Updated: 1 Aug 2011
More Copeland material added
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The Steam bike is the iconic Steampunk form of transport, but in reality 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 head-first 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.

See also Bob Jorgensen's Roper replica (external link)


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.


Left: The Copeland Velocipede

Lucius Day Copeland was a 19th-century engineer and inventor from Phoenix, Arizona who demonstrated one of the first motorcycles, a steam-powered high-wheeled bicycle, at the first Maricopa County Fair in 1884. The boiler is the vertical thing above the small wheel; the engine is slanted up towards the handlebars, with the crankshaft at the top. Final drive is by belt.

This machine could cover a mile in four minutes and was allegedly able to carry enough water to operate for an hour; in the absence of any sort of water tank that is a bit hard to believe. An example with the original engine is in the Phoenix Museum of History.

For more information see Lucius Copeland in Wikipedia

Terry Wilson points out that this machine is not a 'penny-farthing' (ie having a large wheel at the front and a small one at the back) that has been reversed. The Star Safety bicycle with a small wheel at the front was invented by George Pressey invented in 1880. In an attempt to make a safer bicycle he altered the penny-farthing configuration so the small wheel was now in the front and doing the steering, while the rider sat above the rear drive wheel. This helped to combat the tendency of the penny-farthing to pitch the rider forward when encountering an obstacle. This act was known in cycling circles as a 'header', and could easily be fatal because of the great height. However, the small front wheel was skittish on loose surfaces such as sand and gravel.

Left: An unmodified Star bicycle

According to the original sales material, the Star had a performance advantage over the competition; with its ratchet-drive pedal system, a rider could achieve greater speed by operating both pedals at once, instead of the alternating method dictated by revolving cranks.

Left: Demonstrating the stability of the Star bicycle

A famous photo of Will Robertson of the Washington Bicycle Club riding a Star down the steps of the United States Capitol in 1885. Danger, Will Robertson!

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

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:


Left: The Hudspith Steam Bicycle with steam up

This magnificent machine was built by Geoff Hudspith, shown mounted on it. It first ran in October 2000, though the original concept goes back to 1972. It was first demonstrated at The Great Dorset Steam Fair. (29th August - 2nd September 2001)

The boiler is fired by paraffin and steam pressure was initially 100psi, raised to 125psi in 2005.

For much more information see: The Hudspith Steam Bicycle (external link)

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