Motorcycle Internal-Combustion Engine Pioneers | Cycle World

Hot Young Strivers Made Internal-Combustion-Powered Transportation Possible

“These men were not ‘inventors’ trying wacky ideas”

walter davidson poses with his motorcycle

A fit-looking Walter Davidson poses more than a century ago with the Harley-Davidson single on which he earned a perfect score at the Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

Pull out any standard reference on the history of the internal-combustion engine and you will see severe gray-bearded men who appear rigid (long exposures needed for early photos required the subject’s head to be immobilized by a clamp) and professorial. Not very interesting or approachable. The wives who encouraged or even financed them are seldom pictured, and if they are, it is in the formal (and very considerable) clothing of the Victorian era.

The facts are different. These people knew they were creating a new world of efficient portable power and transportation, just as the engineers and software writers of our digital age know that their creations are fast changing the world.

First of all, they were not ancient professors. Wilhelm Maybach, at the time of his creative alliance with Gottlieb Daimler, was 37. Karl Benz was 41 when in 1885 he demonstrated his first internal-combustion-powered auto and 34 when his first engine—a two-stroke—ran. A photo of him at age 25 shows a dashing fellow with mustache and a shiny head of hair.

petroleum reitwagen stamp

Stamp of approval: Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach created the "Petroleum Reitwagen" in 1885. Powered by a vertical "grandfather clock" engine, it is often touted as the first motorcycle.

Courtesy of Deutsche Post AG

These men were not “inventors” trying wacky ideas. They were engineers, gathering knowledge of what others had already accomplished, considering the implications of formal thermodynamics, and designing ways of implementing power-producing engines that would operate at high speed and use much less fuel than the primitive gas-fired engines of the 1860s (which were little more than steam engines crudely converted to sneeze along on city gas).

Just as modern smartphone engineers expected big sales and big results from putting an internet-capable tiny computer and memory system into everyone’s pocket, so Daimler and Maybach expected rapid change and giant profit from their concept, which was to set the internal-combustion engine free of gas mains by fueling it with liquid hydrocarbons just then becoming available and operating it at a speed that could power self-propelling vehicles.

How right they were. By 1900, the French Comte de Dion and his engineer, Georges Bouton, had sold 20,000 of their motor tricycles, each powered by a single-cylinder four-stroke engine capable of operating at up to 2,000 rpm. Inexpensive de Dion engines formed the starting points of countless motorcycle and auto manufacturers worldwide. In 1901, the Mercedes factory had 800 machine tools on its factory floor, making parts for that latest rage of the very rich, the automobile.

“It’s a fad. It will pass,” the many skeptics said, noting the smell, noise, and unreliability of early cars. Now think of the computer, which was itself at first an unwieldy monster occupying whole climate-controlled rooms and costing millions of dollars. When the idea of personal computers was proposed, laughter ensued. “Do you have any idea what these machines cost?”

But just as mass-production methods and the assembly line had by 1914 transformed the automobile from a hyper-expensive curiosity into a useful vehicle any prosperous professional man could afford, so the ability of silicon logic to simultaneously grow smaller and cheaper made practical first the personal computer and then the smartphone and internet that put everyone in touch with everything.

In a similar explosion of discovery, design-for-manufacturing, and constant R&D, the internal-combustion engine created by those hot young dudes at the end of the 19th century soon powered cars, trucks, railroads, ocean shipping, airplanes, and the motorcycle.