Thursday, April 07, 2011


The Roper Steam Velocipede of ca.1867
While we think of History as immutable and as reliably solid as the configuration of hydrogen atoms, the 'truth' of our past is constantly shifting, as our individual or collective attitudes move from established belief sets to new paradigms, in which the interpretation of history, and indeed the very 'facts' of events, are seen in totally a new light, and our historic priorities are re-ordered [1].
Patent drawing for the Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede of 1869
A paradigm shift in our view of motorcycle history is imminent, as alternatives to the internal combustion engine come to the forefront of technology, grow into general use, and are understood as the logical, even moral alternative to the vast political/economic/military structure hardened around the discovery, ownership, and distribution of fossil fuels.  History may well view our current troubles in oil-producing lands the economic equivalent of the Crusades, with oil the motivating 'religion'; it is inconceivable to oil-hungry nations that unfriendly hands control the source... regime change and war are thus justified.
The Mission One electric sports motorcycle.
As electric and alt-energy vehicles -including motorcycles-  come into general usage, the importance of their historic forbears is greatly magnified, and the first attempts at powered travel are seen in a new light.  Thus it is with the Steam Cycle.  Dismissed as a vestigal dead-end, nearly irrelevant to the history of Motorcycling, the very first powered two-wheelers in history have not been give their proper place in the family tree.  Indeed, my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines a Motorcycle as having 'an internal combustion engine' [2], which is simply ridiculous, given the great strides in electric motorcycling the past few years, and the TTXGP highlighting the viability of sporting battery power.
The Roper Steam Velocipede
Using a more generous definition of a Motorcycle, 'two wheels with a motor', the very first Motorcycles (then called Velocipedes) were built ca.1867-9.  Tied for this distinction are two steam-engine two-wheelers, one built in the USA by Sylvester Roper, the other in France by Louis-Guillame Perreaux and Pierre Michaux [3]. The two machines were both built around contemporary-pattern 'bone shaker' chassis, although each machine appears to have used a purpose-built frame between the wheels to adapt the engine.  The Michaux-Perreaux used a steel frame with the engine above the rear wheel, the Roper used a forged iron frame, with the engine suspended beneath.  Each machine deserves its own post, so I will oblige with more details later, after visiting the velocipedes in person (the M-P lives in the Musée de l'Isle de France, just outside of Paris, the Roper is in the Smithsonian).
The Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede
These are the true forbears of every Motorcycle, and each is a remarkable testament not only to the ingenuity of their inventors (these small, portable steam engines were among the very first of their kind), but as well, the impulse, as yet unnamed, to ride a motorcycle.  They knew it was going to be good, and they were absolutely right.
The last development of the Roper Steam Velocipede, 1895
While the Michaux-Perreaux appears to be unique as a two-wheeler (they did, in 1884, build a 3-wheel version), Sylvester Roper went on to build another Steam Velocipedes, developing and refining the concept, perfecting his portable steam engine, making changes to his chassis. His last design of 1895 (above), was sponsored by the Pope Manufacturing Co., and used a modified Pope 'Columbia' safety-bicycle frame, the old 'bone-shaker' bicycle design having been modernized with steel tubes and rubber tires - and wheels of equal size were far 'safer' than the 'penny farthing' bicycle. This last Roper Steam Velocipede survives, remarkably, in private hands, about which more in my next post.
The Michaux-Perreaux at the Guggenheim's Art of the Motorcycle exhibit.
The Michaux-Perreaux appeared on the floor of the Guggenheim Museum for the seminal 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibit, the first motorcycle confronting viewers as they entered, and to the show's 300,000 visitors, the charming little vehicle was complete news. Kudos to the curators for bringing this machine to light, to New York, and to the public consciousness as the First Motorcycle.  It's my understanding  the Roper was also meant to occupy the entrance, but the Smithsonian wanted a very substantial cash bond for the loan of what it rightly considers a priceless artifact of human history... thus the M-P stole the floor show, and now occupies a greater part of popular opinion as The First.  Such is the whim of chance, altering History...again.

[1]: For more on the subject, see Thomas Kuhn's 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'.
[2]: Even Cycle World's esteemed Kevin Cameron has argued that only the I-C engine counts as the true root of modern motorcycling, as "History follows things that succeed, not things that fail" (the statement itself a highly debatable claim on History!), while LJK Setright preferred to use the term 'heat engines', which includes steam, but excludes electric motoring.  Recent and online versions of the OED use 'two wheels and a motor, without pedals' - which excludes most motorcycles of the 1900s-20s, which HAD pedals!
[3]: There is much debate about exact dates on each of these machines; for this article, I call a tie, not having time to search the records for my own opinoin.  M-P patented his velocipede in 1869, but Roper's machine seems to have appeared in 1867, although Roper never patented his steam vehicle designs.


occhiolungo said...

Hi Paul. Thanks for posting. The early inventors did some great work. Don't forget the early electric cycles. They were around as early as 1895, maybe earlier. And be careful with any claims of "first" as you know, there are many many examples of early powered cycles. Indeed, the Cugnot was in 1769 as you mentioned in a previous post.


The Vintagent said...

Hi Pete,
when I run across some of the early electric motorcycles, I'll write about them!
Yes, 'first' is very difficult to pin down, so I call it a tie in this case! It doesn't matter, as long as these machines get their due...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post but I cringed at the political reference to the Crusades (a tit-for-tat power and gold grab resulting, in part, from the incursions of the Almoravid/Almohad, Fatimid and Ottoman Empires into Europe, sadly masked/whored by both sides under the guise of religion).

I only wish we would extract "black gold" from Iraq and now Libya as a result of our follies that have cost us so dearly in blood and money, not to mention the worse loss of all - our credibility.

I read The Vintagent because of motorcycles - the machines, the history, the culture - and because of your fantastic insight and ability to tell a story. Not for politics. While I understand politics play a role in the development of new technology (ergo the need for background) I beg you to indulge my sensitivity and limit such reference.

"You, sir, are too erect to meddle in that lowly pool of villainy called politics."

Your fan and loyal reader,


The Vintagent said...

JZ, while I appreciate your comment, I believe in calling a spade a spade.
My Mission Statment says, "The world of Motorcycles has...political intrigue..."
At least I didn't mention religion!

David Roper said...

I care to believe Sylvester was first, but I'm prejudiiced . David Roper

The Vintagent said...

David, are you related?
I can't wait for the TT'S' series at the Isle of Man...
Last night I dreamt of steam turbines with super-efficient engines...

Anonymous said...

Men of practical application made the ICE the powerplant of choice while most oil companies were still producing kerosene for light and heating. The military doesn't invent "things", it buys the means to get the results desired by governments. Maintaining access to these things means politicians will be involved. There's your problem.
Electrically powered cars/motorcycles need "rare earth elements" that come from China. This country hasn't built a powerplant in years, thanks to the EPA, and we're getting rolling outages as a result. The US has 30% of earth's coal and we ship what we dig to China.
When you plug your Hot Wheels into the wall there may be nothing there but political rhetoric.
Somehow I think steam may see a resurgence.


The Vintagent said...

At the dawn of powered transport, all options were up for grabs; steam, electric, internal-combustion (burning diesel, alcohol, and petrol).

A resurgence of Steam would certainly be interesting. The Michaux-Perreaux used an alcohol burner to generate steam; thought-provoking, indeed.

occhiolungo said...

Kerosene (paraffin) was the common combustion fuel in the early days, which could fuel either a IC motor or a steam generator. But don't forget the vehicles that ran on compressed air or even carbonic acid gas at 3000psi ! Some designs used compressed springs, but they didn't make it very far. I should finish up my timeline of early junk and post it sometime...

Anonymous said...

I am related to Sylvester. I learned of Sylvester probably 40 or so years ago when my mother stumbled across a print of one of his early four wheelers that had a caption with a little info about him. I wanted very much to believe I was related, but it wasn't until years later that I establish that fact. I have a book of Roper genealogy written in 1903 that traces back to John Roper and his son John and daughter-in-law Alice coming to Dedham, Ma. in 1636 on the Rose of Yarmouth from New Buckenham,Lincolnshire. There were a few Sylvesters in the book, but none at the right time or place. In 1989, Jerry Wood put me in touch with Coburn Benson, then the owner of the 1896 steam cycle. Benson put me in touch with Constance Hanson, Sylvester's great grand daughter. Constance and I compared genealogical info we had and she show me the Sylvester was the issue of a second marriage that wasn't in my Roper book. Sylvester was the grandson of my great-great-great-great grand father's brother, i.e. my second cousin, four times removed. But, to me, that's clear proof of the "wandering gene" theory. I've seen the 1869 steamcycle at the Smithsonian and saw the 1896 steamcycle at a industrial museum in Woburn, Ma., where it was briefly before going to the Stanley Museum. Later, Benson swapped it with Buck Boudeman for a Stanley steamer and I visited Buck at his home in Richland, Mi., a couple of times on my way to race at Grattan, Mi. But, both times the bike was at the AMA museum in Pickerington when I visited Buck. Buck is a huge booster of Sylvester and has a great collection of cars (steam and i.c.). I have a bit of Sylvester literature I'm happy to share with you if you like. The Boston Globe article of 2 June, 1896 "Died in the Saddle" is great. I have a book, "American Steam-car Pioneers, a scrapbook" by John H. Bacon, published by the Newcomen Society of the United States, Exton, Pa. 1984, which has a wonderful account by a fellow who apprenticed himself to Sylvester in the summer of 1888 and wrote about it in Feb. 1956.
I'm going out to Willow Springs in a couple of weeks and one of the bikes I'm racing is the '51 Velo MAC of Gary Roper, more proof of the "wandering gene".
I'm looking forward to you post on Sylvester and let me know if I can help with your research. Keep up the good work. DR

Anonymous said...

Hello David,
I may, in fact, have another of Sylvester's creation. I have an early engine that I brought to Coburn for verification. He noted the similarities between the Columbia steamcycle and my engine. Perhaps you can help. Please contact me by email. It is t . masciari @ comcast . net (remove the spaces). Thank you. Tom M.