A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Twenty Nine


Sylvester H Roper (1823 – 1896)

I am always fascinated by individuals who have an inventive streak in them. The latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame is just such a chap.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 24th November 1823 to a cabinet-maker, the young Sylvester exhibited a mechanical bent from an early age. By the age of 12 he had made a stationary steam engine, even though he had never seen one before. When he was 14 he had built his first locomotive engine, sometime before he saw a real life example in Nassau.

Married in 1845 our hero moved to Boston in 1854. It was around this time that he invented a Hand-stitch Sewing machine and later a machine for making screws and a foldable fire escape. In 1863 Roper had built his first steam carriage, one of the very earliest automobiles and was seen driving it around the streets of Boston, no doubt to the amusement and consternation of bystanders and pedestrians. One version of his 1863 carriage found a resting place in the Henry Ford museum.

As well as four wheels, Roper was fascinated by the possibilities of harnessing steam power to the bicycle which was beginning to gain some traction as a popular form of transportation. The Roper steam velocipede which saw the light of the day shortly after the ending of the Civil War may well have been the first motorcycle. For this invention Roper was inducted posthumously into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.

Roper did not just concentrate his attention and talents on locomotion. He found time to invent the first shotgun choke, which was a series of tubes which could be threaded into or removed from the outside of a shotgun barrel to enable the gunman to vary the spread of the shot to suit the range and size of target that was in their sights. On 4th April 1882 he and Charles Miner Spencer applied for a patent for a repeating shotgun mechanism and in his own right three years later Roper applied for a patent for an improved shotgun loading mechanism.

But it was locomotion and velocipedes that were his first and real love. His early prototypes – essentially a small steam engine attached to a bone shaker, requiring both coal and water – were impractical but by the 1890s he had developed a compact engine which could be attached to a safety bike. At the time there were over 500 bicycle manufacturers in the US and big money was to be had from winning bike races.

On the fateful day of 1st June 1896 Roper, aged 73, raced his steam bike against professional riders who could not keep up with him. He clocked a mile in 2 minutes 1.4 seconds – average speed 40 mph – but was seen to wobble and then fall off the track, hitting his head and dying. The autopsy showed that the cause of death was heart failure, although it could not be established whether the crash was the cause of the heart failure or whether it was the other way round.

Sylvester, for your pioneering work in locomotion, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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