Who invented the motorcycle? Well, let’s see…


After supper on a recent hot Saturday night, I was sitting on my front porch nursing a cold glass of Pinot Grigio and watching the world go by on busy State Route 45 (See how exciting my life is?).


It struck me that there were an awful lot of motorcycles going by in both directions and I got to wondering who invented the motorcycle.

Lots of research didn’t actually answer the question due to controversy over what, even, is a motorcycle. Webster’s says it is a two-wheeled vehicle with an inner-combustion engine; however both steam and internal combustion four-wheeled vehicles are considered cars, so why wouldn’t the same thing apply to two-wheelers?

Shotgun choke

Sylvester Roper, a “mechanician,” was born in 1823 in New Hampshire and later moved to Boston. Showing mechanical ability at a tender age, Roper, although he’d never seen a steam engine, built one at age 12. He worked at the Springfield Armory during the Civil War and invented a revolving, repeater shotgun, and the shotgun choke.

Although Roper never patented them, he built a steam engine-powered carriage in 1863, and, although accounts vary, he also built a steam “velocipede” in maybe 1867, 1868, or 1869.

Two cylinders

Roper’s crude machine had two cylinders, one on each side of the frame that drove the rear wheel through cranks. A saddle-shaped water tank doubled as the seat for the rider and a hand pump transferred water from it to the boiler, which was hung from the center of the frame with a spring to absorb shock.

A chimney extended upward at an angle behind the rider, while the steam exhaust was piped to the bottom of the chimney to force a draft to the charcoal fire in the firebox.

Neither wheel was sprung and the only brake was a so-called spoon brake, a leather lined metal plate that was forced against the iron front tire by twisting the straight handlebars to the rear. Twisting the handlebars forward opened the throttle.

Steam bike

Roper continued to improve his steam bike until, in 1896, at a Cambridge bicycle track, he got the thing up to 40 MPH when it crashed, ending not only his motorcycle experiments, but his life as well.

Meanwhile, at about the same time in Paris, France, Guillaume Michel Perreaux mounted a small, one-cylinder steam engine in a Michau velocipede. An alcohol burner, the belt-driven machine could reach 9 MPH and was patented in 1869. This machine is on display at a museum near Paris.

On the other hand, many motorcycle enthusiasts insist that steam bikes weren’t really motorcycles at all and that the first real motorcycle was the Daimler Reitwagen (riding wagon) made by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885.

Also known as an Einspur (single track), the Reitwagen is credited with being the first gasoline engine powered bike, even though it actually had a small outrigger wheel on each side, much like a tot’s training wheels.

Wooden wheels

Still, the Reitwagen had two large, steel-tired wooden wheels, one in front and one in the rear of the wooden frame. It was powered by a one-cylinder, four stroke engine of Otto’s design, with hot tube ignition, an atmospheric intake valve (opened with the suction of the intake stroke), and (possibly) a Maybach designed carburetor, along with an aluminum crankcase and twin flywheels.

The 0.5HP engine was mounted under the frame, while the fuel tank and hot tube ignition apparatus were under the saddle. The drive was by a belt from the engine and a couple of gear reductions to the rear wheel. A handlebar throttle and brake similar to Roper’s was used as well.


The Reitwagen was capable of about 7 MPH and was first tested by Daimler’s 17-year-old son, Paul, who rode the contraption about 5 miles in November, 1885, with the only problem being that the seat caught fire from the hot tube under it.

Daimler, however, was experimenting only with the engine, not a motorcycle, so after a couple more tests the Reitwagen was abandoned, although the design was patented in 1885. Daimler and Maybach went on to build automobiles and Daimler’s name lives on in Daimler, AG of Stuttgart, Germany, who still builds cars, trucks and buses.

Motorcycle production

The first motorcycle to actually be put into production seems to have been the Motorrad (motor wheel) made in Munich, Germany, by brothers Henry and Wilhelm Hildebrand and Alois Wolfmuller and patented in 1894.

A two-cylinder, water-cooled, four-stroke engine with hot tube ignition displaced 1,488cc, although it produced just 2.5HP. Long connecting rods connected the pistons to cranks on the solid-disc rear wheel, which doubled as the flywheel. A cam attached to the rear wheel operated the exhaust valves through a complicated system of levers.


Both wheels were shod with balloon tires, although the only brake appears to have been a handlebar lever operated spoon brake on the front tire.

Factory riders made several impressive demonstrations of the Motorrad and a good many were sold, but the weird and complicated drive and cam mechanism caused many problems and most were returned for refunds. This drove the firm into bankruptcy and Hildebrand & Wolfmuller went under in 1897.

On this side of the pond, America’s first production motorcycle was the Orient-Aster, built by Charles Metz, at the Waltham Manufacturing Co. who was making Orient safety bicycles in Waltham, Mass.

Chain driving rear wheel. In 1899, Metz beefed up an Orient bike and installed a French-built Aster one-cylinder engine in the frame. The engine made 0.5HP and had a chain drive to the rear wheel. It had the normal bicycle pedals and chain, and probably a coaster brake, as these had been invented in 1898.

Speed contest?

Metz advertised his Orient “Motor-cycle” heavily prior to its introduction on July, 31, 1900, when the Orient won the first official motorcycle speed contest in Boston. The machines won other races and many were sold until Metz went out of business in 1923.

So, I guess my question of who invented the motorcycle wasn’t really answered, but I had fun researching it.

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