Motorcycle Man

    Entering Hopedale – birthplace of the motorcycle.” How about signs like that on roads entering town?
    Ahh…but you’re thinking, “Malloy, what have you been smoking?” Actually, though, 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 it
    wasn't a motorcycle.) 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. Possibly he lived in Hopedale for a while and eventually
    turned the place over to his son, Charles. I’ll keep looking for where he was living at the time he built his first
    motorcycle, and add it here if I find more on this.

    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.

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    For more on Roper and other early motorcycle inventors, see:

    Roperld.com   (This site includes photos of Roper's motorcycle on display at the Smithsonian.)



                                                       Charles Roper                                        HOME       

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    This picture of Roper's 1886 motorcycle appeared
    in the 1897 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.