| 100 Years of Harley-Davidson |
By Willie G. Davidson
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1903 Ideas in Motion: Assembling the First Bike
MOST STORIES ABOUT THE EARLIEST DAYS OF Harley-Davidson focus foremost on the hardwarethat first engine, the bicycle frame, and so onthen the narrative builds from there. That's fine, but I don't think they begin to scrape the surface of how difficult it was for Harley-Davidson s founders to actually build a motorized bicycle in 1903, or for anyone to build any kind of motorized machine in the early 1900s. To me, the context for the company s history begins before the idea for that first motorcycle even look hold.
Transport yourself back in time to what Milwaukee, Wisconsin, must have looked like a hundred years ago. Imagine how tough people of that era had to be just to survive. If you were fortunate, your home had electricity; but you certainly would have known people who weren't so blessed. Outside the city, lots of people didn't even have indoor plumbing. The strong, icy winds blowing off Lake Michigan made for brutal winters. Journeys to school or work could be very tough.
The Industrial Revolution brought technology and wealth that earlier generations couldn't have imagined. But for most people life just after the turn of the century involved considerable struggle. Men and women could expect to live only about fifty years. Children died from incurable diseases. Most of the creature comforts we take for granted today simply didn't exist.
Milwaukee had an active manufacturing economy then, with mills forging and bending tons of metal every day. Factories were humming, while many of the first- or second-generation immigrants like my Scottish ancestors worked hard on dangerous shop floors. Horse-drawn carriages dominated the busy city streets, but electric-powered trolleys, considered the epitome of progress, had started to appear. Still, for the average person, the primary mode of transportation was honest-to-goodness horsepower. Those who didn't have horses walked or rode bicycles.
There were no highways to speak of, and coast-to-coast travel was extremely challenging. Most city streets were cobblestone. The remaining thoroughfares were gravel and dirt. And you can imagine the harsh road conditions after a pounding by hooves or heavy rains.
The primary method of travel between cities was rail. It must have been a major production for a family to board a train in Milwaukee and steam south to Chicago before heading east or west. But people wanted to go places. There was a desire to see and experience what this country was all about. That historic need served as an impetus for Harley-Davidson.
Inventors of the era were trying to make it easier to get from point A to point B. Steam engines were widely used by railroads and ships. But their offspring, gasoline-burning internal combustion engines developed in the late 1800s, were starting to become more popular. Inventors saw tremendous potential in these crude machines, notably used in powering carriages, which were the precursors to modern automobiles. In turn-of-the-century Milwaukee, the occasional gas-powered carriagea rickety, spindly, slow-moving thingalways drew a crowd. Ownership was strictly reserved for the rich or the inventors who built them.
An equally rare sight was a motorized bicycle. The first models featured a leather belt connecting the motor to the rear wheel. In Europe, these vehicles and the stories about them intrigued the creative imaginations of many early inventors. In Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson's founders began experimenting with a gasoline engine.
Two of the company's founders were my dad's uncle, Arthur Davidson, and his next-door neighbor Bill Harley. They were lifelong pals and worked for the same Milwaukee metal fabricator when they were in their early twenties. Arthur was a pattern maker and the kind of person who was naturally liked, since he was very friendly. Bill Harley was an apprentice draftsman and an extremely bright guy. But most importantly, both were after-hours tinkerers. Hobbyists. Inventors. They were fascinated by the idea of building a motor-driven bicycle from the ground up. This was a major challenge: they had to design a gasoline engine from scratch.
At one time Bill Harley had been an employee of a local bicycle manufacturer, so he knew the hardware. Arthur had experience making patterns for gasoline engines. For additional help, they enlisted one of their coworkers, a German draftsman with a working knowledge of gasoline engines and some familiarity with European motorcycles. In those days, you couldn't run out and buy parts or order them from a catalog: every part of that first motorcycle had to be designed and fabricated by these men. (Think about that the next time you need a part!)
Evenings were spent experimenting and building in the Davidson family basement at 315 North 37th Street, only a block away from the company's Juneau Avenue offices. Early on, the motorcycle development work moved into a shed behind the house.
After two years of experimentation, the founders were making headway but needed more expertise with the mechanics. They decided to approach Arthur's brother Walter, a railroad machinist living and working in Kansas. Walter was planning to visit Milwaukee to attend the wedding of their brother, my grandfather William A. Davidson, so the timing was right to solicit his help. Apparently Arthur and Bill succeeded in capturing Walters imagination. When Walter arrived back home, he familiarized himself with the blueprint and decided to remain in Milwaukee to help them finish that first bike.
Walter found a job with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, where my grandfather worked along with my great-grandfather William C. Davidson, who also worked for the railroad after emigrating from Scotland in the 1850s. My grandfather was a toolmaker and toolroom foreman who was known for his skill and trustworthiness. He must have been excited by the motorcycle project at the family house.
Help with the project came from other sources as well. One of Bill Harley's neighbors, Henry Melk, had a home machine shop and made his lathe available to the men. When they couldn't quite configure their first carburetor properly, Arthur consulted an inventor friend from childhood, Ole Evinrude. Ole later went on to great fame and fortune with the outboard boat motor company that bears his family's name.
The folklore that surrounds that first engine centers on the carburetor. Legend has it fashioned from a tomato can, and in my heart I'd like to believe that. But given the founders' seriousness and the efforts they put into developing exact drawings and patterns, I can't see them settling for something so primitive.
The makeshift operation in the family basement finally produced positive results, and the first engine was completed and mounted to a bicycle frame. However, it was too small to generate enough power. So they returned to the drawing board. If the engine had to be stronger, so did the bicycle frame that carried it. They determined that the traditional "diamond" bicycle frames lacked the necessary strength. They adopted a loop design that would become standard for their vehicles.
With their first prototype behind them and drawings and parts piling up, they found themselves in need of more space. With that in mind, my great-grandfather, an accomplished carpenter, built a small ten-by-fifteen-foot wooden shed in the backyard devoted exclusively to the project. HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTOR CO. was painted on the front door. It was the first time those names were put together. I don't think they cared whose name came first. Sometimes things take on a life of their own, and the details of the real story will always be shrouded in mystery. I like it that way.
The question is this: While working in that small shed nights and weekends, could these young inventors have envisioned what was to come? I truly believe the answer is no. The founders never could have imagined that their enterprise would turn into a treasure respected by enthusiasts around the world. What they established was monumental, though probably hard to place in any real context because everything was yet to come. Put simply, it was the beginning.
Excerpted from 100 Years of Harley-Davidson, by Willie G. Davidson. Copyright (c) 2002 by Harley-Davidson. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top