Steam Bicycles.

Updated: 18 Apr 2004
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Steam-powered bicycles have a long and honourable history, though they proved to be one of the more final dead-ends in the development of transport technology. You could argue that anything with a motor must be a motorcycle, but the machines on this page are clearly constructed as bicycles with steam propulsion grafted on.

The steam bicycle actually dates from 1868-69, before the invention of the Safety Bicycle, ie the configuration we ride around on today. This is not to be confused with what at the time would have been called an "ordinary" bicycle, which we know as a "penny-farthing". If you consider the injuries likely if you fell off that enormous front wheel, almost any other configuration might be called "safety" by comparison. The first internal-combustion motorcycle was not built until 1885, by Gottlieb Daimler.

Interestingly, the two earliest exhibits here were both built in 1869. As is often the case in technological progess, it was an idea whose time had come.


Left: The Michaux-Perreaux steam bicycle.

This is normally considered to be the first motorcycle. Built in France, 1868-1869.
The engine is mounted at 45 degrees on the main frame member; behind it is the boiler, with what appear to be fuel and water tanks.

Note that this is a velocipede, not a Safety Bicycle, and the pedals are mounted directly on the front wheel.


Left: An early Roper steam bicycle.

This steam-powered velocipede was built in 1869 by Sylvester H. Roper, of Massachusetts, and demonstrated by him at circuses and fairs. It had a vertical firetube boiler heated by charcoal.

This machine is preserved in the Smithsonian Motorcyle Collection in the USA.

The twin-cylinder engine has a cylinder bore of approx 2.25 inches. It directly drives 2.5 inch cranks on the rear axle. The valvegear is of the piston type, actuated by eccentrics. A feed-water pump is driven by the left-cylinder crank. The engine exhausts into the base of the chimney to provide draught, as in locomotive practice.

Left: Sylvester Roper and his final steam bicycle.

Roper died of a heart-attack on 1 June 1896, while driving this machine at 40 mph on a local bicycle track in Boston.

This design weighed 150 pounds ready to operate. It had to be restoked roughly every seven miles.

Note the spoon brake bearing on the top of the front tyre. These brakes were notoriously inefficient, and stopping the weight of boiler and engine must have been a tricky business.

Left: Another view of the Roper steam bicycle, from the other side.

This machine is in private ownership in the USA.


Left: The von Sauerbronn-Davis steam velocipede of 1883.

If the size of this tricycle can be deduced from the size of the seat, it must have been a fearsome machine, with wheels about eight feet in diameter.

The boiler was petrol fired, which sounds rather dangerous, given that the rider was perched above the machinery. Note steering wheel in front of the seat.

I wholly accept that this is not a "bicycle" within the strictest of definitions, but it seems to belong here rather than on the Unusual Tricycles page. You may disagree. You may very well disagree.

There were other steam bicycles; the list below is by no means exhaustive:

The 1884 Copeland Velocipede. In private ownership in the USA.

The Geneva Steam Bicycle of 1896 (that's Geneva, Ohio, USA) External link

The 1912 Steam Flyer, built by a Mr Gilligan in Sacramento. Currently in the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. This looks much more like a "steam motorcycle" than a bicycle with a steam-engine bolted on)

The steam bicycle was never a practical means of transport, the problems of carrying enough water and fuel being intractable; but people are still building steam bicycles today. See:

Bob Jorgensen's Roper replica External link

The Hudspith Steam Bicycle External link


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