Such fascinating history can’t be lost forever. We often think we know everything and have discovered all the missing pieces, but then some selfless, hard work unearths a truth we’ve been overlooking for so long. The story of Sylvester Roper, motorcycles and automobiles is one of those things. Just now we’re understanding our naivety and ignorance. It’s accepted now, that Roper made many vehicles, many of which he took no credit for, allowing friends and investors to take credit for creating. Roper certainly created some of our very first automobiles, as well as invented things like the shotgun choke, the repeatable shotgun revolver, a hot-air engine, a handstitching sewing machine. Patents in his name include a padlock, shotgun choke, semi-automatic shotgun, knitting machines, fire-arm magazines and more.
In 1867, Sylvester Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts sturdied a bicycle – a velocipede; also known as a boneshaker – a boiler and a steam engine together to craft what is accepted to be one of the first known motorcycles. Though these machines were never publicly accepted, they paved the way for gas powered motorcycles of the 1900s. Of the many steam-powered vehicles Roper created, only two are known to be motorcycles. Included are steam-carriages, one of which is carefully housed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Roper began crafting the 94 steam-cycle with a Pope, Columbia model 36 bicycle. To it he added a boiler, burner, water pump, grate, and steam engine which all powered the spinning of the rear wheel, similar to his original Hanlon velocipede of 1867. The water pump was powered by the rear hub and the water tank situated on top of the boiler. Roper used his motorcycle commonly to show its extreme potential, but also for his own amusement and transportation. It’s rumored that Roper would fire up his Columbia, ride it seven miles to the bay, take the coals out and put them in his steam-boat, enjoy his of boating and then return some of the coals back to his bike and ride home.
1 June 1896, Roper’s brilliant mind left this world. At Charles River Velodrome, near Cambridge, Mass, Roper was pacing bicyclists who couldn’t keep up with his powerful steam-wheel. He was clocked doing 40 miles per hour at his top speed – 2 minutes 1.4 seconds for a single mile. The crowd then experienced him wobbling on his bike and then he fell to the track, suffering head-injury. Autopsy found the cause of death to be heart failure, however it is unknown if his heart failed, causing the crash, or an issue unknown to us caused him to suffer heart-attack, and then wreck. Papers of the time mention he had turned off the steam-engine before the wreck, as if he knew there was an issue.
“… had made fast time on Charles River Park when he suddenly fell – had shut off the steam as if on premonition of the end.”