Steam-propelled Tricycle (1888)

"A radical departure and notable advancement in transportation.”

In its time it was described in Scientific American as a ”radical departure and notable advancement in transportation.” That’s why when a canopied, steam-powered tricycle pulled up to the doors of the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, it was an event worthy of a photograph. Now, nearly 130 years later, that prediction was proven accurate. The machine parked in front of the Smithsonian Castle by its inventor, engineer Lucius Copeland, turned out to be an important precursor to the motorcycle—and a convenient way to take the exercise out of cycling.  

By the time he visited the Smithsonian, Copeland had already made a name for himself experimenting with steam propelled vehicles, from cars to bicycles to tricycles. His first foray into what is now referred to as an early motorcycle was in 1881, when he attached a steam boiler to a penny-farthing bicycle. Notably, the bicycle had a driving pulley, like the belt drive on a motorcycle. ~ Smithsonian Archives

The photo shows the Copeland steam-propelled tricycle in front of the Carriage Porch at the north entrance Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle) on the Mall. The driver of the tricycle is its inventor, Lucius D. Copeland; the passenger is Frances Benjamin Johnston, who later became a noted Washington photographer. Standing to the left are patent attorney B. C. Poole and an associate, and the builder and promoter of the tricycle, Sandford Northrop. To the right are W. H. Travis and J. Elfreth Watkins, curator of the transportation section in the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum, 1885-1903. At back right is Immanuel Moses Casanowicz, Assistant Curator, Division of Historic Archaeology at the U.S. National Museum, with a white beard, wearing a dark toque, and facing right.

Header Photo Credit

Catalog: Historic Images of the Smithsonian
Title: Steam Tricycle in Front of North Entrance to SIB
Date: 1888
Author/Creator: Unknown
Smithsonian Institution Archives: 57818 or MAH-57818

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