Photo:  Velocipede and a motorcycle.  Library of Congress. 

                      *Copyright 2012.  Not for redistribution without permission. 

The following is taken from Burr, S. De Vere & Leng, Charles William.  Bicycle and Motorcycle Repair.  1912.  NY.  The authors went into great detail about the workings of carburetors and other components and what charges were fair for various repairs.  I did not reproduce all of that information due to its length.  I have given the authors’ version of the earliest history of the motorcycle, and how it was operated at the time of publication. 

In 1868, it is said, W. W. Austin, of Winthrop, Mass., brought out a velocipede, steam-propelled, in which a small coal-burning engine was used.  The inventor claimed that he had ridden it over 2000 miles.  Until the discovery of the Austin machine, the original American motorcycle was supposed to be a steam bicycle devised in 1884 by L. D. and W. E. Copeland, of California, which was attached to a lever-driven “Star” bicycle and could make about eight miles an hour.  In 1896 another attempt to make a steam bicycle is credited to S. H. Roper, of Roxbury, Mass.

In 1895 a gasoline motor was applied to a bicycle by the Motor Cycle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and the product was exhibited at the Madison Square Garden, but was not commercially successful.

By 1900 motor tricycles had attained some popularity abroad and in this country and the progress in gasoline motors had correspondingly advanced.  A gasoline motorcycle of approximately the present pattern made its debut at Charles River Park, Boston, July 24, 1900, ridden by Albert Champion.  It made five miles in 7:16 2/3, and similar high speeds have ever been a feature of a branch of the bicycle business which ever increasing manufacture now makes prominent.

A popular type, made with differences of minor importance by many factories, is the four-horse power single cylinder…The motor is hung as low in the frame as possible, to bring the center of gravity low; the seat, well provided with springs, is also placed so low that the rider’s feet can touch the ground; the gasoline and lubricating oil tanks are carried below the top bar and are shaped to fit the frame; the wheels are 28 inches diameter, steel rims and fitted with detachable tires; a coaster brake is used in the rear wheel and usually some form of spring fork is used to lessen vibration.  Control the mechanism is accomplished by wires leading to the handle bar grips…dry batteries connected with the spark plug but in a large number of machines a magneto is substituted.  The operation of a motorcycle of this type depends upon an explosive mixture of gasoline vapor and air passing into the cylinder of the motor there to be exploded by an electric spark derived from the poles of a spark plug connected with either batteries or magneto.  The right grip control releases the exhaust valve and controls the spark as well as the automatic switch, and the left throttles the carburetor, in other words, regulates the quantity of mixing passing into the engine.

It is not advisable to operate the left control frequently or to any considerable extent, except where the right control does not give sufficient power.  Then if more power is desired, the left control can be used to increase the speed.  This not only saves fuel, but keeps the motor cool.

On the right side of the carburetor head is the air regulation arrow pointing in the directions marked “Shut” and “Open”.  In starting the machine it is well to have the air supply, which this regulates, shut off, but as the rider becomes accustomed to his mount, he may open the air which will save fuel.  For all ordinary riding, air adjustment may be left where the rider finds it to work best, as carburetor is entirely automatic.

Both controls are operated by an inward turn of the wrist.  Before starting, both controls should be turned out, i.e., the right control full to the right; the left control full to the left.

In starting the rider should note:

See that the tanks, both oil and gasoline, are filled and that gasoline valve is opened and that the oil discharge valve at bottom of crank case is closed.  The oil tank is filled by unscrewing the pump stem until loose and then removing cap with the stem.  When the tank is filled replace the cap, at the same time lifting the pump stem as high as it goes, screw on the cap, then turn the pump stem to the right, which will connect it with the piston.  Pump in oil sufficient for starting—about two strokes.

See that the electric current and connections are perfect and that after putting in the contact plug a good “fat” spark is produced.  Now tickle the carburetor by pushing down the tickler pin or push cap in front of the carburetor a couple of times.  Mount the machine; pedal a few times to get momentum, then turn the right grip to the left and you are off.


The first point in operating a motorcycle is to remember that he who “tinkers” for the fun of the thing, hunts for trouble and usually gets it.  It is well to go over all nuts and screws frequently and see that they are not working loose.  It is also well to clean out the cylinders, to test the batteries, the coaster brake and other parts, and to make constant war against uncleanliness, in short, to give the machine the care that any machine demands.

Take precautions to forestall trouble, but don’t hunt for trouble until it appears.

Principal Causes of Distress:  Lack of gasoline.  Water in the gasoline.  Stoppage in gasoline pipe.  Faulty ignition.  Leaky valves.  Broken valve stem or spring.  Improper adjustment of carburetor.  Poor lubrication.  Dirt.