Arthur Davidson Biography

Entrepreneur (1881–1950)
Arthur Davidson was one of the four founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.


Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1881, Arthur Davidson and his partner, William S. Harley, had an idea to make riding a bicycle less work, so in 1903, they founded the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company. The American public soon became acquainted with the name Harley-Davidson, which would go on to become the world’s most popular brand of motorcycle. Davidson died in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1950.


Arthur Davidson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 11, 1881. He was the youngest of three brothers. His father was a cabinetmaker. Little else is known of his early life.

Around the turn of the century, the bicycle was invented, and its popularity was sweeping across the United States. It allowed people to go farther and faster than ever before, and millions embraced this new mode of transportation. But this was just the beginning for Davidson, who was at that time employed as a pattern-maker, and his childhood friend William Harley, who was working as a draftsman. In 1901 the two friends sought a way to take the work out of bicycling by building a motorized bicycle that would be available to the average citizen, thereby enabling people to travel even more quickly and easily. At that time, the motorized bicycle had been built in Europe and, on a limited basis, in the United States for about 10 years, but they were not generally available to the public.

Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Davidson and Harley toiled in a shed constructed in Davidson’s backyard, calling their outfit the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. In 1903, with the help of Davidson’s brothers, they produced their first motorcycle. In 1904 they built three motorcycles, one of which sold later that year at C.H. Lang of Chicago, the first Harley-Davidson dealer. Production soon outgrew Davidson’s backyard, so in 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built a factory in Milwaukee and produced 50 more motorcycles. The following year they formally incorporated, and by 1909 they had increased their annual production to around 1,000 motorcycles.

Arthur Davidson’s next move was to convince government officials that motorcycles should replace bicycles in the U.S. Postal Service. By 1914 the Postal Service had more than 4,800 Harley-Davidson motorcycles in its transportation fleet. When World War I began, Harley-Davidson almost entirely suspended its production of motorcycles built for civilians in favor of military production, providing thousands upon thousands of machines for the war effort. By the time the war was over, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, and its motorcycles could be bought from more than 2,000 dealers in 67 countries worldwide.

Over time, Arthur Davidson gradually removed himself from business operations and spent more time on his philanthropic endeavors. He established a trust fund and donated land for a Boy Scout camp and supported a Wisconsin home for the blind, among other efforts.

Final Years

On December 30, 1950, Davidson and his wife, and two of their friends, were killed in a car accident in Waukesha, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. He left behind a motorcycle empire and a publicly traded company worth over $10 billion. In honor of his legacy, in 1998 he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

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