While we think of History as immutable and as reliably solid as the configuration of hydrogen atoms, the ‘truth’ of our past is constantly shifting, as our individual or collective attitudes move from established belief sets to new paradigms, in which the interpretation of history, and indeed the very ‘facts’ of events, are seen in totally a new light, and our historic priorities are re-ordered. [For more on that, try Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions]
Was the world’s first motorcycle built in 1818? This lithograph claims so. Although it may be satirical, the apparatus is all in place. Read more here. [London Science Museum]
A paradigm shift in our view of motorcycle history is imminent, as alternatives to the internal combustion engine come to the forefront of technology, grow into general use, and are understood as the logical, even moral alternative to the vast political/economic/military structure hardened around the discovery, ownership, and distribution of fossil fuels.  History may well view our current troubles in oil-producing lands the economic equivalent of the Crusades, with oil the motivating ‘religion’; it is inconceivable to oil-hungry nations that unfriendly hands control the source… regime change and war are thus justified.

Sylvester H. Roper built his steam cycle in 1869 in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston: the machine is in the Smithsonian Museum [Smithsonian Air & Space Museum]
As electric and alternative energy vehicles -including motorcycles- come into general usage, the importance of their historic forbears is greatly magnified, and the first attempts at powered travel are seen in a new light. Thus it is with the Steam Cycle. Dismissed as a vestigial dead-end and thus irrelevant to the history of Motorcycling, the very first powered two-wheelers in history have not been give their proper place in the family tree. Indeed, my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines Motorcycle as having ‘an internal combustion engine’, which is simply ridiculous, given the great strides in electric motorcycling the past few years, and the TTXGP highlighting the viability of sporting battery power. Even Cycle World‘s esteemed technical writer Kevin Cameron has argued that only the internal combustion engine counts as the true root of modern motorcycling, as “History follows things that succeed, not things that fail” (a debatable claim on History – failure being relative, and often temporary), while LJK Setright preferred to use the term ‘heat engines’, which includes steam, but excludes electric motoring. Recent and online versions of the OED use ‘two wheels and a motor, without pedals’ – which excludes most motorcycles of the 1900s-10s, which HAD pedals!

Louis-Guillame Perraux’s 1868 patent drawing laying out the concept of a steam velocipede. It’s generally reckoned that he didn’t actually build his steamer until 1871 [Archives INPI]
Using a more generous definition of Motorcycle: ‘two wheels with a motor’, the very first motorcycles (then called Steam Velocipedes) were built, it appears, in 1869 and 1871.  Two steam-engine two-wheelers were built totally independently of one another: one in the USA by Sylvester H. Roper, the other in France by Louis-Guillame Perreaux. [3] The two machines were both built around contemporary-pattern ‘bone shaker’ chassis, although each machine appears to have used a purpose-built frame between the wheels to adapt the engine. The Perreaux used a Michaux bicycle chassis with the engine above the rear wheel, while the Roper used a forged iron frame, with the engine suspended beneath. These are the true forbears of every motorcycle, and each is a remarkable testament not only to the ingenuity of their inventors (these small, portable steam engines were among the very first of their kind), but as well, the impulse, as yet unnamed, to ride a motorcycle. They knew it was going to be good, and they were absolutely right.  The thrill of fast downhill gliding on early velocipedes, sans motor, gave a novel thrill to riders then, as shown in this 1860s essay on the joys of bicycling, ‘A Two-Wheeled Steed.’ 

Perreaux’s 1871 steamer on loan from the Sceaux Museum in Paris at the Art of the Motorcycle Exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum [Guggenheim Museum]
While the 1871 Perreaux appears to be unique as a two-wheeler (he did, in 1884, build a 3-wheel version), Sylvester Roper went on to build another Steam Velocipede, developing and refining the concept, perfecting his portable steam engine, making changes to his chassis. His last design of 1895, was originally commissioned by the Pope Manufacturing Co., and used a modified ‘Columbia’ safety-bicycle frame, the old ‘bone-shaker’ bicycle design having been modernized with steel tubes and rubber tires – and wheels of equal size were far safer than the previous Ordinary bicycle. This last Roper Steam Velocipede survives, remarkably, in private hands.

Sylvester H. Roper’s 1895 steam velocipede, or ‘self propeller’, on which he rode regularly in Boston, and ultimately died on. [RM Auctions]
The Perreaux appeared on the floor of the Guggenheim Museum for the seminal ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibit, and was the first motorcycle confronting viewers as they entered.  To the show’s 300,000 visitors, this charming little vehicle was complete news. Kudos to the curators for bringing this machine to light, to New York, and to the public consciousness as the First Motorcycle. It’s my understanding the Roper was also meant to occupy the entrance, but the Smithsonian wanted a very substantial cash bond ($1M) for the loan of what it rightly considers a priceless artifact of human history… thus the Perreaux stole the floor show, and now occupies a greater part of popular opinion as The First. Such is the whim of chance, altering History…again.



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.