Monday, November 14, 2011

FIRST DEPICTION OF A MOTORCYCLE?

The Science Museum print from 1818, depicting a German 'Vélocipédraisiavaporianna'
While researching the history of early motorcycle advertising (subject of an upcoming article in the French Café Racers magazine), I ran across this 1818 sketch of a powered two-wheeler in the London Science Museum, the first such depiction of a proto-motorcycle I've come across.  Called, cheekily, the 'Velocipedraisiavaporianna', the pictured machine is a conjunction of the world's first steerable two-wheeler, the 'Laufsmachine' (or 'Draisine' in France), and a small steam engine with a small army of stokers and fuel-carriers following behind. Parsing the title, a 'Velocipede/Draisia' meets the 'vaporianna', or steam engine. If the 1818 attribution of this French print is correct, this vehicle was remarkably conceived only a year after the two-wheeler was invented, in a world with no electronic media.  A close look reveals two pipes with shut-off valves leading from the large boiler box, one to each wheel.

The steam petcocks and pipes are clear, as is the implication of a hub-drive steam turbine...
While the wheels are insufficiently detailed, steam leading to the wheel hubs would imply a pair of small turbines in the hubs...which would not have sufficient torque to move a heavy machine from a standstill, but would give a useful boost once moving, perhaps even enough to propel the machine without assistance. The principles of steam boilers and turbines were well known by 1818, and the first powered vehicle, Cugnot's steam tricycle, had been demonstrated 60 years earlier.

The idea is clear; an engine could power two wheels, and even if this sketch is notional, the concept of the motorcycle was born.
An 1820 version of the Laufmaschine, with steerable front wheel
 Karl Drais invented his 'Laufmaschine' (running machine) in Mannheim, Germany, in 1817, and word (plus copies) of his invention spread rapidly, with the new machine called the 'Draisine' in France, the 'Velocipede' in England, and the 'Dandy Horse' (likely due to 'riders' being the well-heeled sort; new technology is always expensive...).  Drais may have been inspired to refine a 'horse substitute' as a result of a serious famine in Europe in 1816, the 'Year Without a Summer', in which disastrous climatic changes from the largest volcanic eruption in 1300 years, of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, spelled doom for expendable livestock, which included horses.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and Europe's hunger planted the root stock of all two-wheelers to come.
Hats off to Karl; we're nearing the 200th birthday of his invention.

18 comments:

Charles said...

are those "balls" hanging off the front in the first photo? like the "truck nuts" of today? just so we remember, it takes a massive pair, etc. etc..

occhiolungo said...

Hiya Paul, Yes, the Velo...ianna is the first image depicting a motorcycle that I've come across too. It is shown in some of my old books, along with text descriptions of other steam bikes of that era. There is some doubt among the early authors as to whether that particular machine was actually built and run, but the striking image still persists.

I hadn't thought about the timing of the hobby horse bikes with the Volcano eruption; an interesting insight. The early push bikes were commonly mentioned as toys to kick around on. Serious use as a horse replacement would be pretty difficult!

yours,
Pete

The Vintagent said...

Hi Pete,
I'm fairly convinced that this machine was simply a cartoon inspiration, but will have a closer look in the Science Museum in December...

The Vintagent said...

@Charles; by jove, the artist invented those as well! What a visionary...

occhiolungo said...

I don't know if you'll find much at the Science Museum, but let me know. Their displays are not in great shape. I have both of their early books on motorcycles. That image is in the frontispiece of book #2. Let me know if you want more info, the books come up for sale very infrequently. (it took me several years to find the first one). Some info is on the "Bibliography #1" article on my website.

Anonymous said...

I thought the "truck nuts" were some kind of plumbob used to help in balancing the velocowhateveritis...

David Blasco said...

I see the "truck nuts" as bells, adorned with ribbons, no doubt to warn those in danger that the machine is approaching. Interesting that the rider still must move his legs in pace with the powered vehicle, it perhaps not being realized that it would be possible to balance.

The Vintagent said...

@David; of course you're correct - then as now bicycles need bells to warn oblivious pedestrians...

Grandpa Jimbo said...

Another modern point:

The wooden bicycle has the world's first side stand!

Jim A., Tucson, AZ

tony- texas car shipper said...

Great blog.

Anonymous said...

Paul,

If you look closely at the illustration, you can see vapour or steam issuing from the wheel hubs. Also there are pipes, with shut-off valves, leading from the firebox/boiler to each hub. This indicate to me that there is an "aeolipile" or "Hero's steam turbine" in each wheel. Hero of Alexandria is credited with inventing this device in the first century AD.

David Burgess Wise's 1973 book "Steam on the Road" (Hamlyn, London) page 6 indicates that the steam turbine principle for an engine geared to the driving wheels was used by French inventors of small scale (2ft long) model carriages as early as 1681. It strikes me that a small lightly built "toy" carriage so powered would quite easily move under its own power across smooth surfaces. But quite likely a large-enough-to-carry-a-man device might only move by itself under its own power with a significant "push-off" or "rolling start", which is what the rider appears to be doing with his legs. The picture was accompanied in the newspaper of April 6, 1818, by some text about the demonstration of "Drasines" in the Luxembourg Gardens but only the picture caption mentions the steam powered version.

Anyway, after long thought about it and publishing several articles on this subject over the years without meeting any opposition, I think it is fair to credit the birthday of the "motorcycle" in principle to April 5, 1818.

By the way, I believe the Hildebrant brother's c1888 steam motorcycle, long thought to be of British origin, and known to have entered the 1896 Emancipation Run to Brighton and in the London Science Museum collection since 1940, (I saw it there in 1957), is probably in their storage premises a long way out of London - It was when I inquired about it a year or two ago.
- Alan

The Vintagent said...

Alan, it's an open question, whether this machine was actually built or not. There is much evidence in both directions, and I'll do my diligence to find the truth.
I'll visit the Science Museum in December, and hope to find out a few things...stay tuned.
Also, the 'steam Hildebrand' will follow in another post about the multitudes of 'other' engines in early motorcycles...

Jon Dudley said...

Paul, you probably know that the relevant curator of engineering (car, bike, aircraft etc.) at the Science Museum rides a very nice Ducati...and is a true enthusiast. By the way there's some early two wheel stuff at Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris - again you probably know that too, but just in case...

The Vintagent said...

Hi Jon,
I didn't know that about the Science Museum curator...if you can make a connection, we'd all be grateful.
And as for les Arts et Metiers, yes I've photographed the Millet motorcycles, and have done some research on them too! It's the Micheaux-Perraux just outside Paris that I want to visit...one of the claimants to the 'first motorcycle'...

Anonymous said...

Paul,

After looking at the drawing - I would not call it a "cartoon", since there is nothing exaggerated or farcical about it and no dialog or labels on it, as usual in that era - what impressed me was that if the artist simply drew what was seen, including the pipes from the boiler, taps on the pipes where they exit the boiler, waste steam issuing from the hubs where the turbines and their exhaust would be located and other details (sleigh bells at the front) then the machine existed. If it is pure artistic invention then the artist had an uncanny ability to get all the technical details right for a potentially working powered velocipede - and would probably to have been a person capable of building one. And these details of the design differ considerably from the steam-powered 3 and 4 wheel vehicles which came before 1818. I favour the idea that the artist drew what was seen. It almost certainly did not work very well - such turbines would have had to have been geared to a road wheel to allow the turbine to turn at high speed to develop sufficient torque.

My bet is that somewhere in a Parisian cellar or attic is a curious antique wheel hub with the built-in piping of a "Hero's turbine".

- Alan J

The Vintagent said...

Hi Allan,
I use 'cartoon' in the sense of sketch, not the Disney sense - yesterday I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of cartoons from the Rennaissance to the 1800s, and they style of our 1818 illustration fits right in with the period, not that we doubt the age.

I'm fascinated by this piece, obviously, and do indeed wonder if the infernal machine was actually built. Hopefully I can gain access to the actual print for a better photograph, and a discussion of its contents. Perhaps they can shed some light, and with a better image I can expand a few details.

There were plenty of sophisticated steam engines in 1818, and of course, Cugnot's tricycle had been built 50 years previous, so its not out of the question this was an actual motorcycle. How fascinating, if so.

The irony is of course, that half the world's scholars on early motorcycles discount anything but the Internal Combustion engine; I've had this argument personally with Kevin Cameron; I think this position is absurd and a distortion of history created by the simple hegemony of the IC engine, and the oil industry.

If we think differently about our past, we will think differently about our future...

occhiolungo said...

Hi guys. It is most likel that the man on the seat of the first motorbike is Nicephore Niepce, inventor of the first IC engine. During 1818, he and his brother were in the process of building an IC powered boat that traveled upstream on the Siene. His motor didn't require connecting rods to the wheels, it was basically an explosion engine. What looks like a steam engine in that drawing may be an IC... More of the story is here: http://occhiolungo.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/the-first-motorcycle/

Regards,
Pete

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul!

If there was something to find in this drawing, it would be merely a joke and definitely not an historical revolution. If you look at he bottom of the Velocipédraisiavaporianna etching, you will read (in French) : "very surprising mechanical device invented in Germany, able to replace horse carriages, vélocifères, célérifères and so on, in case of high mortality of horses, Sunday April 5, 1818, Luxembourg Garden".

Opposition between the French and the Germans doesn't date back only from yesterday, even with humour...

In "The world on wheels", vol. 1, by Duncan, you can read on page 273 (taken from the Liverpool Mercury of April 24, 1818), that "an immense concourse of spectators assembled yesterday afternoon at the Luxembourg (Paris) to witness the experiments with the Draisiennes, a species of carriage moved by machinery without horses". Unfortunately, the "machinery" was only man's legs. Several prints of the time confirm this.

As you say, and Duncan confirms it (page 271), "La Petite Chronique de Paris" had also published an article on April 7, 1818 about these experiments, confirming that only the legs on the ground (not even pedals) could bring the Draisienne at a speed "equallling that of a horse when trotting". Baron von Drais had only invented a célérifère with front steering, nothing more.

In fact, as Baron von Drais had asked the spectators to pay for the demo, and that they were a bit deceived, many comments in the press were bitter and sarcastic. Hence the humoristic vision of a fantasy steam engined draisienne, equally published in "The world on wheels", on page 280.

Didier