Roper: The World’s Oldest Motorcycle?

| 6/29/2010 2:00:55 PM

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1869 Roper
Sylvester Roper built this steam-powered "motorcycle" about 1869. (Image courtesy the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History)

Remember the circa 1895 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller that Bonham’s auctioned last April for $132,000? Considered the oldest production motorcycle in the world, the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller was also the first machine to be described as a “motorrad,” German for motorcycle. Recently, we were reminded of what we think was surely the worlds first true motorcycle, the circa-1869 Roper Steam Velocipede, built by Sylvester Roper, Roxburry, Mass.


That reminder came by way of the latest eNewsletter from sister publications Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine, which published a reprint of an article that ran in the May/June issue of the now-defunct Iron-Men Album, a magazine we used to produce for collectors and restorers of steam-powered tractors, generally referred to as steam traction engines. We still publish an online version,, where you can find information on these leviathans of the prairie.


While there are various claims to the first true motorcycle, including Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 gas-powered machine, Roper’s “steam velocipede” was the first powered two-wheeler to include elements that still define motorcycles today, including equal-sized wheels front and rear and a twist grip to control acceleration and braking. Power for Roper’s machine came from a two-cylinder oscillating steam engine with a 2.5 inch by 5 inch bore and stroke. (Also called a “wobbler” in some circles. The cylinders were bolted to the frame and the piston connecting rods ran to a lever or crank pin on the rear wheel. There was no intermediate point of articulation, so the cylinders and rose and fell lightly with the motion of the rear wheel.) And while critics say this feature denies the machine’s status as a motorcycle, it’s clear that’s precisely what Roper was constructing. Nicolaus Otto didn’t perfect his 4-stroke engine until 1876, so it’s hardly surprising that Roper turned to steam to power his invention.

David G.
7/4/2010 7:58:41 AM

Hi, Those interested in steam might like to see the steam powered bike made by a member of the National Autocycle and Cyclemotor Club in England. . Look under member's pix for Jeff Hudspith's steamer. I have a photo taken at a show, but better you get the full info from the club and put proper photos on your site with the owner's permission.I am a member and the very low speed day outings we have are great fun and very well supported. Great fun for all. The photos of the outings give a good idea of the range of machines involved. Cheers. David Gilliland, an American living in England