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An American First: The Steam-Powered Motorcycle

Written By: Christine Dantz

March 2016

An American First The Steam Powered Motorcycle


Today's motorcycle enthusiasts can thank Sylvester Roper. The Massachusetts resident built the first motorcycle in 1869, and it was a steam-powered hit with the public.

Roper, a lifelong inventor, built his first single stationary engine in 1835, at the age of 12. The "self-propelled two-wheeled machine" with a twin-cylinder steam engine attached to a"hickory-framed" motorcycle was the Harley Davidson of its time, dazzling everyone who saw it.

Well, with one exception, it wasn't called a motorcycle; instead, Roper's steam-powered bike debuted as the Roper Steam Velocipede. (A vehicle with two or three wheels.)

Where did they see it?

Roper demonstrated his bike at exhibitions to get it to catch the public's eye. Of course, another reason is that Roper's newly invented form of transportation wasn't very popular with his neighbors or around the city…the steam-powered motorcycle was very loud, and residents complained it spooked the horses.

Maybe that's another reason why Roper challenged horses with his compelling exhibition advertisements, prompting everyone to come marvel at the steam-powered bicycle that could beat any horse! 

The  self-propelled steam carriage, built by Roper in 1863, was just a larger  version of the popular, but short-lived, steam-powered motorcycle

The self-propelled steam carriage, built by Roper in 1863, was just a larger version of the popular, but short-lived, steam-powered motorcycle. 

A version of this carriage is featured in the Henry Ford Museum.

Roper never lived to see the  evolution of his steam-powered motorcycle



Sadly, Roper never lived to see the evolution of his steam-powered motorcycle. In 1896, while test riding what he believed to be the final version of his invention at the Charles River Bicycle Racetrack in Boston, the inventor, now in his 70s, successfully completed his test mile in two minutes and twelve seconds.


Roper, excited at his success, decided to push the bike to its limits. But, suddenly, 1/3 of a mile into the second run, while onlookers watched, his bike wobbled, and then crashed. Possibly due to the excitement, it was determined he died of a heart attack, right there on his invention.

Alas, not all was lost with Roper's sudden death. Before his death, in 1895, Roper built another version of his steam-powered motorcycle with funding from the Pope Manufacturing Company.

Columbia Brand

The Pope Model L, produced in Westfield, Massachusetts from 1914-1920.

Pope would decide to go with a gas-powered motor, but the basis for that gas powered bike came from Sylvester Roper's steam-powered motorcycle.

Although Pope Manufacturing is no more, the American manufacturer's bicycles are still manufactured in the U.S. under the Columbia Brand.

Roper was the original steampunk

The only known photograph of Roper with his motorcycle. Roper was the original 'steampunk!'


Columbia Bikes. (n.d.). Retrieved from Columbia Manufacturing Inc.
Roper Steam Carriage at a Public Exhibition, circa 1863. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Sylvester Roper: American inventor and transortation pioneer who built a steam-powered motorcyle in 1869. (n.d.). Retrieved from AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
velocipede. (n.d.). Retrieved from



Other Articles of Interest:

A Patent for Sarah E. Goode: A Space Saving Folding Bed That Transforms into a Desk

Vintage Cigarette Ads: Crazy Ads that Encouraged Smoking

Vintage Lysol: All-Purpose Disinfectant and Feminine Hygiene Product?

Elio Motors – A New Class of Car (Or Motorcycle)


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