Today, let's talk about biking, flying, and the
metaphorical power of a machine. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A stray dog attached herself
to me two years ago. A running dog with a happy
face. A dog who loves motorcycles. Early in life,
she'd learned that this creature, with an engine,
wheels, and a helmeted head, is greatly to be
desired. Her old owner had to be a biker. So I ask
my wife, "Tell me quick -- don't think: What do you
see when I say motorcycle? "Menace and speed," she
says. "Noise --and fun! I think of Darth Vader's
The history of the motorcycle -- this rumbling,
snorting, centaur, half human, half iron -- is only
a century old. It began just as soon as the bicycle
took its modern form in 1885.
Nicholaus Otto, who invented the Otto Cycle, had an
assistant, Gottlieb Daimler. Daimler left Otto to
develop his own engine. In 1885 he made a wooden
bike. He drove it with his engine instead of with a
pedal arrangement. But there was a catch:
Daimler's motorcycle had two small stabilizing
wheels --like a kid's training bike. It was
actually a four-wheeled vehicle. Daimler soon went
on to build early automobiles. He left it to
bicycle builders to develop the two-wheeled
They had problems to solve. Where should the motor
go? It was soon clear that, for stability, it
should ride between the wheels, close to the
ground. How many cylinders should the engine have?
Should it be a two-stroke or four-stroke cycle?
Should you keep pedals and a chain, or could you
All the while a remarkable split was taking place
between the builders of bikes and the builders of
automobiles. Automobile inventors had greater
kinship with the railroads. Indeed, many of the
first autos, like locomotives, were steam-powered.
But it was bicycle makers who went into the air.
Biking and flying have always been kin. A lightness
of being attends both modes of motion. You feel the
wind; you feel movement. Cars and trains aim to
insulate you from that intimacy with motion. It's
no accident that motorcycle and airplane speed
records were almost the same until WW-I.
Harley-Davidson made their first V-twin bike in
1907. It distinguished itself by climbing hills.
Like the airplane, the bike is a metaphor for
shedding constraints -- of gravity and of society.
Motorcycles have climbed and jumped and made their
owners rebels for a day. They've moved faster than
life. The fast ones now go 160 mph. Some have set
records that top 200.
So my dog sees a single creature with two wheels
and a helmeted head. It's Darth Vader, earthbound
perhaps, but only barely. It's Luke Skywalker
skimming the forest floor, two feet off the ground.
It is a metaphor for the buoyancy of being.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilson, H., The Ultimate Motor-Cycle
Book. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.
I am grateful to Kieth Hollingsworth, UH Mechanical
Engineering Department, for providing the
remarkable Wilson source book and for suggesting
For more an even earlier motorcycle, see Episode
A fine on-line history of the motorcycle is
presented on the website,
The following illustration of Daimler's first
motorcycle (with "training wheels") is first of the
many pictures they offer:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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