Saturday, April 09, 2016

'HOLES IN THE MEMORY'

[This is my current Cycle World column; this issue (May/June 2016) features the first ever hand-painted cover of the magazine, without a motorcycle photo!  It's an historic issue, and the cover looks great, by Ornamental Conifer - the 'Hand Built Issue'. It will definitely sell out, so find a copy!]
Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer and myself at the Handbuilt Show, with the hot-off-the-press new issue.
"When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ near Boston in the late 1860s, he had no idea Louis-GuillamePerreaux was fitting a micro-steamer to a pedal-velocipede at the same time, in Paris.  Kevin Cameron and I disagree on their species; he calls them ‘steam cycles’, but I think any motorized two-wheeler that delivers yeehaw is a motorcycle.  That’s a scientific measure; the all-important Y factor.  It’s what got both you and me and everyone else into bikes, even in the 1860s. Roper regularly rode his ‘self propellers’ around Boston, scorching the road between his home in Roxbury to the Boston Yacht Club, where he’d refuel and (presumably) have a beer. On June 1st, 1896, Roper was invited to demonstrate his steamer at the Charles River Speedway, a banked cement velodrome in Cambridge.  He out-paced a peloton of bicyclists, then steamed away from a top pro racer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and after a few scorching laps timed at over 40mph, Roper wobbled, shut down, and collapsed. He was 72 years old, and had a fatal heart attack during a major yeehaw moment; he was the fastest cyclist in the world, and felt it keenly.
 
'Did Joy kill him?'  Sylvester H. Roper's obituary in the June 2, 1896 Boston Globe
SylvesterRoper invented motorcycling; he was its first speed demon, and its first martyr. He’s our patron saint, and died for the same sin that stains 21st Century bikers - the lust for speed. His steam cycle of 1869 sits in the Smithsonian – their oldest powered vehicle, which they call a motorcycle – and the bike he died on sold for 500grand two years ago.  He’s pretty important to the history of our second favorite pastime, and a hero of mine.  So while visiting Boston last year, I was keen to follow the Roper trail, and asked Dave Roper (the first American to win an Isle of Man TT, and a distant relative) if he knew the address of his namesake?  He recalled 294 Eustis St in Roxbury, but a visit in the company of photographer Bill Burke revealed a parking lot.  I hit the Boston State Library, and found we were darn close – he lived at 299 Eustis St, and the house still stands.  I told every Bostonian I met about this exciting discovery, and admit to crazy fantasies of buying the place, because Roper!  If he’d created a cure for smallpox, or invented the automobile, or written famous novels in his day, you’d find a plaque by the front door, with the house listed in tourist guidebooks.  But this is motorcycles, still a dirty word to some, so the house remains uncelebrated and overlooked, except now you know about it, too.
 
The Google Earth snapshot of 299 Eustis St, Roxbury MA, the former home of the inventor of Motorcycling.

There’s little published on Roper, certainly no proper biography, just a few columns in 1800s magazines, and a lot of ‘web conjecture. The first motorcycle books weren’t published until the early 1900s, and all were ‘how to’ until Victor Pagé wrotea history of motorcycles in 1914.  That might sound like the dawn of the industry, but ‘Early Motorcyclesand Sidecars’, which is still in print, was published 45 years after Roper and Perraux pioneered motoring on two wheels.  Many thousands of books about motorcycles were published in the next 100 years, from ADV travel in the late ‘Teens (it was all adventure then), to tell-alls about 1%er club misadventures, to hundreds of histories of long-dead makes, from Aermacchi to Yamaha.  But there are still big holes in the literature, and a lot of important stuff is missing from moto-history.  I’ve been approached to write books on two brands this year – Zenith and Motosacoche – which in their day held World Land Speed records, won championships, and made a dent in their world.   Researching those stories is hard work, but it feels good, like cementing the foundation of the House of Motorcycles.  Put a plaque on it!"

10 comments:

Bill Snelling said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t93QlgBu4Is

The French Owl said...

Yep, it's good to remember Roper...

Our society needs more single minded old timers like him to sort the mess we're in...

Patrick

GuitarSlinger said...

Glad to see you've been approached to write a couple more books on the less than well covered history of motorcycling . Now if only someone would commission you to write the history of THE first US production M/C company Orient Aster [ 1898 ] finally putting the myth of the Indian to rest once and for all . Then a follow up on Marsh [ 1899 ] and the California Motor Company soon to be Yale [ 1901 a few months before Indian ] ;-)

The Vintagent said...

I'd forgotten that Pete Gagan project! One of the first attempts to put intelligent motorcycle content on TV. His steamer replica is terrific; I remember it making lots of commotion at the 2006 Legend of the Motorcycle Concours.

The French Owl said...

""Now if only someone would commission you to write the history of THE first US production M/C company Orient Aster"""

Indeed, the whole American bike history is still under the half truths and 100% lie clouds of WW1 army contracts and the desire to make oneself look older than one really was!!!

When someone can explain to me how Harley feted their 50th in 54 (still possibly one or two years too early depending on your views...) and their 100th in 2003, my faith in humanity will be restored!

Patrick


scritch said...

My wife said that Cycle World cover looked "girly". Hah!

GuitarSlinger said...

French Owl - In answer to your question . Revisionist history has become a fact of life here in the US .. especially when it benefits a major corporation or political interest . Combine that with our penchant towards short memories and recently even shorter attention spans and is it any wonder Harley's 50th became the new 54 and our entire system is being ' Trumped ' ?

The Vintagent said...

@ scritch - Ha! See my previous post ;)

GuitarSlinger said...

Ha Mr d'O ! The even funnier thing about the cover is most of the stockiest are putting it in the Bicycle section of their magazine rack vs transportation/motorcycles/ cars .Fact is if I wasn't interested in acoustic motorbikes [ bicycles ] as well I'd of never noticed the new CW issue at all . And even at that I had to do a double take with the WSBK propadanda in the bag being the final clue that it was in fact THAT CW ... not something new with the same moniker , Perhaps that cover is just a little too .... how shall we say this ... Portlandia for its own good ?

Anonymous said...

Paul, I read your blog occasionally and very much enjoy the content.

The story of Roper has a real ring to it. Not only was he not a young man pursuing a dream, but he was doing something unbelievably closely associated to youth and recklessness. It would be a cliche to suggest that there is a story to be told there in the form of a film. But I think films are very much like songs, by which I mean it is in the way the story is told/performed that is the key. I also iike the idea of a guy trying to overcome the status quo with a new fangled invention. As they say history will always repeat itself!

G.