Roper steam engine velocipedes

S.H. Roper and his steam-engine powered velocipedes

As we mentioned in the introduction to this history of ebikes, the electric bike and the motorbike’s past are intertwined. This is the case when we talk about Sylvester H. Roper, who’s often considered the father of motorbikes. We decided to tell you about him because his story was too interesting not to.

Roper was born in New Hampshire, US, on November 1823. He always had a genius for mechanical engineering: at the early age of 12 he built a steam-power engine without any help, even if he had never seen one before. After he moved to Boston he kept on creating, innovating the technology of sewing machines and some types of rifles.

steam-engine velocipede 1867
First version of Roper’s steam-engine powered velocipede, 1867

He started to be noticed by his contemporaries in 1863, when he drove a weird carriage with no horses around Boston. It worked thanks to a steam engine, and today it’s considered a prototype of the car and it can be seen at the Henry Ford Museum.
The next step would have been using the same technology for the most revolutionary transport of those years, the velocipede. In 1867, Roper created the first version of his steam velocipede.
The water tank was inside the saddle and the boiler was located where the pedals should have been, between the cyclist’s legs.
Roper’s invention was a success, especially at the fairs where he displayed it. His fellow citizens were much less happy though: the vehicle was very noisy and apparently it smelled really bad, too. When he passed by driving his velocipede, horses became frisky and people complained loudly (he was even arrested once!).

second steam-engine velocipede, 1884
The second version was created in 1884 and finished in 1896, the year of its creator’s death.

In 1884, Roper began working on the second version of its velocipede.  This version had a more modern look (notice the angle of the fork) and it could reach the maximum speed of  64 km/h, with a range of 12 km. The vehicle weight was 68 kg, including coal and water. Roper kept working on it, refining his creation in a number of details.

In 1896, Roper decided to test his steam velocipede on a circuit reserved for regular bikes. There was even a speed race that the steam velocipede easily won. For Roper, winning against a regular bike wasn’t enough: he decided to test the speed of his velocipede. He covered a mile in 2 minutes and 12 seconds, but this wasn’t still enough for him, so he tried to beat his own record. On a straight road, Roper’s velocipede started to skid and the inevitable happened: he fell from the velocipede and died instantly. The American inventor was one of the first victims of “the speed myth”, which still causes thousands of deaths today.

Roper velocipede

The two steam velocipedes created by Sylvester Roper are still preserved in a museum. In 2012, an 1894 model was sold at an auction for $425.000.000.


S.H. Roper and his steam-engine powered velocipedes last modified: 2015-02-09T11:18:07+00:00 by Paolo

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