Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Steam Motorcycle And It's Place In Motorcycle History

Historians often but not always regard a motorcycle to be a machine powered by an internal combustion engine as opposed to a steam motorcycle. This point has been argued for decades. If you were to include two wheeled machines powered by any means other than manually (pedaling) then you would have to include the amazing invention by Sylvester H. Roper in 1867.

Roper's Steam Cycle

Roper's steam cycle invention used coal fueled steam power, the popular invention that made the nations steamboats and railroads possible.

Steam power had the unique quality of being able to generate heat from just about any source, wood and coal being the top two. This is what powered our steamboats and locomotives. An internal combustion engine uses only a derivative of petroleum. On the plus side of course is that a petroleum fuel tank is much more convenient and requires a lot less space than a load of wood or coal.  There was much debate on the place steam powered velocipede's resided in motorcycle history. While many believe true motorcycling involves only the use of internal combustion engines, Roper nevertheless was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002 with his steam bike.

Roper was born in New Hampshire in 1823 and from a very young age demonstrated both his interest and ability in understanding mechanics. He went on to invent the Handstitch Sewing Machine and a hot air engine. he was also seen driving his steam powered carriage around Boston in 1863. Additionally Roper had a patent on a shotgun loading mechanism and developed the velocipede (bicycle).

Needless to say Roper came to the attention of many well known inventors during the 1860's. Unfortunately Roper's end came on June 1, 1896 when he rode one of his velocipede models which was essentially a bicycle with a steam engine added. Roper rode several laps and then fell off the bike and crashed. The autopsy afterward attributed his death to a heart attack. Whether the crash itself brought on the heart attack, no conclusion was made.


For those who consider a steam powered bicycle to be a motorcycle, the first would have been the French Michaux-Perreaux in 1868. It had an alcohol burner and twin belt drives.

This was followed up by Sylvester Roper's steam velocipede in 1869. The first motorcycle which officially was called a "motorcycle" was produced by Hildebrand & Wolfmuller in 1894, although there was  a motorcycle developed in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Germany. This vehicle was considered the first powered by petroleum. Only a limited number of the Hildebrand  models were built because engines and the power they put out were changing dramatically and quickly. About this time bicycle manufacturers produced designs which would accommodate the internal combustion engine. Eventually the power plants increased in size to the extent that more motorcycle manufacturers went into business and less bicycle manufacturers. Whether the apparatus was powered by steam or gas, it's origin was the bicycle.

There were obvious drawbacks in steam power versus the internal combustion engine. The earliest inventors did a lot of designing and redesigning for where to place the power plant and how to transfer the power to the wheels. The photo left is of Lucius Copeland who in 1881 designed a smaller boiler. It powered the rear wheel and attained a speed of 12 MPH.

Another difficulty with a steam engine on a motorcycle was it's size. To produce power past maybe 12 MPH required a larger boiler. How large of a steam engine can a bicycle accommodate? Compare the size of boilers used on steamboats and locomotives and you can see the power producing problem.

Steamboats had very large boilers within their superstructure. These boilers produced the desired power but had to be monitored closely because of their great pressure. Boiler explosions on steamboats were a huge problem in the 1850's and 1860's and these accidents resulted in thousands of lives lost. Example are the Sultana explosion near Memphis and the Saluda explosion off the docks at Lexington Missouri.

Locomotives were less of a problem because the steam boiler was exterior and located at the front of the train. Boilers of this size of course could not be made to fit on a motorcycle. About the time of internal combustion engine development there were great advances made in the use of electricity as a means of providing power for transportation. Examples of this can be seen in the interurban streetcars and the McKeen Motorcar at the start of the 1900's. Because of lack of battery development this was not an option for the early motorcycles.

The Twentieth Century

At the beginning of the 20th century the big motorcycle manufacturers were companies like Harley-Davidson, Indian, and DKW. Next came BSA Group and a German company NSU. The motorcycle industry today is mostly dominated by Japanese companies such as Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. Both Harley-Davidson and BMW continue to be popular. Piaggio Group of Italy, Ducati, Triumph and KTM are also popular.

Motorcycle size was important and at first there was a rush to build the biggest and most powerful machines. More recently there is a tremendous market for smaller motorcycles in the 300cc range and lower. With fuel prices what they are, a motorcycle and especially the ones under 300 cc offer economical unmatched transportation.

There are more than 200 million motorcycles in use worldwide. In some countries motorcycles represent the largest mode of transportation. There are about 33 motorcycles per 1,000 people in the world compared to about 91 automobiles. India claims top rank in motorcycles in use with approximately 37 million. Depending on engine size, motorcycle mileage ranges from 29 U.S. MPG to over 100.

Courtesy Fir002 CCShare-Alike 3.0
Motorcycle racing and rallies did for the motorcycle what it did for the automobile. While putting forth great entertainment it also popularizes the machine and promotes sales.

The racing is primarily divided between motorcycle road racing and off road racing. The off road Motocross racing has gained tremendously in popularity. Motocross is different from road racing, in that starts are done en masse, with all riders alongside each other.

 Another form of motorcycle racing is Supercross. Supercross is essentially indoor motocross. Supercross is usually undertaken in stadiums and open or closed arenas, and includes many jumping routines. Other motorcycle racing genre's include Superbike, Supersport, Endurance, Grand Prix's and Side Car racing. An interesting side note was that during the 1920's and 1930's a form of motorcycle racing called "board racing" was very popular. Board racing was done on an oval motorcycle race track  constructed of wood boards. Motorcycle racing remains as popular as ever and today there are organizations offering motorcycle racing classes.

Racer Ralph Hepburn

One of the very best and well known racers in vintage motorcycle racing history was Ralph Hepburn pictured above right on a 1919 Harley Davidson Racing Bike. Hepburn raced for the Harley-Davidson company and attained great fame when he won the 1919 200 mile National Championship at Ascot Park in Los Angeles.

Starting in 1925 Ralph Hepburn decided to add car racing to his list of accomplishments and appeared in fifteen Indianapolis 500 races. Hepburn set auto racing records during his era such as the fastest lap at 139 MPH. Ralph Hepburn died during a qualifying practice for the 1948 Indianapolis 500 while driving for Tucker Corporation. In 1998 Hepburn was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame.

Tour the Museums

There are many great  motorcycle museums throughout the world. I think anyone viewing the displays of early era motorcycles will be amazed at how they evolved. Visiting one of these museums could be a fun and entertaining addition to your vacation or side trip.

Steam Flyer
If you're in the San Francisco area make sure to visit the Musee Mecanique at Fishermans Wharf where the authentic and original Steam Flyer motorcycle is on permanent display. It's quite a machine.

Following are a just a few that you may want to add to your vacation or side trip planner.  The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang California. Also Cyclemo's Motorcycle Museum in Red Boiling Springs Tennessee. The Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The BMW Motorcycle Museum in Weisel Germany. The Ducati Museum at the Ducati factory in Balogna Italy.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Steam Flyer photo from author's collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)

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