Francestown New Hampshire Motorcycle Inventor: Sylvester H. Roper (1823-1896)

Sylvester Roper and his "steam carriage" made sometime before 1870. From The Smithsonian Institution [found at Wikipedia]

Sylvester Roper and his “steam carriage” made
sometime before 1870. From The Smithsonian
Institution [Photograph from Wikipedia, and
noted to be in the public domain]

The Smithsonian Museum defines a motorcycle as, “a self-propelled, engine-powered, two-wheeled vehicle.” That time-honored institution gives Sylvester H. Roper credit for creating the earliest known example. I believe them.

The first motorcycle was steam-driven (the “Roper Steam Velocipede“). Invented in 1867 by Francestown New Hampshire native, Sylvester Howard Roper, it was powered by coal.  The gas-propelled version, usually credited as being the first, was not invented until 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler. In 1902 the Indian Motorcycle Company began mass-producing vehicles in Springfield MA. A year later, William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson founded the Harley-Davidson.

 Roper Steam Velocipede, c1869, Gift of John H. Bacon, Smithsonian Institution

Roper Steam Velocipede, c1869, Gift of John H.
Bacon, Smithsonian Institution

In the 1860s, Sylvester Roper began experimenting with steam-driven vehicles. He mounted steam engines on bicycles, tricycles, even “quadricycles,” anything that could carry people and had wheels. One of his first creations was a two-passenger motorized carriage comprising basically a bench attached to four massive spoked wheels, with a 2-horsepower engine hanging underneath like a steel belly. According to an 1863 report in Scientific American, the car topped out at 25 miles per hour. During the next 30 years, Roper built 10 steam-driven vehicles.

According to the 1891 “History of Francestown NH,” when a boy Sylvester “displayed a remarkable degree of precocity in mechanics.” Reportedly at the age of 12 he built a small stationary steam engine, even though he had never seen a steam engine before. He left home early and worked as a machinist in Nashua and Manchester NH, New York and Worcester MA.  In 1854 he settled in Boston MA, and lived at 299 Eustis Street in Roxbury.

Besides the motorcycle, inventions include a “Handstitch Sewing Machine,” a hot-air engine, steam-carriages (the precursor of the automobile), breech loading guns, a knitting machine, a machine for manufacturing screws, hot-air furnaces and ranges, and an automatic fire escape.  One of his steam-powered cars, built in 1865, is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Roper was killed on June 1, 1896, while testing a new steam motorcycle at a Charles River bicycle track in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT now sits.  Read about his last ride.

He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.



For more family genealogy also see “Roper’s World

Robert Roper (c1525-1582) & Cassandra Cooper (c1589-?)
Walter Roper (c1550-?) & Elizabeth
John Roper (1577-?) & Alice Goodale (1614-1687)
Ephraim Roper (1644-1697) & Hannah Brewer (1645-1697)
Ephraim Roper (1687-1730) & Sybilla Moore (1694-1750)
Ephraim Roper (1716-1793) & Michal Houghton (1725-1816)

Lucy Roper, daughter of Ephraim & Michael (Houghton) Roper, was born on 10 February 1767 in Sterling, Worcester County, MA.  Lucy Roper married in Sterling MA on 29 July 1821 to Joshua Everett of Princeton MA, son of Joshua & Molly (Titus) Everett. She died on 13 October 1837 in Sterling, Worcester County, Massachusetts, at age 70 years, 8 months and 3 days. He had married 1st) Ruth Wood and had 8 children by her.
Child of Lucy Roper and unknown father:
1. Merrick Roper, b. 15 March 1792 Sterling MA

Merrick Roper, son of Lucy Roper b. 15 March 1792 in Sterling MA and d. 19 Feb 1861 in Francestown NH; He removed to Francestown NH with Mr. Joseph Willard in 1807; m. He m. 18 Nov 1817 in Francestown NH to Susan FAIRBANKS. She b. 9 May 1795 in Francestown NH and d. 22 Feb 1861. She daughter of Elias & Elizabeth (Billings) Fairbanks. In 1860 census living in Francestown NH, wife Susan, b 1795). He was a cabinet maker. The house he lived in was later the residence of Daniel S. Henderson. The shop he worked in was later owned by Frank Crosby and Hiram Patch who made it into a dwelling house in 1885. It was occupied by Margaret Winn in 1895.
1850 United States Federal Census > New Hampshire > Hillsborough > Francestown
Mirick Roper 58 M Painter 500 Mass
Susan Roper 55 F NH
Lucy A Roper 22 F NH
Edward F. Roper 18 M machinist NH
Susan E. Roper 13 F NH
Children of Merrick & Susan (Fairbanks) Roper:
1. Charles Roper, b. 7 Feb 1819; m. 25 Dec 1851 to Amelia Nesbaum of Zanesville Ohio. He serve in an Ohio regiment in the War of the Rebellion (Civil War) and was in Gen. Lew Wallace’s brigade at the battle of Shiloh; He was a house painter residing in Zanesville Ohio; Had children Eli Sylvester Roper, b. 28 March 1872, d. 27 Aug 1952 CA.
2. +Sylvester H. Roper, b. 24 Nov 1823 Francestown NH; d. June 1896 Cambridge Middlesex Co MA
3. Lucy Ann Roper, b. 5 Feb 1828; m. George C. Patten of Deering, 11 Nov 1851; resided Deering NH.
4. Edward F. Roper, b. 17 Dec 1831; m1st, Henrietta M. Green of Revere MA, 16 Sep 1857; m2nd, 7 June 1867, Eliza Beals of Cohasset MA; m3rd, 14 Dec 1893 to Mary D. Bailey of Francestown. He followed in the machinist trade in early life and was for a time employed in the famous Singer Sewing Machine Manufactory at Boston, Mass, his present vocation is that of a jeweler, resides in Francestown NH.
5. Susan Elizabeth “Lizzie S.” Roper, b. 25 Sep 1836; m. Ephraim W. Colburn of New Boston NH son of Leonard & Mary T. (Livingston) Coburn, 4 June 1857 in Francestown NH; resided Francestown NH.

SYLVESTER ROPER, son of Merrick & Susan (Fairbanks) Roper…
When a boy he displayed a remarkable degree of precocity in mechanics and his career as an inventor has proved him to be without a rival in mechanical genius among those who have gone out from Francestown. At twelve years of age, although he had not seen a steam engine, he constructed a small stationary engine which is now preserved in the laboratory at Francestown Academy. Two years later he made a locomotive engine and shortly afterward saw for the first time a locomotive in Nashua [NH]. He left home early in life and persued his trade as a machinist in Nashua, Manchester [NH], New York and Worcester [MA], and in 1854, became a resident of Boston, MA.  About this time he invented the Handstitch Sewing Machine which was in many respect superior to the sewing machines of earlier invention.  In the year 1861, he invented a hot-air engine which was superceded by gas engines which were found to give better results.  He also experimented with steam-carriages, and invented breech loading guns of different patterns.  Among his later inventions may be mentioned a machine for manufacturing screws in the construction of which his son Charles participated, a furnace of superior design and an automatic fire-escape.  The last two he especially values as being of possible service in the preservation of human life.  Indeed Mr. Roper’s heart is with his inventions, and he, with reason, asserts that the inventor as well as the artist and the literary genius should find unselfish pleasure in the products of his hand and brain. He last resided in Boston MA. Sylvester Roper married 1st) 23 Apr 1845  in Providence RI to Almira/Elmira D. Hill of Peterborough NH. He m2nd) 25 Oct 1873 in Wakefield MA to Frances Ellen Robinson of Lynn MA, dau of Christopher & Eliza Robinson. She b. 18 Feb 1833 in Lynn, Essex MA and d. 28 Oct 1873. Sylvester H. Roper died 1 June 1896.
1860  >  MASSACHUSETTS  >  NORFOLK  >  1-WD ROXBURY > Series: M653  Roll: 517  Page: 554
Sylvester H. Roper 57 M Machinist 3000 300 NH [b 1803]
Elmira D. Roper 31 F Mass
Charles F Roper 12 M Mass [b abt 1848]
Cornelia A. Richardson 22 F Domestic NH
[neighbors Lewis Wright / Wm J. Sprague]
Child of Sylvester & Almira D. (Hill) Roper:
1. +Charles Francis Roper, b. 10 December 1847 in Manchester, NH

Charles Francis Roper, son of Sylvester H. & Elmira D. (Hill) Roper, b. 10 December 1847 in Manchester NH, and d. 14 Nov 1916 in Hopedale MA.  He m. 3 Oct 1870 in Amherst, Hampshire Co. Massachusetts to Abbie F. Taylor, dau of Israel H. & Levina/Lavinia (Crosett/Crossett) Taylor.  She b. abt 1850 in Pelham NH [death cert says Pelham MA], and d. 3 March 1906 in Hopedale MA. She buried at the village cemetery in Hopedale MA.  Charles was an inventor like his father, creating a variety of machines, vehicle appliances and propellers. [see obituary and more info]
1900 US Census > Massachusetts > Worcester > Hopedale > District 1638 > 14
Roper, Charles F. Head W M Dec 1847 52 Married 29 yrs NH NH NH Inventor
Roper, Abbie F. wife W F March 1850 50 married 29 yrs 3 ch 3 living MA MA MA
Roper, Bessie T. dau W F Feb 1876 24 single MA NH MA
Roper, Walter F., son M W Feb 1881 19 single MA NH MA at school
Roper, Arthur E. son W M Dec 1883 16 single MA NH MA at school
Rush, Catherine A. servant W F June 1876 23 single MA Ire Ire Servant
1910 US Census >  Massachusetts > Worcester > Hopedale > District 1638 > 14
Roper, Charles F. Head W M 62 widow NH NH NH Manufacturer Bost Propellors
Augustson, Ida servant F W 22 single Swedish SW SW servant Private Family
Children of Charles F. & Abbie F. (Taylor) Roper:
1. Bessie Taylor Roper, b. Feb 1876 Amherst MA; m. 18 Feb 1908 in Hopedale MA to Hamilton Stimson Conant, son of Horace H. & Susan (Stimson) Conant, as his 2nd wife.  He was born in Orford, NH. In 1920 living in Boston, Suffolk Co. MA with her family including daughters, Thetha Frances Conant (b 5 Feb 1910 Boston MA) and Constance Roper Conant (b 15 May 1913 Boston MA)
2. Walter Fredric Roper, b. Feb 1881 Amherst MA; m. 3 June 1905 in Boston MA [recorded Hopedale MA] to Harriette Frances Nichols, dau of William F. & Alma B. (Marks) Nichols.  She b. Boston MA; dau Eleanor Roper b. 12 Nov. 1906
3. Arthur Edward Roper, b. Dec 1883  Amherst MA; m. 30 June 1909 at Woonsocket RI [recorded Hopedale MA] to Elizabeth May Haigh, dau of Allen & Hannah (Hibbert) Haigh; she b. Woonsocket RI.  Child, Barbara Anna Roper b 17 Apr 1913 in Hopedale MA


1) 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, by W.R. Cochrane; Francestown, N.H.: The town, 1895
2) NEHGS Online Database
3) Newpapers Online
4) Smithsonian Institute web site
5) family trees and online resources


*Updated 2012: National Board of Boilder and Pressure Vessel Inspector, Bulletin, Fall 2007. Article: Born to Be Wild: Sylvester Roper – Inventor of the Motorcycle (PDF)

Roper World — multiple links to photographs and information about Sylvester H. Roper and his inventions

Roper steam velocipede (America on the Move)

First motorcycles

(Article updated August 2012)
(Genealogy updated December 2014)

This entry was posted in Genealogy, New Hampshire Inventors, New Hampshire Men and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Francestown New Hampshire Motorcycle Inventor: Sylvester H. Roper (1823-1896)

  1. Priscilla Putnam Martin says:

    The Roper Family Bible Record, as published in New Hampshire Family Records Volume II by William Copeley, states that Sylvester Roper & Almira D. Hill’s son is Charles F. Roper b. 10 Dec 1847, Manchester, N. H.

    He d. 14 Nov 1916 Hopedale, MA. He had three children: Walter F., Arthur & Bessie.

    • Janice Brown says:


      I appreciate your post, as it pushed me to dig deeper into this family and I have updated not only Charles Roper’s info but that of his wife and children!


  2. Priscilla Putnam Martin says:


    There is no middle name listed for Sylvester Roper in the Francestown Vital Records. Most list his middle name as Hayward. You need to check out the original Sterling, MA. birth records for Merrick Roper. Also listed above his birth are the children of Silas Roper & Elizabeth Burpee. Several historians have been misleading us all.

    You have probably found my Sylvester Roper Family Tree on

    I take interest in this family as the past president of the Francestown Improvement & Historical Society (FIHS) & the fact that there are still descendants of Sylvester’s sister Susan Elizabeth Roper still living here. And, after meeting David Roper, at Motorcycle Week 2003 at Gunstock Ski Area where he was racing a rare 3 – cylinder AJS on loan from the Birmingham, England Motorcycle Museum. Dave is the motorcycling legend who is the only American to have ever won the Isle of Man TT. He shared his genealogy with me & I share the info that I find with him. Dave is a 2nd cousin, 4 times removed from Sylvester.

    Invitation” Come to the Francestown Labor Day celebration, Sept. 3. The parade theme is, “Invention’s & Discoveries.” We are putting together a Sylvester Roper themed entry. There are many families here who always have great parade entries. The parade is at 2 p.m.

    Look for Allan Girdler’s article in Cycle World, Feb. 1998, “First Fired, First Forgotten.”

    It is nice to find someone who will look at alternate info & make appropriate changes. Keep up the good work. My best.


  3. Janice Brown says:


    I am always grateful for people who add (or detract when I revise information) to help make these histories and genealogies more accurate. Sylvester used the H. many times in the U.S. censuses and even on his death certificate, which in fact yes none of them state what the H. stands for. So in this case, I’ve removed the Howard middle name and simply replaced it with the H. which he used.

    Thank you for the invitation to the festivities in Francestown!

    In your statement above, what have the historians been misleading us about?


  4. Priscilla Putnam Martin says:


    Lucy Roper, dau. of Ephraim Roper & Michal Houghton, is the mother of Merrick Roper. No father is listed.

    Silas Roper is Lucy’s brother. Silas m. Elizabeth Burpee.

    To verify this you need to look at the Sterling, Worcester, MA. Birth Record. It can be accessed on

    I go with using “H” as I can’t say whether it is Howard or Hayward either.

    As for his son Charles, some have his middle name as Frederic, some Francis. I haven’t as yet been able to prove which is correct. Charles’ son is Walter Frederic, so I would lean towards Frederic as his middle name too.

    I have a lot of info on Sylvester Roper, if you had the inclination I would be glad to show it to you at my home.


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