William Sylvester Harley

Inventor of the World Famous Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

Co-founder and First Chief Engineer

of the

Harley-Davidson Motor Company,

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Born: 29 December 1880 -- Died: 18 September 1943


Herbert Wagner

Author of: At the Creation: Myth, Reality and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1895-1909

(Note: This biography of William S. Harley is an updated and expanded version of my article that originally appeared in American Rider magazine's July 1998, "Special Harley-Davidson 95th Anniverary" issue. After that time new information came to light about the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle and that material has been incorporated into this biography. The first complete and fully documented account of Harley's beginnings can be found in, At the Creation, Myth, Reality and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1895-1909. This landmark book is packed with previously unpublished information and photographs about the early days of this famous Milwaukee brand and legend. Please buy yourself a copy or one for your favorite Harley-Davidson enthusiast.)

Biography of William Sylvester Harley

"Loyalty of a fellow worker is the biggest thing in the game" -- W. S. Harley


The year was 1943 and World War Two was raging. The United States -- and Harley-Davidson -- were deeply involved in the war effort. William S. Harley, chief engineer and co-founder of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. in Milwaukee, had not missed a day at the office. He was working on several military projects and was being assisted by his older son William J. Harley. His younger son, John E. Harley, had joined the armed forces and was training soldiers to ride motorcycles at military bases around the country.

After working on the morning of the 18th of September, a Saturday, Mr. Harley remarked to then company president William H. Davidson, "It's such a lovely day I think I'll go out and shoot a round this afternoon. I haven't played for a long time." At the Milwaukee Athletic Club where he was a longtime member, Mr. Harley played a game of golf and then had a light dinner there. Afterwards, in the lobby he purchased cigars and was about to go home when he suddenly felt ill and collapsed. Rushed to County Emergency Hospital he was pronounced dead of heart failure there at age 62 years and nine months of age. Three days later William S. Harley was buried in Milwaukee's Holy Cross cemetery, thereby ending an unbroken chain of motorcycle invention and adventure going back to the year 1901 and even earlier.

In this more than century of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle that is known and celebrated today as a world-wide icon of classic American design and freedom, it seems proper to review the life and work of this one man without whom there would have been no Harley-Davidson motorcycle or legend and whose family name has become synonymous with Milwaukee Iron: "Bill" Harley.

Harley Family Origins

The Harley family originated in the fenland and farming country near the English village of Littleport, about 75 miles north of London. The name Harley stems from the Middle English, hara ley, and means "clearing in the woods."

William S. Harley's father, also named William, was born in 1835. In 1857 he married Susan Scotting. In 1860 they immigrated to the United States and in 1864 William enlisted in the New York Heavy Artillery. This military tradition has carried down in the Harley family for five generations to the present day.

In 1868, a daughter, Katherine, was born to the Harleys. At that time Susan Scotting Harley may have died in childbirth. Shortly thereafter, William Harley married Mary Smith, and in 1870, a son, Joseph Harley was born to them. The family then moved from New York state to Milwaukee, Wisconsin located on the western shore of Lake Michigan. There William Harley found employment as a railway engineer. Five more children, two boys and three girls, were born between 1872 and 1882. Only one of them survived childhood: William Sylvester Harley, who was born on 29 December 1880.

Until around 1896, the Harley family lived at 222 Ninth St. Nearby at 232 Ninth St. lived another family by the name of Davidson. Arthur, their youngest son, became William S. Harley's boyhood pal. This friendship would last a lifetime and would help spark the building and impetus of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Pennington's Motor Cycle

In 1895, these two boys may have seen their first motorized bicycle. For that summer, Edward Joel Pennington, the American inventor and promoter, had his fabulous new device he had trade-named "The Motor Cycle" on display and perhaps running up and down Wisconsin (Grand) Avenue just a few blocks from where young Harley and Davidson lived. It seems likely that these boys heard of and probably attended Pennington's exhibition and the sight, sound, and smell of a bicycle that ran on "vapor power" may have instilled the "dream" these boys (then grown men) recalled years later of building a motorized two-wheeler of their own long before they had the actual means to do so.

In 1896 the Harley family moved to Milwaukee's north side on Burleigh Avenue. There William (now age 15) found employment at the Meiselbach bicycle factory. He was employed as a "cycle fitter" there and learned important manufacturing and construction details about this high-tech device of the 1890s. With its precision bearings, ultra lightweight but strong tubular frame, and magically balanced wire-spoke wheels running on pneumatic tires the bicycle used the most advanced materials and fabrication techniques of the day. Out of the 1890s bicycle craze the modern motorcycle would emerge.

These early events would help set the pattern for the rest of Bill Harley's life. In 1901 a third factor entered the picture: the internal combustion engine.

Power Bicycle

In the summer of 1901 then 21 year old William Harley drew up plans for a small gasoline engine meant to propel an ordinary pedal bicycle. This dated and signed drawing was titled "Bicycle Motor" and drawing #2 from the original series survives today. By 1901 young Harley had become an apprentice draftsman at the Barth Mfg. Co. in Milwaukee and his Bicycle Motor was apparently outside work. Legend holds that help with this first motor came from a fellow worker at Barth, a German-born draughtsman who had learned something of the lightweight de Dion-Bouton engine in Europe. It should be noted that all early successful motorcycles engines were based on this French motor design. Parts for Harley's first engine were made by Bill and Arty at the home of Henry Melk, the so-called "northside friend," who lived down the street from the Harley family on a lathe probably owned by Henry's father Johann Melk. For those who might visit Milwaukee, the Melk home still stands today.

Progress on the original Bicycle Motor project was slow. Almost two years later in April of 1903 it was still not completed when Arthur's older brother Walter came home from his job in Kansas to attend the wedding of their oldest brother, William A. Davidson. But Walter was intrigued enough to stay in Milwaukee to help finish it. At least we assume it was finished because there is no good evidence either way and in any case it would have been too small and underpowered to be successful even on Milwaukee's very modest hills and the boys would shortly abandon it. One additional reason being that by 1903 advanced second-generation motorcycles were appearing on Milwaukee streets; modern designs like the advanced second-generation Merkel motorcycle that made Harley and Davidson's motorized bicycle project obsolete.

By this time (1903) Harley had finished his apprenticeship at the Barth Mfg. Co. and was now working as a draftsman at Pawling & Harnischfeger. During this same pivotal year the creative vision of young William S. Harley came to the fore. He now realized that propelling a bicycle with a tiny engine was an out-of-date notion and that a true motorcycle was a unique device with its own demands and characteristics. Young Bill Harley seems to have grasped that revolutionary notion as well or better than anyone else of the time. As a result he set to work evaluating the motorcycles available on the American market and then combined what he considered to be their best features while introducing ideas of his own. This resulted in a new and competent design that in a few years would become the early industry standard.

Loop Frame Prototype

While many other builders had patterned their machines after market leader Indian, Bill Harley rejected Indian's dated bicycle-like design and adopted instead the more modern and advanced loop-frame chassis pioneered on the 1903 Milwaukee-built Merkel motorcycle. Although loop-frame motorcycles in the USA went back to 1901 with the short-lived Oxford and Pattee designs, Joe Merkel (later of Flying Merkel fame), gave it new popularity. Shrewdly, however, while Harley closely followed the Merkel chassis, he adopted a larger displacement engine than the one found in the Merkel and larger than most others used at the time. At about 440cc the new Harley-Davidson motor was about one-third larger in size and power than the 255cc Merkel and the 260cc Indian, although it was considerably smaller than the 630cc monster "Mile-a-Minute" Mitchell built in nearby Racine.

In his quest for a reliable, almost industrial-grade engine, Harley may have been assisted by another gasoline-sniffing pioneer of old Milwaukee. This was Ole Oleson Evinrude, later of outboard boat motor fame. In 1903 this Norwegian-born mechanical wizard was building engines of his own design on Milwaukee's Lake Street. Long a friend of Arthur Davidson, big hearted Ole may have encouraged Bill Harley to draft plans for an air-cooled cycle motor from the larger, water-cooled Evinrude design. A case of one great man helping another get his start.

With the parameters of this big-bore, loop-frame design established, young Harley then developed a simple yet effective belt-tightening device of his own invention that allowed a quick disconnect of power to the rear wheel. This was a decided improvement over the dangerous and difficult to operate direct-drive motorcycles that were common back then. Together these elements made the early Harley-Davidson motorcycle an excellent machine that might even be described as a "super bike" of the day.

First Appearance in Historical Record

The prototype of this new 2nd model loop-frame design was finished and running by 8 September of 1904. We know this historic moment in time from a Milwaukee race newspaper clipping that contains the first known appearance of a "Harley-Davidson" in the historical record. In this race the "Harley" (as the brand soon became known) went up against a Mitchell ridden by Frank X. Zirbes of Racine. While beaten in that race the Harley-Davidson motorcycle had come to stay. Ten years later Bill Harley recalled the launching of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle in another way when he said, "You should have seen the spark plug -- as big as a door knob. And they cost us $3 each...I have had a good many laughs since whenever I think of those door knob spark plugs."

College Years

Production of Harley-Davidson motorcycles began in the spring of 1905. By that time, however, young Bill Harley was in college, having packed his shirt two years earlier and enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for a degree in mechanical engineering. He realized that a real education was needed in order to succeed in this brave new world of vapor power and explosive engines. Working his way through school he was employed in a Madison architect's office and he also waited tables at the Kappa Sigma frat house alongside future Milwaukee mayor Daniel Hoan, who was the cook there. When a steak fell on the floor -- as Mr. Harley recalled years later -- Dan put it back into the pan and Bill would serve it.

A good student, Harley's surviving college work shows careful attention to detail and a good head for mathematics. His mechanical abilities were noted by Prof. Jastrow, who asked Bill Harley to construct testing apparatus for the psychology department. In his senior year Harley took part in an eleven day field trip and steam turbine test in Chicago.

At the time Bill Harley attended college the gasoline engine was so new that there was just one part-time course on the subject. This was taught by Prof. Thorkelson, who also headed the steam engineering department. During his college years, Harley stayed in close touch with his partners back in Milwaukee and designed his first V-twin engine, as a prototype was finished by late 1906 and shown at a motorcycle show in Chicago in February of 1907.

But college wasn't all work and no play. When Arthur Davidson came out to visit they would go to Hausman's brewery and fill Artís suitcase with beer. At the local hangout, "The Hub" they called him "Sylvi" Harley. To his pals back in Milwaukee he was sometimes known as "Buck" Harley.

Becomes Chief Engineer

In June of 1907, Bill Harley graduated from the university with a degree in mechanical engineering. There not yet being enough work at Harley-Davidson to occupy his talents full time, he took an engineering job at the Wisconsin Bridge and Iron Works in Milwaukee. He also retained the role of consulting engineer for the little motorcycle factory on Chestnut Street (now West Juneau Ave.), and evenings, weekends, and holidays found him hard at work there. When the formal incorporation of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. took place in September of 1907, William S. Harley was given the dual positions of engineer and treasurer. Years later, when asked why he was made treasurer he replied simply, "I really don't know."

In June of 1908 Harley resigned from his job at the Bridge and Iron Works and devoted all of his time and energy to Harley-Davidson. In the process his paycheck dropped from $110 a month to $18 a week. But he forged ahead and for the 1909 model year he redesigned the Harley-Davidson motorcycle from the ground up. For 1911 he developed an improved V-twin model that was so good it stayed in production for some eighteen years with only moderate changes and updates. By 1910 the fame of the Milwaukee brand was spreading far and wide and Mr. Harley had begun patenting his motorcycle improvements and inventions. His first patent was for a "Motor Cycle Stand" that was granted on January 11, 1910. After that date hardly a year or two would pass without another Bill Harley patent being applied for or issued.

Also in 1910 Bill Harley was married to a Milwaukee girl named Anna Caroline Jachthuber. Three children were born to them: William J. (1912), Ann (1913), and John E. (1915). For many years the family lived at 4906 West Washington Blvd. Several grandchildren and great grandchildren of William S. Harley still live in the Milwaukee area and some of them remain ardent motorcycle enthusiasts to this day.

As the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. thrived and grew, the Engineering Department kept pace. These were exciting years for Bill Harley to be a motorcycle designer. From the single cylinder, one-speed, belt-drive, rigid-fork 1905 "Model One" original, the Harley-Davidson would grow into a heavy V-twin, three-speed, chain-drive, kick-start machine with "Full-Floting" seatpost and comfort-producing spring fork by the time of the world war.

Motorcycles for War

During the First World War the durability of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle was tested on French battlefields and proved itself worthy. Even before the U.S. entered that terrible conflict, Bill Harley had developed the "fighting motorcycle" for use against Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries along the Mexican border. In 1916 he designed a machine-gun sidecar outfit, gun-carrier sidecar, ammo sidecar, and medic sidecar. Mr. Harley's war-time work led to his selection as head of the Society of Automotive Engineers Committee on Standardized Military Motorcycles. The war ended, however, before the full extent of this "Liberty Motorcycle" program could be carried out. As a tribute to Harley's reputation fame, buyers of surplus war material were said to have bid first on used Harley-Davidsons before bidding on machines of rival makes that were still brand new in the crate.

The 1920s

During the 1920s Bill Harley and his assistants designed several new machines. These included the smooth-running Sport Model, racing bikes and hillclimb models, new single cylinder lightweights, and the venerable "45" inch V-twin side-valve model. He also refined the 61 inch and 74 inch Big Twin "J" models with continual improvements, better electrics, and styling updates.

In the light of the competition, Bill Harley's engineering stood up very well. By 1920, Harley-Davidson could state with confidence that their Big Twin crankpin bearing was good for more than 20,000 miles without an overhaul.

Behind the scenes Bill Harley and his assistants worked on several other projects that never went into production. These included a four-cylinder motorcycle, a futuristic Sport Model, a shaft-drive V-twin, an all-aluminum racing motor, industrial engines, and probably others that were drawn on paper with some making it to the prototype stage but proceeded no further. Unfortunately, the market for motorcycles in the USA wasn't strong enough to produce these more exotic creations and always conservative and cautious Harley-Davidson stuck to its proven formula. This has led some critics to say that Mr. Harley's work was "plodding" and "unimaginative" although nothing could be further from the truth. The extent of his skills and creativity is demonstrated by the 86 known patents issued in his name plus four others done in collaboration with others. This impressive record is almost certainly unmatched in the field of American motorcycle design and possibly worldwide.

Harley the Man

For all his great work, William S. Harley remains something of a mystery. He was not a demonstrative man. He rarely spoke about himself or his accomplishments. Considering his long career there are not many photos of him. Once, when told his family may have royal ties in England, he scoffed and called it, "a bunch of malarkey."

Each year there are fewer men still around who knew or worked with Bill Harley. Because he stayed in his own bailiwick, most workers at Harley-Davidson didnít come into close contact with him. His inner circle has largely passed away, but others who met or knew him paid him the following tributes. "Bill Harley was an all around sportsman," said the late William H. Davidson. "He was a crack rider in the early days. Not only did he engineer [the motorcycles] but he rode them too. He checked them out on his own. One thing I always admired about Bill Harley was that he treated you as an equal. We were a generation apart, but he never looked down at me as a little kid."

Arthur Davidson II recalled him this way: "Bill Harley liked to hunt and fish, then he became an etcher, which he was extremely good at. My cousin Bill Marx had one of [Mr. Harley's etchings] of his father hunting at Lake Poygan. His father used to fall asleep in the skiff. He snored so loud it was actually like calling ducks in. One time he had ducks climbing up on his skiff and swimming around him. Bill Harley made an etching of that which hung in my cousinís office for many years."

Henry Fuldner, who roomed at college with Bill Harleyís son, William J., recalled another side of William S. Harley: "Young Bill [Wm. J. Harley] got sick and hired a private room and nurse. The next day the old man showed up. He fired the nurse and the fancy room."

Christian Spexarth, who worked in the engineering department from the 1930s to 1972, remarked: "Bill Harley took us out of the side-valve engine and into the overhead-valve engine. He was a great man."

Knucklehead Masterpiece

Throughout the 1920s the Harley-Davidson Big Twin held direct descent from the original "Model One" of 1905 and the successor 1911 V-twin model. Then in 1930 Bill Harley introduced the first full makeover of these earlier designs with the 74 cubic inch side-valve VL model.

While an improvement over previous Big Twins, the VL didn't fully satisfy Chief Engineer Harley. By the 1930s, the rapidly improving highway system, higher octane gasoline, and riders' expectations were all racing ahead of what the desperately under-oiled and over-heated VL side-valve engine could deliver. In this scenario and within the larger drama of the Great Depression Bill Harley brought forth the finest achievement of his career: the 1936 Model EL -- or "61 OHV" -- more commonly known today as the Knucklehead.

Of the many motorcycle engineers America had seen by the 1930s, Bill Harleyís experience ran the deepest and was most sustained. The engineering department at Harley-Davidson was his world and separated from other parts of the factory by a locked door. Even if you got through that you still had to pass under the watchful gaze of Mr. Harley's personal secretary, Joe Geiger, who was in charge of all drawings and records and who scrutinized anyone requesting entry into this inner sanctum of American motorcycle design. The drafting room was connected to Mr. Harley's office and he could observe it through a large plate glass window. His office -- filled with experimental parts and drawings -- was likened to "a motherís bedroom overlooking the nursery of her children." This was where Mr. Harley felt most content and at home in the plant. This is where he communicated with his team of engineers and draftsmen and where he appointed tasks, suggested changes, approved work, and put his own hand to the drawing board. During the Knucklehead's developmental stage Bill Harley was also a frequent visitor to the experimental department where he consulted with foreman Ed Kieckbusch and observed this masterpiece of design come into being with more attention and care lavished upon it than any other motorcycle in the history of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

On the 1936 EL model or 61 OHV Bill Harley invested the cumulative experience of a lifetime in an outstanding and even radical design. Not that he didn't have plenty of help because by the 1930s the engineering and experimental departments included plenty of talented guys who had grown up with the motorcycle just like Bill Harley and the Davidsons had done. But it was Mr. Harley who called the shots on the Knucklehead project and approved everything on it. Almost certainly it would not have developed like it did without him.

The extent of William S. Harley's contributions to the 1936 EL can be seen in the three patents covering the model and that were issued in his name and assigned to the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. These include: "Instrument Mounting" (2,091,682), "Oil Tank and Battery Assembly" (2,109,316), and recirculating "Lubrication System" (2,111,242). These patents show the extent of Bill Harley's creative thinking and prove that the "Sixty-One" was his baby along with its bored and stroked 74 OHV big brother that was introduced in 1941, just two years before his passing.

The Harley Legacy

From the Knucklehead's first unveiling in late 1935, a new era in American motorcycling was born. This, the age of performance, is still with us. With easy breathing overhead valves, a generous reliable lubrication system, and a look unmatched in mechanical beauty anywhere, the American rider discovered a motorcycle in the 61 EL Knucklehead that could go a thousand miles in a day provided the rider did his part. In 1937, Joe Petrali's Daytona Beach speed record and Fred Ham's 24 hour endurance record both accomplished on 61 OHVs nailed down this reputation for performance and durability for all time.

The 61 OHV was the last completely new motorcycle designed by and under the auspices of William S. Harley and built by the original four founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. This model would be successful beyond their wildest dreams and in a stunning parallel the 1936 Knucklehead equalled and perhaps surpassed the importance of Bill Harley's original 1905 Model One.

As he had done once before in 1904-05, William S. Harley essentially re-invented the American motorcycle again in 1936. This proves that lightning does strike the same place twice. And while Bill Harley died in 1943 and with his passing went all his knowledge, skill, and experience, his influence lives on, witnessed by the fact that his 1936 EL/1941 FL model never went out of production but only updated with mechanical and cosmetic changes since that time. Key elements of the original Knucklehead still serve as essential design, styling, and engineering cues for all of the air-cooled Big Twin Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced since that time. The subsequent Panhead (1948-65), Shovelhead (1966-83), Evolution (1984-1998), and Twin Cam (1999-present) big twin engines are essentially the same powerplant that Bill Harley introduced in 1936 and that contines to carry the torch for Harley-Davidson to the present day.

This is William Sylvester Harley's greatest legacy. That his direct influence still beats in the heart of every air-cooled big twin Harley-Davidson on the road today. The mystique and spirit of Mr. Harley lives on as an intangible ghost in the machine and his Promethean presence looms large and continues to influence motorcycle design today.


Patents of William S. Harley

1910: Motor Cycle Stand
1910: Belt Tightener for Motor Cycles
1910: Variable Speed Gearing
1910: Vehicle Frame
1910: Spring Seat Post
1910: Lubricator System
1911: Silencer for Intake Valves
1912: Friction Clutch
1912: Spring Seat Post
1912: Seat Support (1)
1912: Seat Support (2)
1913: Stand Latch for Motorcycles
1913: Frame for Motor Cycles or Like Vehicles
1913: Variable Speed Gearing
1914: Internal Combustion Engine of the Compression Type
1914: Motorcycle Oil Tank
1914: Three Wheel Truck
1914: Transmission Gearing for Motor Propelled Vehicles
1914: Engine
1914: Transmission Gearing
1914: Bearing
1914: Oil Distributing Mechanism
1914: Footboard Attachment for Motorcycles
1914: Muffler
1915: Transmission Gearing
1915: Engine Starter
1916: Compression Reliever for Crank Cases
1916: Motor Starter
1916: Motor Cycle Frame
1916: Interchangeable Wheel Hub
1916: Vehicle Body
1917: Gear Wheel
1917: Sidecar for Motor Cycles
1917: Shock Absorber
1917: Circuit Breaker
1917: Pedal
1917: Transmission Gear
1918: Spring Motor Cycle Fork
1918: Oil Distributing Mechanism
1918: Side Car for Motor Cycles
1918: Rear Fork Construction
1918: Shock Absorber for Handle Bars
1918: Vehicle Frame
1918: Counterbalanced Crank Shaft
1918: Fly Wheel
1918: Front Fork Construction
1918: Motor Cycle Frame
1918: Spring Frame for Motor Cycles & Like Vehicles
1918: Cycle Frame
1919: Motor Cycle Frame Structure for V-Type Motors
1919: Motor Cycle Frame
1919: Compression Relieving Mechanism
1919: Side Car Body Method
1919: Motor Cycle Lubrication System
1919: Case Hardening Materials
1919: Magneto Circuit Breaker (1)
1919: Magneto Circuit Breaker (2)
1920: Automatic Voltage Control
1920: Combined Intake and Exhaust Manifold
1920: Engine Construction
1920: Motorcycle Windshield
1923: Distributor Cap or the Like
1923: Rivit Remover
1923: Engine
1924: Ignition Apparatus
1924: Hub Bearing
1924: Brake
1924: Motor Cycle
1924: Cooling Means for Internal Combustion Engines
1925: Shock Absorber
1925: Disk Clutch
1925: Lamp Bracket
1925: (Aluminum) Cylinder
1926: Power Impulse Equalizer
1926: Spring Suspension for Vehicles (with Arthur Constantine)
1926: Electric Switch
1926: Hub Protector
1926: Distributor Cap
1926: Storage Battery (with George Appel)
1928: Cycle Support (with Arthur Constantine)
1930: Pump
1931: Motor Cycle Front Fork...Assembly
1932: Steering Damper
1934: Motorcycle Protecting Guard
1934: Motorcycle Saddle Structure (with Frank Trispel)
1937: Instrument Mounting for Motorcycles
1938: Radio Carrying Attachment for Bicycles and Motorcycles
1938: Oil Tank and Battery Assembly
1938: Lubricating System for Internal Combustion Engines
1939: Piston

86 patents in Wm. S Harley's name
4 patents in collaboration with others

90 patents total

Published Collections of Harley-Davidson Patents

At the Creation, Herbert Wagner's landmark book on the untold early history of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Get this book for yourself or your favorite Harley-Davidson enthusiast!

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