Sylvester H. Roper

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Sylvester H. Roper
Line drawing of a man standing next to a bicycle with a steam engine
Born(1823-11-24)November 24, 1823
DiedJune 1, 1896(1896-06-01) (aged 72)
Cause of deathHeart failure, motorcycle crash
OccupationMachinist, inventor
Known forRoper steam velocipede, repeating shotgun, shotgun choke
Spouse(s)Almira D. Hill
ChildrenCharles Roper
AwardsMotorcycle Hall of Fame (2002)

Sylvester Howard Roper (November 24, 1823 – June 1, 1896)[1][2] was an American inventor and a pioneering builder of early automobiles and motorcycles from Boston, Massachusetts. In 1863 he built a steam carriage, one of the earliest automobiles.[3][4][5][6][7] The Roper steam velocipede of 1867–1869 may have been the first motorcycle,[8][9][10][11][12] for which he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.[13] He is also the inventor of the shotgun choke[14] and a revolver repeating shotgun.[15][16]

Early life[edit]

Roper and his steam carriage, made sometime before 1870.

Sylvester H. Roper's father, Merrick, was a cabinetmaker, born 1792 in Sterling, Massachusetts.[1] Merrick came to Francestown, New Hampshire in 1807 and married Sylvester's mother Susan Fairbanks in 1817.[1] Sylvester had an older brother who was a housepainter, two younger sisters, and a younger brother who became a machinist at the Singer Sewing Machine Manufactory in Boston, then later a jeweler.[1] Sylvester Roper was born on November 24, 1823.[1][2] From an early age he displayed mechanical talent.[1] At age 12 he made a stationary steam engine, even though he had never seen one before in person; this invention was kept on display in the laboratory of the Francestown Academy.[1] At age 14, he built a locomotive engine, and only afterward saw such an engine for the first time in Nashua.[1] Roper left Francestown at a young age and worked as a machinist, first in Nashua, then in Manchester, New York,[17] and Worcester.[1] He married Almira D. Hill on April 20, 1845 in Providence, Rhode Island.[1][18] In 1854 he moved to Boston, Massachusetts living in the Roxbury neighborhood at 299 Eustis Street.[1]


Handbill for Roper steam demonstration.

About the same time he came to Boston, Roper invented his Handstitch Sewing Machine.[1] In 1861 he invented a hot air engine[1] and filed several patents for a hot air engines.[19] He eventually succeeded in building engines ranging from 1 to 4 HP. In 1869 over 200 roper's air engines were in operation. Roper worked for the Springfield Armory during the Civil War.[20] Roper's work eventually came to the attention of other inventors and engineers of the area, including Elias Howe, Alvan Clark, Christopher Miner Spencer.[8] Roper was observed driving his steam carriage around Boston in 1863.[4] One such 1863 carriage went to the Henry Ford Museum.[5][6]

Roper invented the first shotgun choke, short tubes that could be threaded onto, or removed from, the outside of the shotgun barrel to vary the shot spread to suit different targets and ranges.[14] Roper and Christopher Miner Spencer were granted a joint patent for a repeating shotgun mechanism on April 4, 1882.[15] Later, on April 21, 1885, Roper alone obtained a patent for an improved shotgun loading mechanism.[16] Roper and his son, Charles, designed a factory producing screw making equipment, which Charles Roper continued to manage after his father's death.[1][8]

Death while riding[edit]

On June 1, 1896, Roper rode one of his later velocipede models, a Pope Manufacturing Company Columbia bicycle with a steam engine added,[20] to the Charles River bicycle track, near Harvard Bridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts where he made several laps, pacing bicyclists there, including professional rider Tom Butler[21] who could not keep up with the steam powered machine.[8] Roper was clocked at 2 minutes 1.4 seconds for the flying mile, for a top speed 40 mph (64 km/h)[8][20] He was seen to be unstable and then fall on the track, suffering a head wound, and was found dead.[8] After autopsy, the cause of death was found to be heart failure, although it is unknown if the crash was the cause of the stress on his heart, or if his heart failed prior to the crash.[8]

List of patents[edit]

Number Title Issue date Co-inventor
U.S. Patent 2,848 Padlock November 9, 1842
U.S. Patent 34,723 Improvement in Hot-Air Engines March 18, 1862
U.S. Patent 53,881 Improvement In Revolving Fire-Arms April 10, 1866
U.S. Patent 79,861 Improvements In Detachable Muzzle For Shot-Guns July 14, 1868
U.S. Patent 94,135 Improvement In Knitting-Machine August 24, 1869
U.S. Patent 117,931 Improvement In Knitting-Machines August 8, 1871
U.S. Patent 255,894 Magazine Fire-Arm April 4, 1882 Christopher M. Spencer
U.S. Patent 262,321 Metal-Screw Machine August 8, 1882 Charles F. Roper
U.S. Patent 300,736 Metal-Screw Machine June 17, 1884 Charles F. Roper
U.S. Patent 409,429 Magazine-Gun August 20, 1889
U.S. Patent 413,734 Magazine Fire-Arm October 29, 1889
U.S. Patent 514,094 Fire-Escape February 6, 1894
U.S. Patent 516,117 Fire Escape March 6, 1894


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cochrane, W. R. (1895), History of Francestown, N.H. : from its earliest settlement April, 1758, to January 1, 1891 : with a brief genealogical record of all the Francestown families, Francestown, N.H., pp. 317, 903–904
  2. ^ a b "Died; Roper – At Cambridge. 1st inst., Sylvester H. Roper, 72 yrs, 6 monts, 8 dys.", Boston Daily Advertiser, Boston, Massachusetts (132), p. 8, 3 June 1896
  3. ^ "S. H. Roper, of Roxbury [...]", Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Lowell, Massachusetts (2050), 6 January 1863, S. H. Roper, of Roxbury, has invented a steam wagon for common roads, which stops, turns corners, backs, 'keeps to the right as the law directs,' and does many other intelligent things under the hands of a skilful driver.
  4. ^ a b "Miscellaneous Items; Mr Sylvester H Roper of Roxbury, Mass has invented a steam carriage…", New Haven Daily Palladium, New Haven, Connecticut (52), 3 March 1863
  5. ^ a b Pearson, Drew (May 16, 1965), "Ford Museum Houses U.S. History", Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, p. 8, retrieved 2011-02-06
  6. ^ a b McCann, Hugh (2 April 1972), "Museum Traces History of Wheels", The New York Times, p. IA27
  7. ^ See also:
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Died in the Saddle", Boston Daily Globe, p. 1, 2 June 1896
  9. ^ Falco, Charles M.; Guggenheim Museum Staff (1998), "Issues in the Evolution of the Motorcycle", in Krens, Thomas; Drutt, Matthew (eds.), The Art of the Motorcycle, Harry N. Abrams, pp. 24–31, 98–101, ISBN 0-89207-207-5
    Michaux-Perreaux year 1868. Roper year 1869.
    CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  10. ^ Setright, L. J. K. (1979). The Guinness Book of Motorcycling Facts and Feats. Guinness Superlatives. pp. 8–18. ISBN 0-85112-200-0
    Michaux-Perreaux year 1867
    CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  11. ^ Kresnak, Bill (2008), Motorcycling for Dummies, Hoboken, New Jersey: For Dummies, Wiley Publishing, p. 29, ISBN 978-0-470-24587-3
    Roper year 1869.
    CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  12. ^ Kerr, Glynn (August 2008), "Design; The Conspiracy Theory", Motorcycle Consumer News, Irvine, California: Aviation News Corp, vol. 39 no. 8, pp. 36–37, ISSN 1073-9408
    Roper year 1869.
    CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  13. ^ American Motorcyclist Association (2002), "Sylvester Roper; American inventor and transportation pioneer who built a steam-powered motorcycle in 1869", AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, retrieved 2011-01-27 Roper year 1869CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  14. ^ a b Simpson, Layne (February–March 2005), "All choked up: all you need to know about interchangeable chokes", Hunting, p. 30(2)
  15. ^ a b US 255894, Christopher Miner Spencer & Sylvester H. Roper, "Magazine Fire-Arm", issued 4 April 1882 
  16. ^ a b US 316401, Sylvester H. Roper, "Magazine Fire-Arm", issued 21 April 1885 
  17. ^ The history is unclear if this refers to Manchester (town), New York, Manchester (village), New York, or Manchester, New Hampshire and New York state
  18. ^ "Married; At Providence, 20th inst. Mr. Sylvester H Roper and Miss Almira D. Hill, both of Boston.", Emancipator and Weekly Chronicle, Boston, Massachusetts (1), p. 4, 30 April 1845
  19. ^ "Roper's Hot Air Engine patents".
  20. ^ a b c Girdler, Allan (February 1998), "First Fired, First Forgotten", Cycle World, Newport Beach, California: Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 62–70, ISSN 0011-4286Michaux-Perreaux year 1868. Roper year 1868CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  21. ^ The same Tom Butler was overtaken 10 feet from the finish by Major Taylor in the 1899 world 1 mile (1.6 km) track cycling championship. See Porter, David L. (1995), African-American sports greats: a biographical dictionary, ABC-CLIO, p. 334, ISBN 0-313-28987-5, retrieved 2011-02-09

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