What was the first motorcycle ever? It’s a simple question, but the answer is going to depend on who you ask. In this article we’ll look at the development of some of the first motorcycles ever made, and how the involvement of giants in the automotive space may be overshadowing the real truth of our beloved motorcycle’s origin.
Historians disagree on when the first motorcycle was made, because it depends on what your definition of a motorcycle is. The first electric motorcycle was made in 1889, the first internal combustion engine motorcycle was made in 1885, and the first steam powered motorcycle was made in 1867.
Let’s look into the history of the motorcycle’s creation to better understand how the motorcycle came to be, and why historians and motorcyclists are often disagreeing with one another.
What’s the definition of a motorcycle?
A poll on YouMotorcycle’s YouTube channel revealed that motorcyclists can’t unanimously agree on one definition of a motorcycle. We asked motorcyclists for their opinions on whether or not they considered a Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle, and a Harley-Davidson Freewheeler trike count as “real motorcyclists.” Opinions were divided:
- 88% of voters said the electric motorcycle was a “real motorcycle”
- 52% of voters said the trike was a “real motorcycle”
What’s important is that riders think having two wheels is more important to the definition of a motorcycle, than what powers the vehicle. This contradicts what motorcycle historians, dictionaries, and encyclopedias have been telling us, and that’s why there’s some controversy over when the first motorcycle came out.
Let’s review the facts, and then you can decide when the first motorcycle was made.
When was the first electric motorcycle made?
In the late 1800s mankind was pioneering and experimenting with the use of electricity. Thomas Edision invented the incandescent light bulb all the way back in 1879. That’s 24 years before the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was founded. Is it possible that the first motorcycle was actually electric? Unfortunately, no. We have records of patents for electric motorcycles from as early as 1895 in Canton, Ohio, and 1896 in London, England.
It’s amazing to think that the first electric motorcycles are to know that the first electric motorcycles are nearly 130 years old, but they still aren’t the oldest motorcycles ever. So let’s look into their gas counterparts.
When was the first internal combustion engine motorcycle made?
Many historians credit Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach with making the first motorcycle ever, the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen. Yes, the Daimler of Daimler-Benz and the Maybach of Mercedes-Maybach. Before they made luxury cars, they were just two inventors working together to create humble and efficient means of transportation. They created the first internal combustion engine-driven motorcycle in Bad Cannstatt, Germany in 1885.
Historians who who believe a motorcycle must have an internal combustion engine in order to be a “real motorcycle” will call the the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen the first motorcycle ever made.
When was the motorcycle made, no matter the engine type?
They say the wheel was man’s most important invention. It changed our capacity for agriculture, for transport, for industry, and for war and peace. For over 3,000 years, since the invention of the chariot, two wheels and some horsepower was the fastest man travel the earth. What were people using for fast transportation after the chariot, but before V8 pick-up trucks and Teslas? We counted on steam power.
The steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen as early as 1712. That’s 173 years of steam engine development before the Daimler-Maybach motorcycle was created.
In 1867, Pierre Michaux and Louis-Guillaume Perreaux had invented a steam powered motorcycle, or velocipede, in Paris, France. That was a full 18 years before the Daimler-Maybach Reitwagen.
There’s some history of this in the USA too, because that same year, 1867, Sylvester H. Roper of Boston, Massachusetts, also created a steam powered motorcycle.
Which steam-powered motorcycle came first?
Historians argue over which of the two steam powered motorcycles came first. It’s hard to put an exact date on both the steampunk motorcycle from Paris, and the one from Boston. Given the lack of international communication of the time, it is likely that neither party even knew of the other one’s progress on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The only thing we do know for certain, is both of these motorcycles were created nearly two decades ahead of the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen internal combustion engine motorcycle. If a motorcycle doesn’t need to burn gas to be considered a motorcycle in your opinion, then the first motorcycles were steam powered.
Everyone’s heard of Daimer and Maybach, but very few motorcyclists have heard of Pierre Michaux, Louis-Guillaume Perreaux, or Sylvester H. Roper. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the credit they deserve.