Motorcycle Throwback: The Roper Steamer
July 23, 2013 - San Diego, CA
The year is 1867. The streets are filled with horse drawn carriages that roll clumsily over the uneven cobblestone roads. The smell of manure and horses hangs in the air. Suddenly, from down the road, a strange and loud rumbling comes echoing off the walls of the buildings and with it comes the stink of burning coal. As the sound grows louder, crowds of people and horses scramble to get out of the streets and yell in surprise as a bicycle comes barreling through the everyday clamor at an alarmingly unnatural speed. Puffs of steam roll out onto the streets after it, leaving behind it an odorous fog.
Sylvester Howard Roper was very likely to be the first person to die in a motorcycle crash. He was also the first person to invent one. An American inventor, Roper took note of the technological advances that were blooming in mills and factories and constructed a small steam powered engine and strapped it to a light frame bicycle. This steam powered cycle became known as the "motocycle" and, while Gottieb Daimler is often given credit for inventing the motorcycle since his was powered by an internal combustion engine, Roper's motocycle was the first cycle to be powered by something other than sheer man power.
Roper's motocycle definitely won't be winning any motocross races any day soon, but for it's time the machine was the fastest means of individual transportation around. Officially, Roper's motorcycle was recorded to maintain thirty mph, however, unofficially, the bike was seen to maintain forty mph. Roper had hoped that his motocycle would be the used as a pace-making machine in bicycle races (can anyone say MotoGP?). But as Roper pushed his motocycle to reach higher speeds, it was his heart rather than the bike that gave out. In 1896, while racing around the Charles River bicycle track, Roper lost control of his bike and toppled over. By the time help reached him, Roper was already dead. Later, it was decided that Roper had not died due to the crash but had suffered from heart failure immediately before it. It's quite possible that Roper very literally died of excitement.
Today, as gas prices continue to rise to costing an arm and a leg or even your first born child, we pose the question of could steam powered motorcycles help us break away from our fossil fuel dependency and help us save a buck or two. After all, water is a lot easier to come by than gasoline. But other than the obvious problems that come from having a giant coal burning furnace and 300 degree water sitting between your legs as you ride, the Roper motocycle is anything but practical. Roper's last and best motocycle had a water reservoir much like a gas tank that could only hold up to a gallon and would power the bike for around eight miles. This might be useful if you want to make a quick run to the nearest liquor store but it won't cover most people's commute to work. Even if it did, not only would you show up covered in coal dust, your coworkers probably wouldn't appreciate the smell.
Here's a later version of the Roper Steamer, much like the model that Roper was riding when he died:
But Roper's machine served as a huge influence on inventors throughout the following years. Following the same idea as Roper's steam powered engine, steam powered cars such as the Stanley Steamer began to surface. Other inventors tried to find a more effective type of engine and used Roper's model to invent the internal combustion engine that is used in most cars and motorcycles since. By the 1920's steam powered cars were replaced by gas powered engines and steam powered machines were almost completely obsolete. Roper may have looked crazy rolling down the cobblestone streets of New England but without him, who knows if we'd be able to enjoy riding. Props to you, Sylvester Howard Roper; bikers everywhere thank you.