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The History of Motorcycles

The history of the motorcycle begins back in 1867, when Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to a bicycle. Around the same time, Sylvester H. Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts, affixed a coal-fired boiler to a bicycle. In 1868, a French engineer named Louis-Guillaume Perreaux patented a similar vehicle that used a steam engine, and most significantly, in 1881, Lucius Copeland assembled a steam boiler that could power a penny-farthing (a bicycle with a small wheel in the front and a large wheel in the back). Copeland then went on to found Northrop Manufacturing Co. in 1887, which produced the first functioning "Moto-Cycle" — it had three wheels and was known as a Phaeton steamer, but Copeland retired his business quickly due to lack of profits. Edward Butler had similar problems commercializing his own design in England. However, over time, bicycle manufacturers began outfitting their bikes with internal combustion engines. In 1898, Peugeot Motorcycles showcased an early model and today, the company is one of the world’s oldest motorcycle producers. In 1901, Royal Enfield debuted its first motorcycle, as did the famous Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company. In 1902, Triumph unveiled its first model and in 1903, Harley-Davidson debuted. As motorcycle racing rose in popularity, these brands began advancing motorcycle technology in response. When World War I broke out, motorcycles replaced horses as the preferred way to deliver transmissions to troops, and motorcycle production increased. One particularly beloved model was the Triumph Model H, nicknamed “Trust Triumph.” After the war, Harley-Davidson became the biggest motorcycle producer in the world; Indian motorcycles were also very popular. Notably, the first front-wheel brakes were added to motorcycles by Harley-Davidson in 1928. World War II drove increased production and innovation, as did motorcycle racing. After World War II, motorcycle riding became a popular pastime in America and a popular transportation option in other parts of the world. In the 1950s, several popular Japanese motorcycle brands made their debut, including Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. In 1972, federal regulations standardized the controls on motorcycles for the first time. In the late 1980s, Antilock Braking Systems (ABS) became standard. Today, the motorcycle innovations continue as many brands develop more eco-friendly hybrid and electric models.

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