This Day In History: Gottlieb Daimler Granted Patent For Grandfather Clock Engine

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On April 3, 1885, history was set in motion. Gottlieb Daimler was granted a patent for his grandfather clock engine design, kicking off what would be one of the world’s first motorcycles.


(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

Gottlieb Daimler and his longtime pal Wilhelm Maybach were lifelong inventors responsible for tons of different combustion engine designs throughout their intertwined career. These men were prolific. The ideas they dreamt up totally changed the path of engineering and, in turn, the production of the automobile.

The grandfather clock engine design was named as such because it looked like a big ol’ pendulum swinging in—you guessed it—a grandfather clock. It was the vertical version of an engine Daimler had created in 1883. And its specs were pretty exceptional at the time:

  • 0.5 horsepower
  • A single 246 cc cylinder
  • Air cooling
  • Cast iron flywheel
  • Cam-operated exhaust valves that made for high-speed operation
  • 600 rpm running speed—which was about five times more than previous engine designs
  • 110 lbs
  • Gasoline-powered carburetor

Now, those aren’t necessarily impressive numbers today, but they were well beyond anything people of the time had seen. This was, after all, an era of travel by train or horse—you just didn’t have your own personal motorized vehicle hanging around.

But what is an engine without a vehicle to power it? At the time, Daimler fitted his engine to what was essentially a wooden bicycle, which he called a “riding car,” or, in German, the Reitwagen. It was the first internal combustion motorcycle in history, and Daimler rode it a whole two miles, reaching seven miles per hour in the process.

Daimler stuck this engine everywhere: on boats, in cars, in a freakin’ balloon, and in trolleys. If it could be powered, Daimler wanted to power it. It was the beginning of a new era of invention—and of speed.



This isn’t an upcoming weekend anytime soon, but January 29, 1886 is when Karl Benz patented the Benz Motorwagen. It also happens to be my birthday, which is why I was destined to be a car enthusiast. Funny enough, today is my dad’s birthday, but he’s not a motorcycle enthusiast...