The Age of Innovation
All of the attention being focused this year on the Motorcycle Cannonball ride, a coast-to-coast, 3,300-mile competition for bikes made before 1916, has reminded me of an important truth: When it comes to new technologies, all of the fun stuff happens in the first few years.
This is the case whether you’re talking about aircraft, spacecraft, computers or, of course, motorcycles.
Think about it. When jets were invented, we went from Germany’s rudimentary Me-262 to the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird in 20 years. When the space race began, the world progressed from Sputnik to Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon in just 12 years. And if you’re a geek like me, you have to fondly remember the early days of the computer revolution, when everybody from IBM to Commodore was building a “home computer” with its own distinct operating system and package of programs.
Why is there so much innovation when a new technology emerges? That’s simple. It’s because no one has yet figured out the rules of this new game, so anything is (or at least seems) possible. And that attracts all kinds of tinkerers with their own unique vision of where the technology will go.
Motorcycles are a perfect example. If you figure that mass-production of motorcycles began in the last few years of the 19th century, look at everything that happened in the next two decades.
When it comes to engine design, many companies started with the basic single cylinder. But here in America, the V-twin concept quickly caught on. Inline fours may have begun with Belgium’s FN, but they, too, became a significant part of the mix on this side of the Atlantic. In Britain, companies were developing the flat twin and the vertical twin. There was even at least one V-eight (from Glenn Curtiss), and at least a couple of experiments in mounting radial engines in the wheel (the French Millet and the Williams from New York state).
Most companies concentrated on four-stroke engines, but there were simple air-cooled two-strokes for utilitarian machines, and Alfred Scott’s pursuit of performance-oriented liquid-cooled two-strokes. Even within the four-stroke mainstream, innovators explored the possibilities of inlet-over-exhaust valves (atmospheric and mechanical), side valves, overhead valves, overhead cams and even multi-valve heads.
How about basic configuration: Two wheels? Three wheels with two in back? Three wheels with two in front? Belt drive? Chain drive? Shaft drive? No passenger? Passenger seated behind the rider? Passenger seated ahead of the rider? Passenger on a bench between the two front wheels? Yep, all present and accounted for. All within the first 20 years.
In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single significant technological direction for motorcycling that wasn’t at least explored before the industry was 20 years old.
As is typically the case when new technologies mature, this golden age of innovation didn’t last long. Companies quickly found what would work, given the manufacturing processes available at the time. And more importantly, they learned what could be sold profitably.
As a result, a lot of innovators fell by the wayside, unable to turn their soaring dreams into business reality. Thus, by the 1920s, riders in this country basically could choose from just three American motorcycle lines, all of them heavily featuring V-twins of similar specification. Those Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior machines were undoubtedly better and more reliable than the motorcycles of the previous two decades. It’s just that they were also less technologically interesting.
But for 16 days this September, that wonderful era of innovation will be back on display, as some 60 riders try to conquer the North American continent on century-old technology. And for me, it will be fascinating to see the world as it was when the motorcycle was still being invented.—Bill Wood