Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson start Harley-Davidson

Bill Harley was tall and quiet, a mechanical engineer by training. Arthur Davidson was short and talkative, he was a story teller, a sales guy.

Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson on a motorcycle with fish they caught
Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson

They were just two young boys who loved fishing. And so they’d ride their bikes to a lake near their home in Milwaukee, where they’d spend the day.

It was a tiring ride, one the boys wanted to make easier. They wanted to “take the hard work out of pedaling a bicycle.” And they probably just wanted to get to the lake faster so they could spend more time relaxing and fishing.

They started looking for ways to make the ride easier. And on one fateful day, the two came across an inventor riding a motorcycle in Milwaukee.

Inspired by the machine, they built their own motorized bike. The first version completed in 1903 couldn’t go up hills without the rider pedaling. So they worked on a new version. Completed in 1904, this version came with a bigger engine. And on September 8, 1904, the motorcycle was used in a race at State Fair Park. The rider finished fourth, but what mattered most is that this became “the first documented appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the historical record.”

They had been building motor bikes for themselves, but when a friend asked them to build one for him, they realized there was also a business opportunity with what they were doing.

Arthur was able to borrow $500 from an uncle who owned a bee farm and they set up shop in a 150 square foot wooden shed.

Harley-Davidson shed

Arthur created the slogan, “Take the Work out of Bicycling.” And they started a company building motorized bikes. They called the company Harley-Davidson.

In 1905, they sold about seven motorcycles. Less than ten years later, they sold more than 20,000 in 1914.

“Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson start Harley-Davidson” sources: / Photograph of first workshop taken in 1904: Harley-Davidson Museum – Google Arts & Culture


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