We've heard of steampunk motorcycles, but did you know that steam-powered motorcycles were the first self-propelled two-wheelers? I didn't. When I recently heard of the Roper Steam Velocipede, built near where I grew up in Massachusetts, I had to know more.
Although the video claims this to be the first motorcycle, this is one of three bikes that are hotly debated as being earning that title. We've covered this before, but basically it comes down to either the Roper, the Michaux-Perreaux of similar yet independent French design, or the Daimler Petroleum Reitwagen. The steam bikes are both believed to have been built between 1867 and 1869, but the Michaux-Perreaux was patented in 1869, while Roper never patented his bike, so it's unclear which was first. Some dictionaries define a motorcycle as having an internal combustion engine, which would give the 1885 Daimler an easy win.
The earliest motorcycles were little more than bicycles with engines attached to them. Before bicycles, there was the "velocipide," which had no pedals or chain. You simply pushed it along with your feet. Steam power was all the rage in the mid-1800s, so Sylvester Howard Roper attached a small steam engine to one a velocipede, skipping the pedal-powered bike entirely to create a self-propelled two-wheeled vehicle.
The design was as simple as could be. A small single-cylinder steam engine hung below the seat, which doubled as a water tank. Connecting rods attached the engine to the rear axle to turn the wheel. The rider sits unusually forward on this bike, ahead of the engine, with footpegs attached to the front axle.
Despite the disagreement on whether this was the first motorcycle, all agree that this is the first bike to use the right handlebar grip to control the throttle, a design that all modern motorcycles employ. A part of the design that did not survive was twisting the grip in the opposite direction of the throttle to apply a simple spoon brake to the iron front tire. This is probably for the best. It was also one of the first bikes with a horn—or, in this case, a steam whistle.
Roper demonstrated his contraption at fairs to the amusement of onlookers, and often their anger as well. People started to complain that it was stinky and noisy, and they've never stopped since. Roper was even arrested during one of his rides but was later released because traffic laws banning what he was doing did not yet exist.
Roper continued to refine and improve his design until its final iteration in 1895. He died while testing it in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1896, proposing to use it as a pace vehicle for bicycle races. After achieving a top speed of 40 mph at the Charles River Velodrome, the 72-year-old Roper had a heart attack while attempting to break that record, which led to his fatal crash.
While the steam-powered motorcycle was a technological dead end, it was still the first two-wheeler to move under its own power. That, in my mind, makes these steam velocipedes the original motorcycles, regardless of any dictionary definition. Every bike you see today operates from the same fundamental principles that these established.