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Antique Motorcycles: Early Steam-Cycle History

Copeland Steam Cycle Engine

The First Motorcycles, Steam-Cycles and the Velocipede (Vélocipède)

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The dawn of motorcycling was certainly not for the faint-of-heart. The roads were bad to non-existent, and the earliest motor-driven cycles were horrifically uncomfortable. The early motorcycles were based largely on the Georgian era (1714-1830) human-powered, wooden contraptions known as the vélocipède, and lovingly referred to as the "bone-shaker."

A velocipede (vélocipède) was a generic term for any two, three or four-wheeled vehicle that was human-powered, and included a wide variety of design layouts. There were the so-called "penny-farthing" (aka "high wheel," "high wheeler," "High Bicycle" or "ordinary") designs such as the Renn "Invincible," Saal, or Touren "Leipzig" bicycles; and the Gepäck, Manuped or Humber tricycles which had one small wheel, and one or two enormous wheels. These were typically steered using a tiller to guide the larger (or smaller) front wheel.

Early Vélocipède
Early Human-Powered Vélocipèdes (c.1800)

There were also models with two similarly-sized wheels (known as the "low safety" or "safety bicycle") such as the Reitmaschine and Sicherheits "Rover" bicycles, and the dicycle (aka diwheel) which had two identically-sized wheels that were side-by-side (such as the Otto Dicycle built by BSA). There was also the single-wheeled monocycle, also known as the unicycle.

The French Celerifere is believed to be the first two-wheeled "bicycle" (actually a push-cycle without peddles) in the world, dating back to the 1790s. Known as the "Celerifere hobby-horse," this precursor the the modern bicycle was designed by Comte de Sivrac for use as a plaything of the noble class, and it would be several decades until the concept of a two-wheeled "vehicle" would transcend a mere child's toy.

The First Velocipede (Vélocipède)

In 1817, a German named Baron Karl Drais de Sauerbrunn invented a two-wheeled "walking machine" known as the Draisienne (aka "Dandy Horse"), which was also a wooden push-bicycle similar to the Celerifere. This led to the design of the high-wheeler, vélocipède and tricycle, all of which would eventually have a steam-driven motor attached to them. Later versions of the Draisienne were powered by pumping paddles attached to the front axil, and/or pulling the handgrips to turn a crank, making the large front wheel rotate.

Early Steam-Powered Cycles

Although Thomas Newcomen's (1664-1729) modern steam-engine, also known as the "atmospheric engine," had been around since the early 1700s, it was not until the mid to late 1800s that it could be scaled down to a size that could be fitted to a vélocipède. By combining the human-powered bicycle with Newcomen's steam-engine, the motorized bicycle, or "motor-cycle (motocyclette, vélocipède à vapeur) was born.

As you will see from this list of "firsts," motorcycle development was an international affair, with early efforts coming from France, Germany, Italy and the United States.

Many of the first iterations of the steam-powered bicycle were makeshift creations that barely functioned, but perhaps the first successful attempt to marry the two technologies was the Michaux-Perreaux steam-vélocipède made by French bicycle manufacturer Michaux of Paris, in 1868.

Michaux-Perreaux Steam Cycle
Michaux-Perreaux Steam-Vélocipède (c. 1869)

The chassis of the Michaux-Perreaux was based on the Draisienne "Dandy Horse" high-wheel bicycle, with a modified frame and raised seat to accommodate the small steam-engine, as well as the boiler, firebox and water tank.

One of the major downsides of the penny-farthing, or high-wheel design - invented by James Starley in 1870 - was a tendency to go over the handlebars when stopping quickly, leading to the saying "taking a header." It was for this reason that any cycle with similarly-sized wheels became known euphemistically as a "safety bicycle."

The First American Steam Cycle

The first known steam-cycle to be built in the United States appeared in 1869. It was built by an American inventor named Sylvester Howard Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Roper's invention may have the distinction of being the first American motorcycle.

1869 Roper Steamer

The Roper Steamer utilized a two-cylinder steam engine fired by a charcoal burner. The steam engine drove connecting rods to a crankshaft on the rear wheel. Roper toured with his invention for several years, only to be killed while riding one of his steam-cycles at an indoor bicycle velodrome.

Roper's steam-cycle also abandoned the popular 'high-wheel' design of the day, in leu of the "boneshaker" bicycle design which used two similarly-sized wheels.

1879 Giuseppe Murnigotti Steamer
1879 Giuseppe Murnigotti Steamer

In 1879, Italian inventor Giuseppe Murnigotti patented his horizontal single-cylinder steam cycle (motore atmosferico al velocipede), and later patented his 'double-acting piston' four-stroke gasoline engine used in a three-wheeled vélocipède (triciclo).

The Copeland Steam Cycle was invented by Lucius D. Copeland from Phoenix, Arizona in 1884, using the chassis of a Star high-wheel bicycle. This followed earlier attempts to marry a steam-engine to Albert Pope's conventional Columbia bicycle, but following a crash, Copeland went with the high-wheeler instead. Copeland's 4 horsepower, single-cylinder steam engine carried enough fuel and water to allow one hour of operation, and its boiler produced 80psi of steam pressure.

1884 Copeland Steam Cycle
1884 Copeland Steam Cycle

The Copeland Steam Cycle had a reported top speed of 12mph, covering a distance of 1 mile in around 4 minutes. Copeland's invention was exhibited several times throughout the United States before vanishing from sight. Several years later, Copeland built a steam-powered tricycle with an engine by Northrop Manufacturing Co. of Camden, New Jersey, appearing in several engineering magazines of that time.

For additional info on the Copeland and Roper steam cycles go to: Earliest Steam Cycles by Pete Gagan.

Early Gas-Powered Cycles

The first motorcycle powered by an internal combustion (gas) engine was built by Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Wilhelm Maybach (1846-1929) in 1885, and called the "Einspur." Their company, the Daimler Motor Company of Stuttgart, Germany was formed after the two left their employment at Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik AG, where Daimler worked as their technical director. Daimler's engine was based on the "Otto-Cycle" engine, designed three years earlier by Eugen Langen and Dr. Nikolaus Otto, who was a co-owner of Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik. Otto's engine was based on the earlier work of Alphonse Beau de Rochas in the early 1860s.

1885 Einspur by Gottlieb Daimler
1885 Gottlieb Daimler's 'Einspur' Gas-Powered Motorcycle

The engine for the Einspur was developed in 1883, weighing just 80 kg compared to other internal-combustion engines at the time which weighed as much as 300kg. The Daimler engine used a new type of ignition system consisting of an incandescent platinum tube (inside the cylinder) heated by an outside burner. The Daimler motor produced 0.5 horsepower, and turned at 450 to 900 rpm. This self-firing ignition system was patented by Daimler in 1883, and by 1885 their new engine was fitted to their Einspur motorcycle.

The seat on the Einspur was so high that the bike required outrigger wheels to stay upright, but despite its distance from the motor, the seat caught fire on its first test ride in November 1885. Even with these setbacks, it did complete its 12 km maiden voyage from Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt to Untertürkheim. The same year, a more powerful water-cooled engine was fitted to a carriage, and the rest is history.

1892 Felix Theodore Millet Steamer
1892 Felix Theodore Millet 'Motocyclette' Steamer

The first of these early creations that would come to represent the emblematic design of the modern "motorcycle" was built by Felix Theodore Millet in 1892. Millet's "motocyclette" was driven by a patented, aviation-style five-cylinder rotary engine that was built into the rear wheel.

Later iteration of the Roper Steamer c.1896

Other obscure steam-powered cycles included the 1893 Bernardi, 1894 Datifol Steam by Georges Richard, 1895 Kane Pennington, 1895 W-I-Twombly-Ether, 1899 Holden and 1900 Motosacoche J.11 vélocipède.

Early Mass-Production Gas-Powered Motorcycles

Most of these early steam and gas-powered cycles were little more than curiosities, or one-off creations designed to dazzle the public with their technological feats. None of these contraptions were available to the masses until 1894, when the first "mass-production" motorcycle was built by Hildebrand & Wolfmüller of Germany.

1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Reproduction
1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Motorcycle

The first mass-production motor driven cycle to be manufactured in the United States was the 1900 Orient Motor Cycle designed by Charles H. Metz of the Waltham Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts.

1900 Orient Light Roadster by Charles H. Metz

Charles Metz is credited with being the first person to coin the term "motor cycle," which was used in an 1899 advertisement for his Orient Roadster.

From 1900 onward, it was off to the races, as every entrepreneur, inventor and crackpot jumped head-first into the motorcycle game. For the first two decades of the 20th century there were literally hundreds of motorcycle manufacturers, each proudly branded with the owner's name. Many went broke, or crazy, or both, but these early pioneers forged the way for an industry, and a "lifestyle" that is clearly here to stay.

In the end, only a hand-full of motorcycle companies would ultimately survive two world-wars, the great depression, and the ever-fickle tastes of the consumer, but each of their creations has left an indelible impression on those of us who love this sport.


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