[Words: Paul d’Orléans.  Originally published in Cycle World ]

When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ near Boston in the late 1860s, he had no idea Louis-GuillamePerreaux was fitting a micro-steamer to a pedal-velocipede at the same time, in Paris.  Kevin Cameron and I disagree on their species; he calls them ‘steam cycles’, but I think any motorized two-wheeler that delivers yeehaw is a motorcycle.  That’s a scientific measure; the all-important Y factor.  It’s what got both you and me and everyone else into bikes, even in the 1860s. Roper regularly rode his ‘self propellers’ around Boston, scorching the road between his home in Roxbury to the Boston Yacht Club, where he’d refuel and (presumably) have a beer. On June 1st, 1896, Roper was invited to demonstrate his steamer at the Charles River Speedway, a banked cement velodrome in Cambridge.  He out-paced a peloton of bicyclists, then steamed away from a top pro racer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and after a few scorching laps timed at over 40mph, Roper wobbled, shut down, and collapsed. He was 72 years old, and had a fatal heart attack during a major yeehaw moment; he was the fastest cyclist in the world, and felt it keenly.

‘Did Joy kill him?’  Sylvester H. Roper’s obituary in the June 2, 1896 Boston Globe

SylvesterRoper invented motorcycling; he was its first speed demon, and its first martyr. He’s our patron saint, and died for the same sin that stains 21st Century bikers – the lust for speed. His steam cycle of 1869 sits in the Smithsonian – their oldest powered vehicle, which they call a motorcycle – and the bike he died on sold for 500grand two years ago.  He’s pretty important to the history of our second favorite pastime, and a hero of mine.  So while visiting Boston last year, I was keen to follow the Roper trail, and asked Dave Roper (the first American to win an Isle of Man TT, and a distant relative) if he knew the address of his namesake?  He recalled 294 Eustis St in Roxbury, but a visit in the company of photographer Bill Burke revealed a parking lot.  I hit the Boston State Library, and found we were darn close – he lived at 299 Eustis St, and the house still stands.  I told every Bostonian I met about this exciting discovery, and admit to crazy fantasies of buying the place, because Roper!  If he’d created a cure for smallpox, or invented the automobile, or written famous novels in his day, you’d find a plaque by the front door, with the house listed in tourist guidebooks.  But this is motorcycles, still a dirty word to some, so the house remains uncelebrated and overlooked, except now you know about it, too.

The Google Earth snapshot of 299 Eustis St, Roxbury MA, the former home of the inventor of Motorcycling.

There’s little published on Roper, certainly no proper biography, just a few columns in 1800s magazines, and a lot of ‘web conjecture. The first motorcycle books weren’t published until the early 1900s, and all were ‘how to’ until Victor Pagé wrotea history of motorcycles in 1914.  That might sound like the dawn of the industry, but ‘Early Motorcyclesand Sidecars’, which is still in print, was published 45 years after Roper and Perraux pioneered motoring on two wheels.  Many thousands of books about motorcycles were published in the next 100 years, from ADV travel in the late ‘Teens (it was all adventure then), to tell-alls about 1%er club misadventures, to hundreds of histories of long-dead makes, from Aermacchi to Yamaha.  But there are still big holes in the literature, and a lot of important stuff is missing from moto-history.  I’ve been approached to write books on two brands this year – Zenith and Motosacoche – which in their day held World Land Speed records, won championships, and made a dent in their world.   Researching those stories is hard work, but it feels good, like cementing the foundation of the House of Motorcycles.  Put a plaque on it!”

Hanging with Roper’s second steam cycle, built in 1895…
Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer and myself at the Handbuilt Show, with the hot-off-the-press May/June 2016 issue of Cycle World featuring the first ever hand-painted cover of the magazine, without a motorcycle photo!  It’s an historic issue, and the cover looks great, by Ornamental Conifer – the ‘Hand Built Issue’

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.