“Entering Hopedale – birthplace of the motorcycle.” How about signs like that on roads
entering town? (Since this page gets hits from all over the U.S and many other countries
also, I should mention here that Hopedale is a very small town in central Massachusetts.)
Actually, there is a possibility that the first motorcycle was made by a Hopedale man.
Motorcycle histories generally agree that the first one was the invention of Sylvester Roper.
(Daimler is also frequently named as producing the first motorcycle. Though Roper was
years ahead of Daimler's 1885 invention, some claim that although Roper built a two-wheeled
cycle operated by a motor, it wasn't propelled by an internal combustion gasoline engine so
they claim it wasn't a motorcycle. Picky, picky picky.) According to a biography of Roper in a
history of Worcester County, “In 1854 he became a resident of Hopedale and there spent
the remainder of his life.” Up until recently, I was aware that Sylvester had invented a steam
powered motorcycle, and I knew that his son, Charles, lived in Hopedale, but I hadn't seen
anything about Sylvester living here until I found the following article.
Sylvester H. Roper, second child or Merrick Roper, was born in Francistown, Vermont,
November 24, 1823. He married first Almira D. Hill of Peterboro, Vermont, April 23, 1845, and
(second) Ellen. F. Robinson, of Lynn, Massachusetts, October 28, 1873. When a boy, he
displayed a remarkable degree of precocity in mechanics, and his career as an inventor
proved him to be without a rival in mechanical genius among those who have gone out from
Francistown. At twelve years of age, although he had not seen a steam engine, he
constructed a small stationary engine which is now preserved in the laboratory of the
Francistown Academy. Two years later he made a locomotive, and shortly afterward saw at
Nashua for the first time in his life a railroad locomotive.
He left home early in life and followed the trade of machinist in Nashua, Manchester and
Worcester. In 1854 he became a resident of Hopedale and there spent the
remainder of his life. He invented the handstitch sewing machine which was in many
respects an improvement on the earlier machines. He invented a hot air engine in 1861,
which was found useful until the day of gas and gasoline engines arrived. He made
improvements on steam engines and invented breech loading guns of various patterns. He
was most successful in a financial way with his hot air engines. During the war there was a
large demand for his ammunition for field guns, of which he was the inventor. He invented a
steam carriage, a steam velocipede and a steam bicycle, propelled by an engine fastened to
the framework not unlike the modern motorcycle except that it was larger and the fuel was
coal instead of gasoline. He invented a successful pocket fire escape, designed for the use
of traveling men. He made several patterns of rotary engines. He designed a hot air furnace.
Mr. Roper’s death was dramatic. After making a phenomenal mile of a steam bicycle of his
invention he was stricken with heart disease and actually died while riding. The Boston Globe
in describing the incident, said, “This dramatic fatality occurred (June 1, 1896) yesterday
morning at the new Charles River bicycle track, just across the Harvard Bridge on the
Cambridge side. The deceased had for years enjoyed a reputation as an able mechanical
engineer, who had perhaps been more identified with steam propulsion as applied to
carriages and for general road use than any other man in New England. Ever since 1859 he
has been at work on various contrivances for conveyances with steam as a motive power. He
was exhibiting his engine applied to a modern safety bicycle with a view of ascertaining it
qualities as a pace maker for bicycle racing. He demonstrated its utility, but did not live to
receive the congratulations on his achievement. Away back in 1869 Mr. Roper equipped a
heavy two-wheeled velocipede with a steam engine, and for thirteen years used it with great
success. No great speed was developed on it, but the inventor proved that it was a practical
machine. Recently, however, he again turned his attention to an attachment for a modern
racing cycle, and interested a large local bicycle manufacture in his invention. His bicycle was
taken out first a week ago last Sunday for a speed trial on Dorchester Avenue. That it was
capable of being run forty miles an hour was demonstrated, and then Mr. Roper was anxious
to try it out on a smooth track. With his machine the inventor appeared yesterday. When he
arrived there were a number of cyclers on the track in training. As he was to make a few
exhibition trips around the track, it was suggested that the wheelmen try to follow him. Mr.
Roper mounted his machine just back of the start and, turning on the steam, was under full
headway in a remarkable short time. The trained racing men could not keep up with him, and
he made a mile in two minutes, one and two-fifths seconds. After crossing the line Mr. Roper
was so elated that he proposed making even better time, and continued to scorch around
the track. The machine was cutting out a lively pace on the backstretch when the men seated
near the training quarters noticed that the bicycle was unsteady. The forward wheel wobbled
badly, and then suddenly the cycle was deflected from its course and plunged of the track
into the sand, throwing the rider and overturning. All rushed to the assistance of the inventor,
who lay motionless beneath the wheel, but as soon as they touched him, they perceived that
life was extinct. The only wound was a slight cut over the left temple. Dr. Wolcott, who was
called, gave his opinion that Mr. Roper died before the machine left the track. His bicycle
weighed with the engine one hundred and fifty pounds, and carried from one hundred to one
hundred and eighty-five pounds of steam. The rider could carry enough coal to carry him
twenty-five miles or more.”
Mr. Roper was a member of no fraternal orders. He was liberal in his religious views. He
resided for many years at 299 Eustis Street, Roxbury, Boston. His first wife, Almira, died
October 6, 1898. His widow survives him (1905). She resides in Dorchester. The children of
Sylvester H. and Almira d. (Hill) Roper were: 1. Charles Frederick. 2. Ada Frances, died when
four years old. Historical Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal
Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts, 1907.
With Roxbury being given as Roper's place of residence in the paragraph above, evidently
that's where he was living at the time of his death. So far, the only source for the idea that
Roper lived in Hopedale, is the earlier sentence in the Worcester County book The sentence
that says he moved to Hopedale in 1854, "...and there spent the remainder of his life,"
doesn't agree with the sentence in the paragraph above that reads, "He resided for many
years at 299 Eustis Street, Roxbury, Boston."
Here's more on Roper. I found it on the University of Houston website:
Writer Allan Girdler tells about Sylvester Roper, born in 1823 in New Hampshire. 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.
Roper's machine was remarkable by any standard. It looked a lot like the new bicycles, but
with a small vertical steam boiler under the seat, which also served as a small water tank.
The boiler supplied two small pistons that powered a crank drive on the back wheel. Very
neat and compact, and there was more: Roper controlled the steam throttle by twisting the
bike's straight handlebar. Twist-grip control was later reinvented by the early pilot Glen
Curtiss. It was reinvented, yet again, at the Indian Motorcycle Company.
Roper went on to build more motorcycles and several steam- powered automobiles. He
probably built his first car during the Civil War. He was far ahead of his time with all his
inventions. The Stanleys, who built Stanley Steamers, said they'd learned from Roper.
Roper reached the age of 73 in 1896. That June he showed up at a bicycle track near
Harvard with a modified motorcycle. They clocked him at a remarkable forty miles an hour.
Then the machine wobbled, and Roper fell off. He was dead when they found him. The
autopsy showed he'd died, not from the fall, but of a heart attack.
It was another decade before the Indian Company began making commercial motorcycles.
And we're tempted to see it all as terribly unfair. Roper didn't get credit for inventing the
motorcycle or the steam automobile.
But that's not how it works. Driven inventors, the Ropers of this world, always precede the
product-success stories. Since invention is an alien among us, we reject it and wait for
Daimlers, Stanleys, Fords, and Harleys to make commercial sense of it.
And yet it is not just that the Ropers are the ones who finally sleep the sleep of the just. It's
more than that. It is that they are the ones who, in the end -- have had all the fun.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way
inventive minds work.
For more on Roper and other early motorcycle inventors, see:
Roperld.com (This site includes photos of Roper's motorcycle on display at the
other early motorcycles.
ArticleAlley.com (Who invented the motorcycle?)
AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame
Google timeline - invention of the motorcycle
This picture of Roper's 1886 motorcycle appeared
in the 1897 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Below is a copy of the Worcester County history mentioned above
I'm not sure if Charles and Sylvester Roper invented the first automatic screw
machines, but they were at least among the early developers. The screw shop
was one of the major departments at the Draper Company. I've heard that they
didn't use standard threads. That was probably one of a number of ways they
had to keep customers buying spare parts from them and not from competitors.
The article above is from Scientific American, March 14,
1863. H. Roper had to have been Sylvester H. Roper.
Sylvester was listed as living in Roxbury in other publications,
also. In the article below titled New Steam Carriage, he is
referred to as Mr. S.H. Roper, of Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Photo from the Wikipedia article on Roper.
From Scientific American, November 28, 1863.