The History Of Motorized Bicycles

Sylvester Howard Roper's 1868 steam powered bicycle gave a whole new meaning to steamed buns.
Sylvester Howard Roper's 1868 steam powered bicycle gave a whole new meaning to steamed buns.
The Daimler Maybach Reitwagen
The Daimler Maybach Reitwagen
Pierre Lallement's 1866 Patent drawing for a pedal bike.
Pierre Lallement's 1866 Patent drawing for a pedal bike.
Baron Von Drais' whatevertheheckitis...
Baron Von Drais' whatevertheheckitis...
Pennington's patent. Try running this bike at 60 mph! Yikes!
Pennington's patent. Try running this bike at 60 mph! Yikes!

Bicycles were first originated Baron von Drais by 1817 when he invented the first two axle, single tracked machine which looked remarkably like a modern bicycle except that it had no pedals. The propulsion was provided by the feet which walked on the ground normally... so it was more than a rolling butt rest than a true bicycle.

It was not until 1866 when pedals were applied to the front wheel (still no pedals to a chain running the rear wheel) and the first true bicycle of sorts made its debut, as patented by Pierre Lallement. These bicycles came to be known as Bonecrushers as they used wooden wagon wheels with iron bands instead of tires. Combine this with the rutted, bumpy roads of the era, and it is easy to see why the name was apropos.

The first person to have the idea that this bicycle should not be powered by human legs but by an engine was an American inventor named Sylvester Howard Roper. He built his first motorized bicycle in 1868 and begam demonstrating it at fairs and circuses around the eastern United States. Interestingly enough, Mr. Roper's motor on a bicycle was not a gasoline engine, but a steam engine! With only water vapour it had very low emissions... so it was the first green motorcycle!

However, the honor of being named the creator of the first "real" motorcycle goes to a pair of inventors in Bad Cannstatt (currently in Stuttgart). Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler did not only give their surnames to some outrageously luxurious and expensive current motor cars, but they built the very first bicycle which was powered by an engine running on a petroleum product in 1885. They named their creation the Reitwagen or riding carriage.

Fortunately a couple of years later John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire and the chain drive which allowed bicycles, motorized or not, to no longer look and ride like leftover props from The Flintstones.

It was not until 1895 when American inventor E.J. Pennington built his own vehicle in Milwaukee that these contraptions lost the name of motorized bicycles and became true "motocycles" or "motorcycles." Pennington's machine could hit nearly 60 mph, and hit must have been the operative term as by any modern standards, it is effectively impossible to ride.

It was in the same year that American tinkerer Ogden Bolton Jr. got a patent for a bicycle powered by a battery. The DC hub motor was mounted inside the rear wheel, had no gears, and sucked 100 Amps from a 10 volt battery which likely could hold a charge about as long as I can hold a flat run... after a huge Italian meal.

Today, there are a huge number of different motorized bicycles available, whether they are sold directly from the manufacturer as turn key ready to go models, or as kits that allow you to add the motor to your own existing bicycle. These vehicles are generally run on gasoline or electric power, with the latter gaining steadily in popularity with the technological improvements in NiMH NiCd, and Li-ion batteries which are superceding the older lead acid batteries. Some of these bicycles even utilize advanced technology such as regenerative braking. There are a handful of fuel cell powered bicycles on the market but they are rare and extremely expensive.

This Hub answers the request by my bud nicomp: "Since when did people start putting motors on perfectly good bicycles?"

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Comments 7 comments

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

"Ogden Bolton Jr." ? What else was there for him to do beside hide in his basement and build stuff?

"The Daimler Maybach Reitwagen" ??? Isn't that an H1N1 variant?

"Baron Von Drais' whatevertheheckitis... "???? Now yer just makin' this stuff up!

ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Those old bikes look so funny and uncomfortable

Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto Author

nicomp: Yes, Ogden was famous as he was the first to Bolt On Junior. :) Yes, the Reitwagen is a neuraminidase mutated subvariant. The Baron's thingymabob was actually called the Draisine. The Baron von Drais was also the author of Draisin In The Sun, and the inventor of Draisin Bran. :)

ethel smith: Can you imagine what they would be like with wooden wheels and iron strips for tires? OUCH! :)

Lock 6 years ago

Small point, the Baron referred to his vehicle as his "Laufmaschine" (running machine) and it was the French that labeled it La Draisienne...



Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 6 years ago from Toronto Author

Thanks for the info and say hi to the Baron for me! :)

patrick 5 years ago

I did not know that bit of history really 1868. I am a MBc myself and that was cool to hear how far back MBc goes wether it was steame or petroleum still pretty cooltoo me

Guest 4 years ago

Ogden Bolton was English and and had recently owned a steel mill in Canton, Ohio. He was mechanical engineer.

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