While it may seem like they’ve been around forever, motorcycles really have only been around since the later half of the 1800s. In fact, they evolved alongside many of the mechanical advancements of that era. Their birth and evolution help tell us a little bit about the American cultural phenomenon that developed around these two-wheeled beauties.
They’re called bikes in common vernacular, and it’s true that motorcycles descended from what was called safety bicycles at the time. Their invention seems to have been something that can’t really be traced to one person or area in particular, but, rather, an idea that was popping up all over Europe somewhat simultaneously. For most of their early history, they were more like what we think of as mopeds now, complete with pedals for human powered locomotion.
In France in the 1860’s, they were driven by a steam-powered engine. Their design was that funny “velocipede” with the giant front wheel and the small back wheel. After about twenty years of experimentation with design around Europe, the fascination spread to the USA. During this time, designs began to incorporate the internal combustion engine, a new technology that was just gaining traction.
In 1896, a British company began selling motorcycles to the public, and two years later, in 1898, an American company based in Waltham, Massachusetts began doing the same. Most of the designs during this time featured an internal combustion engine incorporated into a bicycle. Many of the biggest names today in Europe and America came into being during this time period.
The bikes were utilized during World War I as a way to send messages to the front lines. Horses had previously been used to carry out this mission, but the motorized vehicle was a faster, smaller, safer mode of transport. This is when the pedals began to disappear from the designs, and the first true motorcycles appeared. They were an effective way of quickly getting from one place to another, and after the war, they continued to gain favor for these reasons. Further, they were an inexpensive way to get around, especially if you didn’t have a family you needed to tote around. Thus, the brooding, loner hero riding across the US on his bike was born.
It was after World War II that the idea of belonging to a club became really important to many riders. Through the 50s and 60s, these clubs grew in participation and cultural relevance. The image of the biker gained a permanent foothold as an American icon. By the 1970s, the clubs began lobbying for bikers’ rights. However, some of this power was lost when the RICO act targeted many “outlaw” gangs.
Today, motorcycles have spread all over the world. In the US, they’re used as a mode of transportation for city dwellers who don’t want to pay for parking, for those who want to travel cross country, and for those who love belonging to a special club. There’s no question as to the importance of these vehicles in history or in culture, and their evolution helps to tell us how this came to be.