michaux, also attached a steam engine to a velocipede which was powered by alcohol and twin belt drives that accelerated the front wheel. In 1887, an Arizonian inventor, Lucius Copeland, formed a manufacturing company which would produce the first so-called “Motor-Cycle”, which was actually a three-wheeled mechanism.
The next ten years would see a large variety of designs for self-propelled bicycles, but the first gasoline-powered internal combustion engine of one is attributed to two German men named Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. The two developed the Petroleum Reitwagon in 1885, which marked the historical moment when a collision between the dual development of the modern bicycle and a practical, feasible gas-powered engine occurred.
Gottlieb Daimler actually used a new engine that was invented by German engineer Nicolaus Otto, his former employer, who had invented the first “Four-Stroke Internal-Combustion Engine” in 1876, dubbed the “Otto Cycle Engine”. As soon as the engine was completed, Daimler integrated it into a motorcycle.
Interestingly, the Reitwagon didn’t actually have a maneuverable front wheel, relying on a pair of outrigger wheels instead, which are similar to training wheels which help the bike stay upright while taking turns. Daimler went on to be a remarkable innovator who experimented with gasoline motors for boats as well. He also went on to become a pioneer in the commercial car manufacturing field, with his own shared company which bore his name, ‘Daimler-Benz’, which eventually evolved into the well-known Mercedes-Benz corporation we know today.