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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

1865 Roper Steam Carriage: The Oldest Surviving American Automobile

November 3, 2019

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1865 Roper Steam Carriage. THF91158

Smoke-belching steam locomotives were familiar sights to Americans in the 1860s. But a small steam carriage running under its own power—without horses!—was so startling that people paid to see it driven around a track. It was a curiosity, not transportation. By the time its inventor, Sylvester Roper, died in 1896, the next generation of innovators was trying to transform horseless carriages from curiosities into practical vehicles.

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A handbill promoting an 1865 steam buggy exhibition proclaimed steamers “the most wonderful invention of modern times.”

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Massachusetts machinist Sylvester Roper built at least seven steam carriages and two steam motorcycles. They weren’t considered practical vehicles but became popular attractions at circuses and fairs. The driver is probably W.W. Austin, who exhibited Ropers.

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Print of a Roper steam carriage exhibited at a circus, about 1863.

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Roper’s death was front-page news in Boston, where he lived and worked. He had a heart attack at age 73 while riding one of his steam motorcycles.

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