Frame:1894 Columbia High Frame racing bicycle
Engine: Coal-fired boiler
Top Speed: More than 40 mph
Wet Weight: 150 lbs
Owner: Robert "Buck" Boudeman
When 73-year-old Sylvester Roper showed up at a local bicycle track in Boston aboard this machine—a steam-powered motorcycle he invented—the young bicycle racers just laughed.
Here was this old man riding a strange contraption who wanted to race the local hotshots around the one-third-mile Charles River Park track. It wasn’t until the race was on that they realized the old man had come up with something truly amazing.
On that day—June 1, 1896—Roper took three laps, covering the distance in a little over two minutes for an average speed of about 30 mph. Then he tried to go even faster. After all, just a week earlier he had marked off a mile on Dorchester Avenue and completed that with an average speed of about 40 mph.
The Boston Daily Globe reported the tragic events that followed:
“The machine was cutting out a lively pace on the back stretch when the men seated near the training quarters noticed the bicycle was unsteady,” the paper said. “The forward wheel wobbled, and then suddenly, the cycle was deflected from its course and plunged off the track into the sand, throwing the rider and overturning.
“All rushed to the assistance of the inventor, who lay motionless beneath his wheel, but as soon as they touched him they perceived that life was extinct,” the paper added. “Dr. Welcott was summoned and after an examination gave the opinion that Mr. Roper was dead before the machine left the track.”
It was later determined that a heart attack killed Roper, who left behind a legacy of steam motorcycles that dated back nearly three decades. His first, on display at the Smithsonian Institution, was built in 1869, nearly 20 years before Gottlieb Daimler created the first internal-combustion motorcycle. About 10 other steam-powered vehicles followed, culminating in this machine, now owned by Robert Boudeman of Richland, Michigan, and previously on display at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum.
In this final design, Roper’s engine consisted of a small boiler over a coal firebox that was good for about 7 miles on each stoking. As the inventor liked to say, “It would climb any hill and outrun any horse.”
Read Roper's biography in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.