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 in most cases clearly constructed as bicycles with steam propulsion grafted on) Wikipedia gives a quick summary of steambike history.
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 over that enormous front wheel, almost any other configuration might be called "safety" by comparison. Edward Butler designed and built the first internal-combustion tricycle in 1884, while the first two-wheeled IC 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. Well, sort of.
There is a 'List of motorcycles by type of engine' on Wikipedia, which makes fascinating reading, though the section on steambikes is rather short, with only eight entries.
THE VOCIPEDRAISIAVAPORIANNA: 1818
Left: The Vocipedraisiavaporianna: 1818
It has to be said that the very existence of this machine is in doubt.
It has been suggested that the first steambike was a steam-powered draisine or hobby-horse, of which the unpowered version had been invented only two years earlier by Baron Karl Drais. It was said to be fitted with some kind of steam turbine on both front and back wheels, which would give it an excellent claim to be the first all-wheel-drive motorcycle. It was allegedly demonstrated in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on 5 April 1818.
The only 'steam turbines' available at the time were crude versions of the De Laval turbine, as used in steam jacks for turning roasting meat. Since these turbines have to turn at a very high speed (eg 30,000 rpm) to get any sort of efficiency, but here they were presumably coupled directly to the wheels, it seems unlikely that they were able to move the bike at all; certainly in the print the rider seems to be putting in some standard hobby-horse legwork.
The size of the boiler suggests that this machine would have been hopelessly top-heavy.
The print shown here supposedly shows a trial run. For some reason obtaing a better quality image has so far proved impossible. The original print is held in the Science Museum in London but does not appear to be available online.
The machine was allegedly called the 'Vocipedraisiavaporianna' which if nothing else is an impressive name.
THE MICHAUX-PERREAUX STEAM BICYCLE: 1869
Left: The Michaux-Perreaux steam bicycle.
This is normally considered to be not only the first steambike, but the first motorcycle of any kind. It was 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.
THE ROPER STEAM BICYCLES: 1869/96
Left: Replica of the early Roper steam bicycle: 1867
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 steambike had an oak and steel frame, and handcrafted ash wheels. The vertical fire-tube boiler was heated by charcoal.
The engine had one cylinder on each side, using the rear axle as a crankshaft. Piston valves were driven by return cranks on the outside of the main cranks. The seat, which doubled as a water-tank, is placed forward and the footpegs are extensions of the front axle. Not ideal for steering. The steam pressure gauge can be seen towards the front of the seat, connected by a rubber hose.
The original 1869 machine is preserved in the Smithsonian Motorcycle Collection in the USA.
Left: Sylvester Roper and his final steam bicycle: 1896
Roper's later steambike, with its rectangular boiler casing, is better known than the early version. The twin-cylinder engine has a cylinder bore of approx 2.25 inches. It directly drives 2.5 inch cranks on the right-hand side of the rear axle. The valvegear is of the piston type, actuated by eccentrics. A feed-water pump is driven by a crank on the left-hand side of the rear axle. The engine exhausts into the base of the chimney to provide draught, as in locomotive practice.
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.
Several Roper replicas have been made. Here is one 1867 Roper replica, and here 1896 Roper replica
THE VON SAUERBRONN-DAVIS VELOCIPEDE: 1883
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.
No other image of this machine appears to exist.
THE COPELAND VELOCIPEDE: 1884
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.
The Copeland now has a Wikipedia page.
For more information on the inventor 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 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!
THE GENEVA STEAM-BIKE: 1896
Left: The Geneva Steam Bicycle: 1896
The Geneva Steam Bicycle was built by the Geneva Cycle Company of Geneva, Ohio, USA. Not the one in Switzerland.
It has a Wikipedia page but it has very little information beyond the steam plant being designed by Lucius Copeland (see just above) and the fuel was naptha.
This link gives some technical details and describes what it is like to ride.
In short, there is a copper boiler with vertical fire-tubes on one side of the front wheel; balancing the weight on the other side is a single-cylinder, double acting, slide-valve engine and a one-gallon water tank. Steam pressure was 100 - 120 psi. Drive is by a friction roller on the front wheel tyre.
This machine has been preserved.
THE FIELD STEAM-BIKE: 1908
Left: The Field Steam Bicycle: 1908
Only two steambikes were built by Field- this one pictured here is the earlier 1908 Mk1 model. A Mk2 was built in 1934. Much information about both bikes can be found at the steamcar.net website
The boiler is the black cylinder just behind the front wheel; behind that is the engine.
The cylinder dimensions are 45mm bore with 50mm stroke. It uses variable expansion with poppet valves; a variable-lift sliding camshaft was operated from the top of the tank. The engine developed 8 HP, and had a 180º crank shaft. The engine has cast iron pistons, Babbit-metal big end and bronze main bearings. It all sounds like quite sophisticated steam technology.
There is an amusing account of the starting procedure for a Field steambike at steamcar.net. I particularly like Step 5: 'Stand back and let someone else light the methylated tray'. (To pre-heat the petrol vapouriser)
There is an impressive video of a 1934 Field steambike being ridden on the Wall of Death, trailing twin streams of exhaust steam. I'm not making this up, go and look.
And he does it without a helmet.
The Field steambike has no Wikipedia page. Attempts to find out anything about Mr Field have not so far prospered.
THE PEARSON & COX STEAM-BIKE: 1912
Left: The Pearson & Cox Steam Bicycle: 1912
This steambike developed 3 HP.
Henry Pearson and Percy Cox were apprentices at the General Engine and Boiler Company of London. They began experiments, and by 1912 they were offering steambikes for sale to the public. This lasted only for two years when, as in 1914, Percy Cox sold his steambike manufacturing rights to the Steam Cycle and Motor Company of St Michael’s Road, Croydon. From 1908 to 1916, the company was primarily involved in the design and production of steam cars and the steambike was just a sideline.
Pearson and Cox have a Wikipedia page.
One of these machines, built in 1912 and shown here, is in the Science Museum in London. Their page on the machine states that "The arrangement of this motorcycle is similar to the Serpollet steam car, but it is simplified by the elimination of the condenser and much of the automatic mechanism." However, what is that just behind the front wheel? Looks like a condenser to me...
THE HALESON STEAM BICYCLE: 1914
Left: The Haleson Steam Bicycle: 1914
This neat-looking steam-bike was built by an engineer, Mr William Hale of Hanham, Bristol, in 1914. The Haleson was a conventional motorcycle produced from 1903.
In 1914, a special steam-powered version was built. It has a flash boiler- the fat vertical cylinder at the front- fired by paraffin, the steam driving a 200cc single-cylinder engine with side-valves. Drive from the engine was by belt with no need for clutch or gearbox due to the inherent flexibility of a steam engine.
There is a good video of the Haleson going at a respectable speed on YouTube.
This machine is claimed to be the only known steam-powered motorcycle in the world capable of running on a regular basis; I think Mr Hudspith (see below) might have something to say about that.
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:
THE HUDSPITH STEAM BICYCLE: 2000
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)
The Hudspith steambike has long had an honoured place on this page. There are however many more contemporary steambikes, and some of them, found by random Googling, are shown below. are shown below
MORE MODERN STEAMBIKES
MARCO HAVALE STEAMBIKE: 2010
Left: The Marco Havale steambike
The steambike of Marco Havale can be seen on static steam-up test on YouTube. There is a single cylinder driving the rear axle directly, the valves being driven by a return crank on the outside of the main crank. No other details are known
Marco Havale is a steam enthusiast from Slovenia and a Steam Car Club of Great Britain member. Google has no further info on him.
Uploaded to YouTube Nov 2010, accessed Feb 2019.
BENJAMIN NAVARRO: 2014
Left: Steam Powered Motorcycle by Benjamín Navarro
This impressive machine, shown here driving around under steam, was built by Benjamín Franklin Navarro in Colombia in 2014. The YouTube page is in Spanish, and I have found no way to make Google Translate grapple with it without cutting and pasting it line by line; but anyway there do not seem to be any technical details there.
There is a single horizontal cylinder driving the rear axle directly. It looks like a soundly designed steambike; I noted the effective cylinder drain cocks in use at 1:30. The bike has a steam-whistle (at 3:30) rather than a horn, which is an elegant touch.
Google has no other information on Benjamín Navarro or his steambike.
THE KELTRUCK STEAM-BIKE-CHALLENGE
The Keltruck company are sponsoring Chris Wedgwood and his team to develop this steambike to beat the steam land speed record. This record stood since 1906 when a Stanley steam car achieved 127 mph. It was finally broken in 2009 by a British steam turbine car which set a new record of 148 mph, which still stands today.
The basis of the bike is a Suzuki Hayabusa. The steam generator consists of a paraffin burner heating a coil of copper tubing filled with water. Steam conditions are said to be 950 degF and 2,000 psi The steam is fed to the Bower and Bell V-twin Compound Engine which from which there is direct chain final-drive to the rear wheel with no gearbox.
I was surprised that anyone was still manufacturing reciprocating steam engines; it appears that 'Bower and Bell' refers to a design rather than a company. In this forum someone says they 'bought the plans', while this forum says the design was published in Model Engineer. This link says the engine design dates from the 1930's.
The video shows the bike with steam up but not being ridden.
RENÉ VAN TUIL AND THE BLACK PEARL: 2014
Left: Steam Powered Motorcycle by René van Tuil
The Black Pearl is a truly remarkable steam-powered motorcycle created by Dutch bike builder René van Tuil, of Revatu Customs in Holland. There is a page on their site with many fine pictures of the Black Pearl; it is a wonderful construction strongly suggesting an unnatural coupling of an American locomotive and a motorbike. It was unveiled in 2014.
You can see it in action on YouTube from the 1.42 point, proceeding at a very stately 5 mph.
And yes, it is indeed named after Cap'n Jack Sparrow's much-troubled vessel.
MARK DRAKE'S STEAMBIKE 2018
Left: Steambike by Mark Drake 2018
In this video Mark Drake's 'Ruscombe Gentleman's Steam Bicycle' takes a trip through The Two Tunnels Greenway in Bath. This is the first time a steam vehicle been through the tunnels since 1966, when the route was closed by the infamous Beeching cuts which shut large sections of the UK's rail system.
One of the tunnels making up the Greenway is the single-track Combe Down Tunnel, which had a bad reputation for smoke and fumes as it had no intermediate ventilation shafts; it was once the UK’s longest tunnel without intermediate ventilation. This caused a serious accident in 1929, when the driver and fireman of a northbound goods train were overcome by the fumes.
On the steambike a single-cylinder engine drives the rear wheel through a pair of step-down spur gears. The rear axle drives a small pump.
There is another video and a bit more info here.
As noted at the start of this page, the Steam Bike is an iconic Steampunk form of transport, second only to steam-powered airships. A Google image search on 'steambike' conjures up a huge number of baroque machines, though naturally most of them are models or CGI renderings.
Left: Steambike image: accessed Jan 2019
This is (I think) just a rendering, but it is beautifully done. I have now been told it is by Mikhail Smolyanov.
This machine is definitely labelled as a steambike, though those pipes look rather like the exhausts from a 4-cylinder in-line engine. Perhaps they are generously-sized cylinder drains?
I have no idea how the steering is supposed to work. Possibly it has Hub-center steering, but how does the front wheel swivel between those two horizontal support arms?
There are several steampunk songs that feature steambikes. My favourite is The Copper War by a band called 'The Cog is Dead'. The opening line is:
"Verdigris, Patina, was a peaceful little town..."
Which I think is simply brilliant. The chorus goes:
"So saddle up your steam-bike and put your goggles on
We've got to be prepared or else we'll all be dead by dawn!"
I'm not sure if strictly speaking you 'saddle-up' a steambike; I would have thought it should be 'fire up'. But never mind.