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Sylvester H. Roper

Sylvester H. Roper Inventor

The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Inventor
Countries United States of America
Occupations Inventor
Gender male
Birth 24 November 1823 (Francestown, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, U.S.A.)
Death 1 June 1896 (Charles River, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
The details

Sylvester Howard Roper (November 24, 1823 – June 1, 1896) 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. The Roper steam velocipede of 1867–1869 may have been the first motorcycle, for which he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. He is also the inventor of the shotgun choke and a revolver repeating shotgun.

Early life

Roper and his steam carriage, made sometime before 1870.

Sylvester H. Roper's father, Merrick, was a cabinetmaker, born 1792 in Sterling, Massachusetts. Merrick came to Francestown, New Hampshire in 1807 and married Sylvester's mother Susan Fairbanks in 1817. 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.

Sylvester Roper was born on November 24, 1823. From an early age he displayed mechanical talent. 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. At age 14, he built a locomotive engine, and only afterward saw such an engine for the first time in Nashua. Roper left Francestown at a young age and worked as a machinist, first in Nashua, then in Manchester, New York, and Worcester. He married Almira D. Hill on April 20, 1845 in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1854 he moved to Boston, Massachusetts living in the Roxbury neighborhood at 299 Eustis Street.


Handbill for Roper steam demonstration.

About the same time he came to Boston, Roper invented his Handstitch Sewing Machine. In 1861 he invented a hot air engine. Roper worked for the Springfield Armory during the Civil War. Roper's work eventually came to the attention of other inventors and engineers of the area, including Elias Howe, Alvan Clark, Christopher Miner Spencer. Roper was observed driving his steam carriage around Boston in 1863. One such 1863 carriage went to the Henry Ford Museum.

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. Roper and Christopher Miner Spencer were granted a joint patent for a repeating shotgun mechanism on April 4, 1882. Later, on April 21, 1885, Roper alone obtained a patent for an improved shotgun loading mechanism. Roper and his son, Charles, designed a factory producing screw making equipment, which Charles Roper continued to manage after his father's death.

Death while riding

On June 1, 1896, Roper rode one of his later velocipede models, a Pope Manufacturing Company Columbia bicycle with a steam engine added, to the Charles River bicycle track, near Harvard Bridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts where he made several laps, pacing bicyclists there, including professional rider Tom Butler who could not keep up with the steam powered machine. Roper was clocked at 2 minutes 1.4 seconds for the flying mile, for a top speed 40 mph (64 km/h) He was seen to wobble and then fall on the track, suffering a head wound, and was found dead. 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.

List of patents

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
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