Toot to the Past: Sylvester’s Sacrifice


When Sylvester Roper designed and built his Steam Powered Motorcycle in 1896, he bit off a huge chunk of awesome. He started the wheels rolling that we are riding on to this day.

His first attempt — and the very first motorcycle — was in 1868. This video shows and demonstrates, as in actual riding for heaven’s sake, his best and final design in 1896. You have to marvel at the ingenuity behind his motorcycle design. Well, you don’t actually “have to” marvel at it, but I’m guessing that you will. How could you not? All the i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed.

I love the brass fittings and valves that control the variables of riding this first motorcycle. As the rider of this true-to-spec replica says, “you gotta look at a lot of stuff here, otherwise you could hurt yourself.” Well, that’s still true today don’t you think?

The brakes must have been the afterthought though. You’ll see that in the video. I’m sure he could have come up with a better design. Perhaps he never thought he’d actually be riding around on his motorcycle prototype, especially in the rain on downhills.

Sylvester Roper died of a heart attack while demonstrating his last, and best, motorcycle design on a race track. Sylvester was the very first motorcycle fatality. I think we owe a lot to Sylvester and the many others like him who thought ahead of their time, tinkered in their workshops and indulged their curiosities, to produce the beginnings of the motorcycle technology we take for granted today.

But what if we didn’t explore new ground? Where would we be today if we simply refined Sylvester’s technology, rather than test new theories?

I can see the motorcycle advertising now:

“Cold weather riding? No problem; just pull over, slide out the charcoal burner to convert to Barbecue Mode (available only on certain models), get out the hot dogs and have yourself a good weenie roast whilst warming yourself by the coals. Slide the burner tray back in when you’re done, and off you go again, steaming down the open road with wind in your face and a coal fire between your legs. Now that’s hot!”