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The First Motorcycle

November 16, 2011

As I often point out, we should always doubt any claims about THE FIRST of anything regarding motor vehicles.   When was the first disc brake, or monoshock, or foot starter?  Probably quite a bit before most people think it was invented.  A long time has passed, and many items were not documented well.  But I think that we can discuss the first motorcycle today, with some disclaimers of course!


The first of the motorized cars is a different discussion, and would be a rather lengthy one.  But this page from “History of Motorized Vehicles, Mechanical Traction and Travel 1769 to 1946” by R. W. Kidner shows some neat pioneers.  The Cugnot of 1769 is pertinent, as it was the first powered three wheeler, and most parts of the world recognize three wheelers legally as motorcycles.  But today we will limit our discussion to two wheeled, powered vehicles. 



Early motorbicycles were just that, motorized bicycles.  So we should start by looking into the early push bikes.  There is some doubt as to when the first hobby horse was made, with many sources claiming that Count de Sivrac demonstrated a bike in Paris in 1791.  And contemporary reports exist of races of the velocipedes along the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris around the turn of that century.  There were definitely four wheeled human-powered “bikes” then, as shown by Ozanam  in his book “Recreation Mathematique et Physique” of 1696.  Some other sources claim that the Sivrac bike didn’t exist, and it was a typo of a translator/journalist in 1891, and his bike was actually a four wheeler.  But we are certain that bikes existed by 1816/1817 when Baron von Drais de Sauerbrun made his “draisienne”.


Hobby-Horse Bicycle, 1791.  From Early Bicycles by Philip Sumner.  Published by Hugh Evelyn Limited


And of course steam power goes way back, with Hero of Alexandria describing some seventy inventions in 150 B.C.  Jumping ahead a bit, steam powered pumps were in operation in 1750, with work by James Watt and others bring that technology forward.  Moving in a different direction, in 1673 the genius Huygens had used gunpowder to fire a charge and create a rudimentary design for an internal combustion engine, but it may not have worked well.


In hindsight, it seems puzzling that bicycles were not invented hundreds or even a thousand years before 1800.  The basic components and mechanics of a cycle were not revolutionary by any means.  Wheeled vehicles had been pulled by oxen for a thousand years and more, and wood frames, leather seats, bearings, etc. were very well known.  But it took some vision to produce a steering, balancing two wheeler; one that required forward motion to stay upright.  Once the cycles were at hand, it was only a matter of time until an engineer wanted to motorize them.  Steam power was at hand already, and several inventors had drawn up steam cars as shown in the first image (above).  Gunpower, alchemy and other chemical voodoo was also being explored, with mixed results.


In 1807 the Niepce brothers built and patented a new motor, an internal combustion engine.  This is likely the first IC engine.  The were awarded a ten year patent by Napoleon in 1807 for their work.  Early experiments used a fuel of Lycopodium dust (a type of moss).  This fuel was commonly used to produce flames inside theaters during plays.  By injecting the highly flammable substance into a cylinder, then igniting, the explosion forced the piston back in a cylinder.  Later they developed a lower cost fuel of resin mixed with coal.  Eventually, on June 2nd 1816, they moved from coal to kerosene and invented fuel injection.


Sadi Carnot (the father of thermodynamics) notes  in his book:“Reflections on the driving force of fire and the machines proper to develop this force“ (what a title!)
"Among the first attempts made to develop the driving force of fire through atmospheric air,we must point out those of M.M.Niépce that took place in France ,many years ago, by the mean of a device called pyreolophore by the inventors.This device consisted of a cylinder ,with a piston, where atmospheric air was admitted at normal density.A highly flammable substance was projected at a very high level of fineness, and that remained a little while in suspension in the air,then it was ignited. The ignition caused an effect almost as if the elastic fluid had been a mixture of air and a flammable gas,like air and carbonaceous hydrogen ; there was a sort of explosion and a sudden dilatation of the elastic fluid,dilatation that used to act entirely on the piston.This one would be set in a motion of a certain amplitude,and the driving force was thus created. The operation could be restarted by renewing the air and going through the cycle again.”



First plan of the pyreolophore, drawn by the Niépce brothers from


The brothers built a small boat during 1817, and used their motor to propel the boat up the Siene river under its own power!  The 2000 pound boat used 125 grains of fuel per minute, and it required 12-13 explosions to jet-propel itself forward through the water.  The exhaust on the bottom right of the image was piped to the stern end of the boat.  The piston and cylinder are on the right, and the air/fuel sources are on the left.  From an 1806 report: M.M.Niépces’ machine no portion of heat is dispersed in advance ; the moving force is an instantaneous result,and all the fuel effect is used to produce the dilatation (explosion) that causes the moving force.  The brothers were very prolific inventors, also being the first to create photographs as well as several inventions relating to chemistry and biological tools.


The younger brother Nicephore Niépce was very interested in using the new combustion motor, as evidenced by the success with the boat trials.  He also was very enthusiastic about the new bicycles that were on the scene, and modified his own draisienne in 1818 with a better invention for the seat geometry, including some adjustability to the location of the saddle.Draisienne_-_Musée_Nicéphore_Niépce_-_DSC06044

Painting of Nicephore Niépce with his draisienne, from their family home.  Photo source here.  Photo caption :  Draisienne, or new car, Brevel invention, to 14 Venues in 15 days


During 1818 Nicephore wrote a letter to his brother about his thoughts for the cycle, including his plan to motorize it with their internal combustion engine.  This may have lead to the creation of this image from the Science Museum in London:


The text on the left reads something like: “Very surprising invented in Germany could in case of horse mortality replace xxxx”  The text on the right is tough to see, but translates to “Whose first experience live Sunday, April 5, 1818 in the gardens of Luxembourg" 


The Velocipedraisiavaporianna shows some very obvious mechanical links to Niépce’s draisienne, beyond the small balls or bells hanging from the front of the frame.  The frame itself has similar curves, wheel supports, handlebars, etc.  Over the years there has been much doubt that the machine in this print could be made to move under its own power.  No connecting rods or crank shafts or gears can be seen to transmit the power from the motor to the wheels, and it has been commonly thought that this image depicted a steam motor, and steam motors use connecting rods to convert piston motion to rotating wheels.  The image does appear to be a steam setup, complete with tenders feeding in coal and flames coming out the open door.  Two tubes can be seen from the bottom of the firebox, carrying steam through valves, down to the hubs of the cycle.  The basic physics of this approach is valid, as the wheel hubs could have held turbines which would spin via the high pressure steam.  However the mechanical leverage may have been terrible, and it may not have worked at slow speeds.  But the idea is sound.


I understand the Niepce powered boat, it didn’t use a propeller.  It simply was moved forward by the explosions of the motor, as Newton’s laws of physics state that it must, like the old trick of the physics professor driving a red wagon through the lecture hall using a fire extinguisher for his rocket power.  The large piston moved a volume of air through a smaller cylinder, at a corresponding higher velocity in the direction downstream on the river, while the boat moved slowly upstream.  To move a 2000 pound boat against the current on the Siene takes some power, only a small portion of that power would have been needed to propel a man and a cycle down the road for a few yards.  If the same propulsion methods were used on the cycle, then no crankshafts would be needed, just an exhaust nozzle out the back end of the vehicle. 


Regarding the similarity of the Velocipedraisiavaporianna and Niepce’s draisienne, we cannot as yet be sure when either of these two prints was created.  It may be that one artwork was derived from the other.  Or it may be that Nicephore Niépce drew up plans to create a motorcycle.  He may have built it and demonstrated it in the Luxembourg Gardens on April 5, 1818.   Back in the bicycle side of the research, some books state that N. Niépce gave demonstration in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1816 on his draisienne, but no mention of any motorized transport two years later.  If only Niépce and his brother would have captured their motors using their new invention of photography!


All of Nicephore’s letters and correspondence have been kept, and were recently digitized and are available for study (in French) at this website.  With my limited ability to translate via Google Translate and OCR software, I couldn’t find any letters regarding the draisienne from April of 1818, but perhaps further study could shed more light on the possibility that he designed and maybe even ran a motorcycle in 1818.  From the footnotes of his letter on Sept 9, 1818 the following notes written by a researcher:  “On April 7, it was read in the Petite Chronique de Paris, an article on the velocipede of the Baron Drais. Presented in the Luxembourg gardens, the machine had been running ,easily followed, even by children. “  This article was surely the inspiration for the Velocipedraisiavaporianna drawing (dated April 5th), but did the article refer to a pedal bike, or a motor bike?  Further research is required.


It may not have been Niépce that the artist was depicting.  If it were him, then the motor was would have been his IC, and the artist took some liberties with the hoses and wheel hubs.  But another inventor could have been in roughly the same place and same time, and come up with a steam power plant for the cycle.  One nagging question is “who sketched the art, and when?”  Another theory: Was it just a French joke, at the expense of the German inventor?


It would be nice to conclude that the idea for a motorized bicycle was sketched on April 5th, 1818.  But we need to verify the date of the artwork. 


Postscript:  I now have more questions about this than when I started my research!  Paul and I plan to work on this one together, with a trip to the Science Museum in London to dig a bit further. Stay tuned to OcchioLungo and The Vintagent for more details.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. shaun permalink
    November 16, 2011 9:35 pm

    Very interestin’ article, Pete. Thanks for making it!

    Re your question regarding why bicycles weren’t invented sooner, I wonder if their development didn’t need to wait for the advent of pavement and a class of people with enough money and leisure to have such a thing.
    Plus, of course, the vision of an individual like poor Karl Drais…I wonder how long it took him to learn how to balance on the thing, and whether people laughed.

  2. November 17, 2011 5:10 am

    Pete, I could help with some translating if it’s not, like, the whole book.

    • November 27, 2011 10:49 am

      Thanks Tim. I think that Paul and I might have it covered, but I’ll get back to you. By the way, your spark plug holder is ready to ship out.

  3. November 17, 2011 7:00 am

    Ach, Pete, so much good stuff in here, and I’m going deep to respond…

    I question whether the my hero Niecephore Niepce and his brother had anything to do with the Steam-powered Drais of 1818 – and it’s clearly that, with stokers and billowing clouds. The Niepce engine was powered by explosive dust as you note, a different animal entirely, UNLESS they did something crazy like carrying their own water supply to mimic the explosive-water-pump design of their boat. That would be unwieldy! But then, we show stokers and wood, not moss powder…so I really think this is a steam engine.

    France enjoyed a period of semi-stability and mild prosperity after the nightmare of the Revolution/Terror (1789-94) and corruption/famine of the Directoire (1795-1799), and was a hotbed of scientific activity in the 1800s. There were Others beside the Niepce brothers who were experimenting with engines in France…its time we looked for other likely suspects…I have a friend with a collection of the entire published proceedings of the French society of engineers, from the 1600s onwards; time to sit down and start reading…after I improve my French!

    The reference to ‘horse mortality’ in the 1818 image refers to ‘the year without a summer’; in 1816 an Indonesian volcano (Mt. Tambora) erupted, the largest such event in 1300 years, and caused massive climate change, and widespread famine in Europe. Many, many horses and other livestock died and/or were eaten…there was fear that horses would no longer be viable as the #1 source of motive power, which stimulated a search for alternative locomotion. Napoléon would have been very interested in any such work, as he attempted to create and Empire in Europe. (An irrelevant aside; I’m working on a project with Conrad Leach, set during the Directoire, so my head is full of France at the moment).

    The Niépce thing: my ‘avatar’ on The Vintagent is a Daguerreotype, a self-portrait, the Second type of photography, after Niépce’s first work with asphalt and solvents in 1826. Daguerre worked with Niépce to improve the method, and by 1838 they successfully combined fumes of iodine and bromine on a polished silver plate, which still works! Toxic materials, lovely resultant image. A hobby of mine…there are still a few dozen Daguerreotypists doing their thing in the world, among whom I count myself, ‘students of Niépce’; that he was also a father of internal combustion motors is a big plus. What a horrid, difficult, war- and famine-filled time to have lived, and yet so much creativity!

    We’re really down the rabbit hole here…let’s collaborate and see what we can discover. I have a feeling there’s a piece of the puzzle missing, an inventor in France who was playing with small steam engines in 1816…someone must have kept notes or delivered a paper to a Society, or provided a first-hand account. Find THAT, and you’ve bagged the first motorcycle, matey.

    I’m headed to the London Science Museum in a couple of weeks…and the Paris Musée des Arts et Metiers afterwards…

    • November 17, 2011 8:17 am

      aye, good stuff there Paul. I had read about Niepce’s work with Daguerre before, but didn’t know about his work on the IC motors. And I think that the depiction is a steam motor. But I’m still unsure about the artist’s source and intent (not to mention their timing). At the end of all this research, I have more questions than I had before! Coincidentally, I’ll be at the London Science Museum in about a week, and I’m working with a guy to try to get access into the good stuff. But I’ve learned that the majority of what we are after isn’t in the building anymore. More work is required… 😉 See you soon.

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