Remembering William S. Harley

William S Harley

William Sylvester Harley was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Dec. 29, 1880. He began working at the Meiselbach bicycle factory in Milwaukee at age 15 and worked his way up to a position as a draftsman. His next job was with Barth Manufacturing in Milwaukee as a full-time draftsman. It was in that job where he met coworker Arthur Davidson, who worked as a pattern maker. They developed a friendship that would grow into something no one could have foreseen.

About 1901 William and Arthur began experimenting with single-cylinder engines adapted to bicycles. They received help from colleague, friend and fellow draftsman, Henry Melk. The project was shelved in favor of a true motorcycle with a larger engine displacement and frame designed for the job. The first motorcycle sale is believed to have been to Davidson friend Henry Meyer in 1903. A new motorcycle manufacturer was born.

Not long after they built the first production motorcycle, William Harley enrolled in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He graduated in 1907 and promptly returned to the rapidly growing Harley-Davidson Motor Company. His training as an engineer would prove to be one of the key factors in the successes the company would enjoy in the coming years.

As head of Harley-Davidson product development, evidence shows Harley’s tireless passion and forward-thinking ideas, even in the lean years of the Great Depression.  He had a hands-on approach with his team members and projects, making sure to test ride new motorcycles himself. All of the most important motorcycles in the first four decades of H-D history were developed with William Harley’s oversight.

William S. Harley died of natural causes in Milwaukee Sept. 16, 1943. He was survived by his wife, Anna, and their children John, William J. and Ann. His direct descendants William J. Harley (son), John Harley (son) and John Harley Jr. (grandson) also worked at Harley-Davidson.

William Harley (2nd from left), Walter Davidson (4th from left) and Arthur Davidson (far right) on the porch of their cabin on Lake Ripley in Wisconsin. (PH-8715.1)