Today, the motorcycle rides out of the Civil War.
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.
The motorcycle can be an odd
brain-teaser. It combines the instability of the
bicycle with the power of an automobile. We usually
credit the German car-builder Gottlieb Daimler with
building the first motorcycle. In 1885 Daimler
built a motor-powered bicycle but then added side
wheels to stabilize it. What he really had was an
By 1885 the modern bicycle was about twenty years
old -- the machine with two equal wheels and a chain-sprocket drive. By the time Daimler made his
pseudo-motorcycle, bicycle people had realized how
unnecessary his extra side wheels were.
So it should be no surprise that the idea of a
motor drive arose right on the wheels of the first
modern bicycle, seventeen years before Daimler.
What is surprising is that the idea didn't catch
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 held 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 invented, 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 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 we wait for Daimlers,
Stanleys, Fords, and Harleys to make commercial
sense of invention.
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
Girdler, A., First Fired, First Forgotten. Cycle
World, February 1998, pp. 62-70.
I am grateful to Keith Hollingsworth, UH Mechanical
Engineering Department, for calling my attention to
Roper's motorcycle. For more on Daimler's
motorcycle, see Episode
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian
Roper's original 1869 motorcycle
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia