Click for the TGIF home page.
Your host Phil Ament Click to visit One Small Step Feature
Fascinating facts about the invention of the
by Sylvester Roper in 1869.
A steam velocipede built by inventor Sylvester H. Roper in 1867 may be the earliest known motorcycle. The coal fired steam engine unit is part of a specially built chassis rather than an add-on and had no pedal crank. While Roper’s two-wheeled inventions never found commercial success, his innovations provided inspiration and direction for inventors in the gas-powered motorbike era at the turn of the century.
Invention: Motorcycle, Steam Powered
2007 Patriot Special Edition Motorcycle courtesy H-D
Function: noun / mo-tor-cy-cle / motorized velocipede
Definition: A motorcycle may be defined as a self-propelled, engine-powered, two-wheeled vehicle. Chiefly for one rider but sometimes having two saddles or an attached sidecar for passengers.
Inventor: Sylvester Howard Roper
Criteria: First to invent. First to patent. First practical. Entrepreneur.
Birth: November 24, 1823 in Francestown, New Hampshire.
Death: June 1, 1896 in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality: American
ARYs: motorcycle, steam powered motorcycle, Roper, Sylvester Roper, steam velocipede, history, invention, stroy,
facts, biography, inventor.

A steam velocipede built by inventor Sylvester H. Roper was exhibited and demonstrated at New England fairs and circuses by 1869.

The motorcycle, built in 1884 by an Englishman named Edward Butler, looked pretty silly. It had three wheels, not two, and was really just a tricycle with a motor. Nevertheless, people were afraid of Butler’s motorcycle so afraid that they asked the government to pass laws against the new machine. One law said that there must always be three people on a motorcycle. Another said that a man with a red flag must run ahead of the motorcycle, waving the flag and yelling to warn people that a motorcycle was coming.

At about the same time, a German named Gottlieb Daimler invented another kind of motorcycle. Nicholaus Otto, who invented the Otto Cycle, had an assistant, Gottlieb Daimler. Daimler left Otto to develop his own engine. Gottlieb Daimler (who later teamed up with Karl Benz to form the Daimler-Benz Corporation) is often credited with building the first motorcycle in 1885, one wheel in the front and one in the back, although it had a smaller spring-loaded outrigger wheel on each side. It was constructed mostly of wood, with the wheels being of the iron-banded wooden-spooked wagon-type, definitely a "bone-crusher" chassis.

It was indeed powered by a single-cylinder Otto-cycle engine, and may have had a spray-type carburetor. (Daimler's assistant, Wilhelm Maybach was working on the invention of the spray carburetor at the time). Paul Daimler, Gottlieb’s young son, was the first to give his dad’s motorcycle a test drive. His daughter is also said to have taken it for a spin, but cracked it up into a tree.

He drove it with his engine instead of with a pedal arrangement. But there was a catch: Daimler's motorcycle had two small stabilizing wheels --like a kid's training bike. It was actually a four-wheeled vehicle. Daimler soon went on to build early automobiles. He left it to bicycle builders to develop the two-wheeled motorcycle.

The first really successful production two-wheeler though, was the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller, patented in Munich in 1894. In 1897 a gasoline tricycle built by Louis S. Clarke of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is a remarkably modern-looking tricycle, converted to self-propulsion by the addition of a single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted just forward of the rear axle.

In 1901, a bicycle racer Oscar Hedstrom designed a motorcycle for the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, which later became the Indian Motorcycle Company.

In 1903, 21-year old William S. Harley and 20-year old Arthur Davidson made available to the public the first production Harley-Davidson® motorcycle. The bike was built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke. The factory in which they worked was a 10 x 15-foot wooden shed with the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" crudely scrawled on the door. The only American motorcycle manufacturer still in existence from the early days is the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which celebrated its centennial in 2003.


Harley-Davidson, A Century of Innovation  from The Great Idea Finder
Transportation History   from The Great Idea Finder

The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle : And Other Surprising Stories About Inventions
by Don L. Wulffson / Paperback - 128 pages (1999) / Puffin
Brief factual stories about how various familiar things were invented, many by accident, from animal crackers to the zipper.

On the Move : Transportation and the American Story
by Michael Sweeney, Janet Davidson /  Hardcover: 320 pages / National Geographic; (2003)
lively narrative of the country’s network of transportation systems, the people who built and traveled on them and the goods shipped on them. Packed with informative sidebars, maps, artwork, historical photographs complemented by original photography of Smithsonian artifacts, as well as many personal anecdotes.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity : An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture
by John H. Lienhard / Paperback: 272 pages / Oxford University Press, USA (December 4, 2003)
Based on episodes from Lienhard's widely broadcast public radio series, this intriguing set of essays begins with a simple premise: more than we often care to admit, our lives are shaped by our machines. Fleshing out this proposition, Lienhard ransacks 2,000 years of scientific and technological history, cobbling together a quirky biography of the strange being he calls homo technologicus.
100 Years of Harley Davidson
by Willie G. Davidson / Hardcover: 288 pages /  Bulfinch; (October 11, 2002)
With sexy full-page photo spreads and plenty of motorcycle lore, this commemorative volume celebrates the centennial of the legendary motor company. Davidson, vice president of Styling at Harley-Davidson and the grandson of one of the original founders, gives a decade-by-decade account of the company and the rise of biker culture.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles  (Out of print.)
by Darwin Holmstrom, Jay Leno, Motorcyclist Mag./ Paperback: 456 pages / Alpha Books; (2001) 
Covers everything from how to choose and maintain a motorcycle and how to buy appropriate gear to how to ride safely, and how to make the most out of trips on the open road. It also discusses motorcycle history and the timeless motorcycle mystique.
Well Made in America: Lessons from Harley-Davidson on Being the Best
by Peter C. Reid / Paperback:/  McGraw-Hill; Reprint edition (April 1991)
An in-depth look at how this group of pioneering owner-managers breathed new life into their company, how they triumphed over financial instability and foreign competition and how they positioned their company for steady future growth.

DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
Meet the pioneers behind such names as Triumph, Indian, Yamaha and Harley Davidson, and see how their early designs have been adapted and updated over decades of development.
The Story of the Harley-Davidson Empire
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 150 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
A special-edition commemorating the centennial of an American icon.Probes the Harley mystique and follows the company from its modest beginnings in a Detroit shack to today's phenomenal successes, drawing on interviews with industry insiders, company officials and famous fans

Roper Steam Velocipede
The oldest self-propelled road vehicle in the Museum's collection is the steam-powered velocipede built in the late 1860s by Sylvester H. Roper, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and demonstrated by him at fairs and circuses. At first glance the machine appears to be a converted velocipede, but examination reveals that its frame was forged expressly for this self-powered vehicle. From the Smithsonian Collection
The Smithsonian Motorcycle collection
A small but choice collection of motorcycles, managed by the Transportation Collection staff in the Division of the History of Technology.The collective history of the holdings is rich and colorful, and it continues to grow as new examples of this unique branch of American transportation technology are added to the permanent collection.
The First Motorcycle?
Motorcycles are descended from the "safety" bicycle, bicycles with front and rear wheels of the same size, with a pedal crank mechanism to drive the rear wheel. By Dave Tharp, Virtual Museum Curator
First Motorcycle
Did Sylvester Roper, born in 1823 in New Hampshire, build the first motorcycle?. During the Civil War, Roper worked in the Springfield Armory, where his interest turned to steam power. In 1868, Roper built a steam-powered motorcycle.
Harley and Davidson
Experiments by two individuals would set the tone for what motorcycle building was all about. These two men went by the names of William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson.

A Motorcycle Shrine With Some Priceless Exhibits
The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. Article by John Lienhard, at the University of Houston.
H-D Motorcycle History
1903, 21-year old William S. Harley and 20-year old Arthur Davidson made available to the public the first production Harley-Davidson® motorcycle. The bike was built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke.
Roper Steamer
At the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, presented by American Motorcyclist Association

Roper Steam Velocipede, the two 34-inch-diameter wooden-spoke wheels have wooden felloes and iron-band tires. The front wheel is supported in a forged wrought-iron fork having a straight handlebar with wooden grips. Footrests are provided at the bottom of the fork. The wheelbase is 49 inches.

A vertical, fire-tube boiler is suspended between the wheels, and a chimney angles back from the top of the boiler housing. The lower half of the housing served as the firebox (the grate of which is missing). Charcoal was fed through a small circular door on the left side of the firebox. The housing is suspended from the center of the frame by means of a spring-loaded hanger (intended to absorb some of the road shock) and is braced at the bottom by two stay rods connected to the rear of the frame.

A hand-operated water pump is mounted vertically on the left forward side of the boiler housing. Three water-level cocks are located nearby, and there is a drain valve at the left rear of the boiler's base. Oscillating steam cylinders are pivoted on each side of the frame, next to the chimney.

From outside measurements, it is estimated that the bore of the cylinders is about 2 1/4 inches. The piston rods worked on 2 1/2-inch cranks on the ends of the rear axle. Piston valves for the cylinders were operated by eccentrics adjacent to their cranks, and a feed-water pump was operated by the left-cylinder crank. The exhaust steam, carried by tubing into the base of the chimney, provided forced draft.

Apparently, while the machine was at rest a forced draft was provided by a tiny steam pipe that leads from the safety valve at the top rear of the boiler to the base of the chimney. There is a damper valve within the chimney.

The throttle, located at the top front of the boiler housing, was actuated by forward twisting of the handlebar. A friction brake was applied against the rim of the front wheel when the handlebar was twisted toward the driver. Heavy tubing leads from the throttle to the steam chests of the cylinders, and other tubing leads from the boiler to a steam gauge at the front of the frame. The water supply for the boiler was contained in tank that also served as the saddle. The filler opening is at the front of the tank. Water was supplied to the hand pump and the feed water pump by means of tubing that leads from the bottom of the tank.
From the book "On The Move" by Janet Davidson


  • Sylvester Roper suffered a heart attack while riding one at a show in 1896 and died.

  • One of the Roper original motorcycles is in the Smithsonian Museum

Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised November 6, 2006.

 Tim Berners-Lee's invention has revolutionized the world like nothing before.
Learn more


The invention of the Internet, should be classed with the greatest events of the 20th Century.
Learn more

  The Aero Sport All-Terrain Bed with Dual Power Pump is the perfect addition to any camping trip or weekend getaway.
Learn more...  
This book, is the perfect desktop reference for both the science novice and the technologically advanced reader alike.
Learn more
Click to visit FIRST
Click to visit Technology Catagories
Disclaimer   Author    inventors   inventions   timeline  category  games    a-navbarend.gif (873 bytes)
home  | idea history  |  idea showcase  |  special features  | resource center  | guest services  history articles  |  search   a-navbarend.gif (873 bytes)
Copyright © 1997 - 2007  The Great Idea Finder  All rights reserved.