F.E. and F.O. Stanley not only designed what was arguably the most practical steam powered carriage of the early automobile era, the twins innovated across multiple engineering and scientific disciplines. Already having invented and patented in 1876 what we today call the air brush followed up by inventing and patenting in 1886 a machine to apply photographic emulsion to glass plates, they worked on a self-propelled railroad passenger coach of which only a prototype was constructed after having been granted nearly a dozen patents for a steamcarriage.

Steam had been applied to flying vehicles long before it was applied to the automobile. In 1852 a 3-horsepower steam engine powered an airship over the skies of Paris making it the first self-propelled, heavier than air vehicle. Twenty-two years later, a steam powered monoplane flew however it had to be launched from a high hill. Once flying it could never gain sufficient forward airspeed to rise in the air and thus the flights are better described as powered, controlled-flight landings. It would not be until the early 1930s that a true steam powered airplane flew using a Besler brothers, compound steam engine designed in conjunction with the Doble brothers. The 90-horsepower rated engine consumed 1,130 PSI steam. Reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, the aircraft could change altitude at will.

The Stanley twins did experiment with applying their steam engine principles to at least one other form of transport vehicle. What was this vehicle?

This season’s special display in the Marshall Steam Museum for 2024 is titled “Bikes, Trikes, & Tandems”. We will not reveal all the great bicycle themed displays on exhibit in the museum this summer but invite you to visit and explore the display during our Steamin’ Days in 2024.

The first successful marriage of a light-weight steam engine to a bicycle frame occurred in 1867 when Sylvester Howard Roper (Born – November 24, 1823, Francestown, New Hampshire; Died – June 1, 1896, Cambridge, Massachusetts) married a boiler, steam engine, and bicycle together to form what was called a “motocycle” (right photo below). Roper attached a twin-cylinder steam engine to a forged-iron and hickory velocipede (as bicycles were called back then) frame. Roper’s bike, which rolled on iron-shod wooden wheels, had a 49″ wheelbase. He affixed one steam cylinder of 2-1/4″ bore by 2-1/2″ stroke to either side of the frame behind the seat and connected the piston rods to cranks on the rear wheel axle. Solid wheels made for a very uncomfortable ride.

A firebox and boiler were suspended on springs from the frame between the wheels. The exhaust steam from the cylinders, carried by tubing into the base of the chimney, provided forced draft to a short chimney projected up from behind the saddle seat. A charcoal fire heated the water to generate steam to power the engine. Water was supplied from a reservoir that was part of the seat using a feed-water pump powered from the engine. Interestingly Roper’s invention anticipated many modern motorcycle features including the use of a twisting-handgrip to serve as a throttle control. A cable attached to a handgrip on the handlebars operated the throttle valve as well as the brakes.

About 10 other Roper designed steam-powered ‘motocycles’ followed with the last being constructed in 1895 (left photo). For this cycle Roper improved many aspects of his steamer bike with support from the Pope Manufacturing Company which also constructed steamcarriages. Roper’s last steam-powered bicycle included a one-gallon water reservoir and provided about 8 miles of travel on one filling.

On June 1, 1896 Rober took one of his steam cycles to Charles River bicycle racetrack in Boston to test its viability as a pace-making machine for bicycle races. After making a few exhibition laps around the track while several bicycle racers attempted to keep up with him, they cleared the track so that he could demonstrate the cycle’s speed. His initial attempt covered a mile in two minutes and 12 seconds for an average speed of about 30 mph.

The steam bicycle was perhaps never a practical means of transport. Problems of carrying enough water and fuel paled in comparison to the prospects of having a boiler, operating at nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit, between the rider’s legs. One area that the steam bicycle did show promise was as a pacing bike for racers; both bicycle and track and field races. Because a steam engine can operate at slow speed and have tremendous torque, they make an ideal power plant for the slow constant speeds required for pacing bikes. For more photos of steam-powered bicycles, visit

The Stanley twins built at least one pacing bicycle that has been documented. Famed racer Eddie McDuffee (seen in photo at left), using a Stanley steam-powered pacing bike running in front of him, set a machine-paced mile bicycle record of 1 minute, 32 seconds in June 1899 at Buttonwood track in New Bedford. McDuffee supplied a $100 frame to the Stanley twins who outfitted it with a boiler and steam engine. After the Stanley twins sold their steamcarriage business to Walker and Barber (Locomobile) in 1899, the plans for their pacing bike also became property of Locomobile.

Advertised as “The Fastest Pacing Machine in the World” by Locomobile the “Lococycle Model 6″ boasted a pair of 14″ diameter by 13″ tall boilers, a 2.5:1 gear ratio, 2.5″ bore x 3.5″ stroke dual-cylinder steam engine, and 28″ x 2.5” tires. Locomobile offered the Stanley-designed Model 6 in their 1900 catalog. The Lococycle was operated by a tandem team – the front rider or “steersman” was responsible for steering only, while the mechanic in the rear handled the throttle, brakes, and all the burner/boiler controls. It is unknown if any were ever sold or even constructed. If nothing else the sight of a prototype Stanley Lococycle operating at Charles River Park Bicycle Race Course may have caught the eye of Fred Marriott who eventually joined the Stanley twins and set the world speed record of 127 MPH on the sands of Ormond Beach, Florida in 1906 driving the Stanley Rocket.