1,489 cc, 1894, Germany
Deutsches Zweirad-Museum, Necharsulm, Germany


The 19th century spans an impressive period of invention, one notable for its preoccupation with time, space, and speed. The first railroad locomotive, the use of electric light, the creation of cinema: the influence of these technological advancements was profound, responsible for fundamental alterations in the manner in which we perceive our environment, even live our lives, today. The railroad isolated us further from a spatial relationship to the landscape; electricity released us from the quotidian routines dictated by natural light; cinema, with its illusion of occurring in "real" time, changed traditional notions of temporality and mortality.

These particular inventions share more than a continuing resonance. They also demonstrate the restlessness of human nature since the industrial age--the desire for more speed, more time to work, more entertainment, the demand for "different and better" as quickly as possible. It is this love affair with dynamism that inspired the invention of the motorcycle.

Certain early experimental motorcycles are fascinating in terms of the transparency of their inventors' intentions: namely, how can we move faster? The Michaux-Perreaux, created in France in 1868, took a small commercial steam engine and attached it to the bicycle, which had existed since 1840. Use of steam-powered two-wheelers continued until late in the century, as evidenced by the Geneva. In other early motorcycles, like the De Dion-Bouton, the Orient, and the Thomas, the designers began experimenting with petrol power while maintaining basic bicycle design. Gottlieb Daimler, the German engineer who earned the nickname "Father of the Motorcycle," was actually using his 1885 wooden "boneshaker" (a term often used to describe early cycles, with their wooden frames and wheels) to test a gasoline engine intended for a four-wheeled carriage. Felix Millet's unusual "motocyclette," built in 1893, featured a radial five-cylinder engine inspired by aeronautical design that reappears later in the striking 1922 Megola.


The Hildebrand & Wolfmueller became the first powered two-wheeled vehicle to be offered to the public on a series production basis. The Hildebrand was crucial in its move away from the foot pedal as the main source of engine power. The motorcycle was no longer a hybrid, but a machine with its own essential qualities.

Great diversity and competition characterized the pioneer years of motorcycling in the United States, and such companies as Indian, Harley-Davidson, and Henderson thrived. The spirit of exploration of those early years encouraged breakthroughs in engineering and feats of invention. One early manufacturer of motorcycles, the Pierce Cycle Company, was founded by the son of a famous car manufacturer. Glenn Curtiss, who became better-known as an airplane engineer, used a dirigible engine to power his record-breaking V-8.

Even the more traditional arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting turned to dynamism and technology as compelling subject matter at the dawn of the new century. Almost concomitant with Gottlieb Daimler's first test run of his Daimler Einspur was Gustave Eiffel's fantastic achievement, the Eiffel Tower, a radical, absolute equation of architecture and technology. Later, in Paris, one of the most celebrated examples of artistic experiments with space and time was the Analytic Cubism explored by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Another group, the Italian Futurists, was intensely interested in speed, technology, and the fragmentation that went hand-in-hand with progress. Like the Cubists, the Futurists believed in demonstrating how the nature of vision produces the illusion of a fusing of forms.

Meanwhile, the motorcycling world's method of immortalizing its continuing obsession with speed was through racing events and record keeping. The Isle of Man TT, the world's oldest continuously run race, was founded in 1907, though other annual events, like the Speed Carnival in Ormond, Florida, had been held years before. Some of the most dangerous racing was done on board tracks, where the wooden surface allowed for exhilarating speeds. By the 1920s, speeds averaged over 100 mph, and many accidents occurred, including spectator injuries caused by splinters flying up from the track as bikes raced past. As the first phase of motorcycle development came to a close with the beginning of World War I, motorcycle manufacturers sought to put their machines to uses beyond the achievement of ever-higher velocities. Companies such as Indian supplied the U.S. Army with motorcycles, sidecars, and delivery cars in bulk, and military concerns were reflected in their marketing strategies. The priority in the postwar years shifted to increasing the public's accessibility to machines that had been, until then, largely available only to specialists. Harley-Davidson was extremely successful in targeting their 1919 Sport model to a mass market.

As a result of the Sport's smooth ride and easy handling, a new age and new audience was primed to embrace the motorcycle.