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The Tools of Technomadics

© 2004 by Steven K. Roberts

Nomadic Research Labs

Don't get mad; get nomadic!
—Dan Burdick

Dreams of Escape…

It began in Kentucky in the early ‘60s: I was a ham radio operator known as WN4KSW, a skinny burr-headed prisoner of school, isolated in the cultural drought of the Midwest. I was theoretically a smart little bugger, according to test scores, yet I kept hearing that I had attitude problems and wasn't working up to my potential. With the exception of science fairs, my academic performance was apparently disappointing to authority figures.

Oh well.  I didn't care: I had a secret life.

Steve Roberts as a kid

The author as a geek kidlet

School received the minimum attention required, which wasn't much. My real life was too important to dilute with homework: since the age of 8, I had been obsessed with electronics, my lab, and the vague notion that if I prowled the magical world of electronic surplus with enough finesse, I might even be able to cobble together a computer with a few thousand 12AU7s and an air conditioner. I amused myself with microphones in the ductwork and a parasitic phone line routed through an old black-crackle 19-inch equipment rack, listening to domestic goings-on by way of an 8-ohm primary coiled around the lab and an amplified loopstick antenna on my headphones serving as a secondary (a primitive wireless audio system).  I fancied a girl up the street when I was way too young to know why, and gave her a walkie-talkie so we could lie under the covers and giggle to each other.... and I struck an uneasy balance of power with neighborhood rednecks-in-training by countering their harassment with a high-voltage “Tickle Stick” connected to parallel squirt guns loaded with saltwater.

Empowering stuff indeed, but most seductive of all was radio... for it connected me to the outside.

It's like a flashback now, recalling the chirpy CW of my unbuffered 50C5 crystal oscillator built on a chunk of pine, the deeply imprinted smell of solder and flux vapors, and the magical noises emanating from the Star Roamer—as well as the Heaths and Hammarlunds that followed. Other people, other tongues, strange sideband squawks, blokes on marine radiotelephone saying “I bloody miss you,” political realities and cultural attitudes utterly unlike the Huntley-Brinkley Report that invariably accompanied dinner to the strains of Beethoven’s Ninth. I spent years gazing through this electronic window and building my tools; like the railroad tracks that passed near my house, radio became deeply symbolic of escape and movement. My physical adventures were confined to rural bike hikes; but in my head, I could cruise the universe with a skyhook and a powerful collection of instruments ablaze with Nixie readouts, backlit slide rule dials, dancing D'Arsonval meters, and round green CRTs.

Years passed. Adventures happened; technology went deliciously berserk. I had a brief flirtation with engineering school, dabbled in careers, started a microcomputer consulting business called Cybertronics after designing and building an 8008 system in 1974, fiddled endlessly with homebrew music synthesizers, wrote technical articles and a few books, and pulled all-nighters of coffee-wired hacking around every seductive new gizmological marvel. But through it all, one image kept coming back to me: an assemblage of communication and computing equipment symbolic of freedom... a toolset for escape.
It was thus somehow inevitable, when in 1983 the first publicly accessible network infrastructure was in place, that I would trash my suburban lifestyle and head out for parts unknown on a computerized recumbent bicycle…

Computing Across America

The concept was simple enough, even obvious in retrospect:  I just hit the reset button of my life, abandoned the ludicrous notion of growing up, and escaped the torpor of suburbia by moving my freelance business to the road.  After all, change, evolution, and growth had begun to sound like vague counterculture concepts instead of the basic objectives of daily living, and I was sinking deeper into unproductive passive rationalization by the day.  Was this the inevitable curse of the American Dream—doing things you don’t enjoy any more to pay for things you don’t need after all?  Although self-employed (in a haphazard manner of speaking), I was chained to my desk and bored.

Not being independently wealthy, it was irritatingly clear that pursuing any escape fantasy would involve work—although it had to be intrinsically fun and have the general flavor of a life based on passion.  (What else really matters?)  Hmm, let’s see… travel and adventure, tinkering with electronics, romance, computers, networking, ham radio, writing, learning, hanging out with interesting people… I started making back o’ the envelope notations as if designing a circuit, listing my passions, waiting for a design to magically congeal and propel me into the next phase.

But it took a catalyst to trigger the flash.  I was on a lazy bike ride through Central Ohio farm roads one afternoon, and encountered a chap on a recumbent bicycle (a historically significant one, as it turned out—Avatar serial number 1).  In 1983, these were esoteric contraptions, and I fell in love instantly.  Coincidentally, the first affordable laptop computer had just been released in the form of the Radio Shack Model 100, with its sprawling 32K of RAM, 1200 baud modem, and essential productivity applications in ROM.  With the embryonic notion of computer networking also seeping into public consciousness (CompuServe and the Source, primarily), the implication was obvious:  for the first time in history, one could wander endlessly while remaining connected enough to keep a business afloat.  Oh yes…

Spread in Online Today magazine

The first of a series of features in CompuServe's magazine, Online Today

The project took six months, a well-focused, fast-track, all-out effort that I recall with wistful fondness from my current perspective of overwhelming complexity.  The bike had to be fabricated from scratch, as the few recumbents of the day were too delicate for the anticipated abuse.  I hired a wizard frame builder to braze a strong and well-balanced substrate, a decision that proved correct countless times over the ensuing decade as it was subjected to 17,000 miles of overloading on often-inhospitable pavement.  I liquidated my suburban lifestyle, assembled a camping system and a simple electronics package powered by a 5-watt solar panel, established a base office and basic network protocols, and hit the road.

It seems almost quaint now, doesn’t it?  Today, one could garner media attention by taking off on a cross-country bicycle trip without a laptop, living an ascetic life with no net connection.  But in 1983 the very concept of email was mysterious to most people, and coupled with the sexy Winnebiko and a passel of onboard goodies, the effect was electric:  I published articles with titles like “Electronic Cottage on Wheels,” becoming a public symbol of the liberating tools that we now take for granted.   “Once you move to Dataspace,” I would quip during interviews, “you can put your body anywhere you like.”

That lonely geek rattling around a generic 3-bedroom ranch house in midwest suburbia was morphing into an exuberant high-tech nomad with muscular tan legs, cool toys, new lovers in strange towns, and constant press coverage.  This was getting interesting.


The Winnebiko somewhere in Louisiana

Unfortunately, I was still broke.  The technomadic life, while effectively keeping me in touch with a base office and a growing population of online readers, proved to be no magical cure for lifelong bad work habits.  Deadlines dopplered past and bank accounts dwindled while good intentions filled my head.  I landed a sweet contract for the Computing Across America book about the adventure and almost immediately fell behind schedule.

One brutal July day in West Texas, as I carved grooves in sun-softened asphalt and sweated away the last of my water, it struck me:  I needed to be able to write while riding, not just putter ineffectually on a laptop at the end of the day when I was too exhausted to reconstruct the ideas that had been flowing for hours from the hyper-oxygenated brain of a human engine.  The systems had to be integrated for this to work.

Over the ensuing months, the fantasy grew… a handlebar keyboard inspired by my flute, robust computers, more solar power, persistent data communications.  At the 10,000-mile mark, which coincidentally happened in Silicon Valley, the Winnebiko era came to an end.  It had been a year and a half of adventure, the kind of pivotal experience that would forever mark the boundary between one life and another.  But after a perfunctory 6-month stab at post-nomadic employment, my restlessness returned as strongly as ever—even more so, now that I knew what I was missing.

Winnebiko II Flickers to Life

The handlebar chord keyboard was just the start:  being able to type in ASCII as if playing the piano was the fundamental specification for this new machine (note 1).  But doing so implied the need for an integrated console computer system, as well as a dedicated microprocessor to handle bit-banging.  Once all that was in place, it was impossible to resist the allure of the seductive geek daydreams that populated my notebook… speech synthesis, packet radio, security system, ham shack, live status displays, and more.  This is how it starts.

Actually, creeping featuritis wasn’t a big problem in 1986, as there was only so much a beleaguered little 8-bitter could do:  the 68HC11 (running control BASIC!) spent its time mapping finger patterns onto a hardware hack that fooled the Model 100’s keyboard scanner, while watching a DTMF decoder hanging off the 2-meter ham rig for commands transmitted from my pack and monitoring a few other port bits for security purposes.  Front-panel switches—lots of them—provided the control interface, and the addition of a terminal node controller (TNC) provided the amazing ability to send email while mobile as well as leave a BBS running, beaconing at odd intervals to troll the local amateur-radio community for contacts. 

Winnebiko II console

Winnebiko II console

But it wasn’t just the Winnebiko II that made for a whole new user experience; I also decided to try a major lifestyle experiment in the form of a full-time traveling companion instead of the delirious succession of beginnings and endings that had characterized my first journey.  Maggie and I met in Ohio, and while I was machining the front panel and installing a dense array of hardware, she was outfitting her own recumbent bicycle.  In late 1986, we launched down the West Coast from Seattle in what was to become a 6,000-mile shared adventure followed by another 16,000 via school bus, living hand-to-mouth on book sales.

The bicycle-touring life was deeply familiar after my solo trip, yet utterly different.  With a hearty HP Portable PLUS laptop in addition to the console system,  I was now carrying enough processing horsepower to work effectively, rendering physical location even less relevant than it had been the first time around.  I still needed to find modular phone jacks every few days (for amateur packet radio couldn’t legally be used to run a business), but the journey took on an open-ended, dreamlike character, spiced with romance yet comfortable in an almost domestic way.  The media loved it: the console bristling with controls like an aircraft cockpit, pretty Maggie riding beside me in tanned radiance, a lifestyle that hinted at the yet-unrealized implications of our fast-evolving technology.  And media translated into sponsors; where the first system had been funded by a summer of weekly garage sales, this one grew easier and easier thanks to equipment donations from dozens of companies.  We were on a roll.

But within a couple of years, the very gizmology that made the adventure possible was beginning to have another effect.  Even as our grinning faces were popping up on TV rhapsodizing about the liberating effects of computers and these newfangled networking tools that the general public had ever even heard of, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the limitations of my machine—it was architecturally rigid, computationally anemic, and extremely hard to hack.  Even the 1988 integration of a cellular phone, conceptually trivial, involved the reassignment of console switches and layers of scrawled notes atop already bad documentation.  I started fantasizing about the ultimate system, with all resources managed by a graphic front end and an unlimited range of potential interconnects between interoperable devices.  Uh-oh… here we go again.  This is becoming disturbingly like a career.

Maggie Victor

Maggie Victor at a roadside stop in the Grand Tetons


From 1989 to 1991 I threw myself into a no-holds-barred extravaganza of geek expressionism.  In a lab sponsored by Sun Microsystems, aided by upwards of 40 volunteers from the very heart of Silicon Valley culture and over 150 corporate sponsors, I conjured a unixcycle dubbed BEHEMOTH (an acronym for “Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine… Only Too Heavy”).  This time there were no constraints—neither cost nor weight nor even sanity were allowed to interfere with the development of a state-of-the art technomadic adventure platform.  A 105-speed bicycle with deployable landing gear, heads-up display, ultrasonic head mouse, and satellite earth station… why should  practicality matter when sexy toys showed up almost daily via UPS and some of the brightest guys around, reminded of why they became engineers in the first place, donated their expertise and asked in return only the occasional Tony & Alba’s pizza and pitcher of beer?

A skunkworks-like microculture developed around the project, attracting programmers and machinists, hams and cyclists, human-powered vehicle gurus and chip designers.  I recall one night a few weeks before launch… the stereo jamming, the windowless lab a sea of fluorescent-lit clutter, the SPARC beeping every few minutes with incoming mail as I worked to nail down the logistics of the tour.  Michael Perry was writing FORTH code to drive the audio crossbar, Steve Sergeant was chasing a noise problem, Steve desJardins was working on the landing gear 4-bar linkage, and Zonker Harris was squinting into a dense matrix of Lemo connector pins with a soldering iron in his hand.  Over at the Rockwell milling machine named Cecil (Cecil be da Mill), David Berkstresser was standing in a sea of aluminum chips, conjuring a piece of structural artwork for the bike’s trailer hitch.  I heard the mill spin down, then David hollered, “Hey! Does it ever make you feel funny that so many people are working so hard to get you out of town?”

Somewhere in the background, I vaguely sensed that things were getting a little out of control.  The bike had become a technological tour-de-force more than a practical Grand Turing Machine; my recreational reading had become trade journals and databooks instead of maps and bicycle-adventure yarns.  Along the way, the ethic driving the design had subtly changed from, “What do I need to solve the problem?” to “Hey, this thing is cool… how can I integrate it into the bike?”  The resulting system was so seductive that I pushed thoughts of gravity into the background and pressed on… eventually rolling out of the lab on a 580-pound bicycle (400 pounds of bike and trailer plus 180 pounds of gear).

The Roberts Law of Applied Mobile Gizmology: 
If you take an infinite number of very light things and put them together, they become infinitely heavy.

Of course, BEHEMOTH was a seriously amusing contraption (feature list here).  The architecture was optimized for flexibility, based on serial and audio crosspoint-switching networks along with a bank of power-control bits to allow any random devices to be interconnected with a few lines of code.  Every piece of hardware, from ham radios and cell phone to speech synthesizer and stereo, uniformly appeared as a set of serial, audio, and power device addresses.  It was trivial, for example, for the software to dial 911 on the cellular phone in response to a significant change in latitude or longitude without the right password, pipe the synthesizer to the phone’s microphone input, squirt out a serial string, and intone, “Hello, police.  I am a bicycle, and I am being stolen.  My present coordinates are…”

The bike’s user interface had evolved well past the primitive ASCII scheme I built for the Winnebiko II.  There was a full chording keyboard on each grip, allowing my right hand to patter away into a selected target environment (console 68K Macintosh, either of two 286-era DOS boxes, or the SPARC IPC with color LCD behind the seat) as my left hand issued commands to the Bicycle Control Processor, actually a trio of 68HC11 boards running FORTH.  Three ultrasonic sensors on the Brain Interface Unit appeared to the Mac as a mouse, with one thumb button saying “track me” and the other saying “click.”  A small heads-up display presented one of the DOS environments as a 720x280 red screen floating in space, and the Mac screen could flip up to reveal a VGA display for the 286 (mechanical display paging).

BEHEMOTH console

BEHEMOTH console, with Mac LCD active and battery at 13.04 volts.  The matrix at the lower right is a diagnostic display of 48 LEDs run by a PIC, bottom LCD is dedicated to FAQ-scrolling, black rectangular window at upper left is the ultrasonic transmitter for the head mouse in the helmet, and other minor displays are for speed/distance, time, temperature, elevation, and ham rig.

The crossbar networks were replicated in three enclosures, each with a local FORTH node:  Console, RUMP (Rear Unit of Many Purposes, behind the seat), and WASU (Wheeled Auxiliary Storage Unit, or trailer).  Eight “long lines” in both serial and audio domains allowed anything to be connected to anything, and the trailer carried a full ham radio station… with HF, VHF, UHF, amateur television, audio filtering, and a culturally useless CB… along with a hacked 3-watt cell phone with standard loop-start RJ-11 interface for the cordless handset, answering machine, fax/modem, and credit-card verifier.  Yes… while on the road I was selling books and subscriptions to Nomadness, and it was important to be able to take plastic.  (I actually made a few sales to people who didn’t believe this was possible:  “Well, give me your credit card,” I would say, “I’ll demonstrate.”)

BEHEMOTH sprouted a whole antenna farm, with a folding HF dipole on an extendable fiberglass pole mounted on the stern, CB/security-pager “rubber duckie,” dual-band whip for ham radio, cellular whip, separate 2-meter halfwave for the console rig, 9600 baud UHF radio link between backpack and bike, a VHF wireless full-duplex intercom, and white plastic radomes for GPS and the Qualcomm OmniTRACS satellite station that carried my email traffic.  Everything was powered by the 72-watt photovoltaic array that comprised the lid of the trailer, with 45 amp-hours of sealed lead-acid batteries, smart charge controller, and 115V inverter.

All  this called for quite a bit of shock-absorbing robustness in packaging and underlying bike mechanics… not to mention lower gearing than ever before.  The  transmission had 105 speeds, with an ultra-low mountain-climbing granny gear of 7.9 inches (1.2 mph at a cadence of 60 pedal revolutions per minute).  At this speed up a killer hill, balance became an issue, so a double-acting pneumatic cylinder, actuated by a remotely controlled spool valve and powered by an electric compressor with aluminum pressure tank, could extend and retract a set of landing gear complete with trailing-arm suspension modeled after the old Piper Cub (occasionally, dreadful children would ask why my bike needed training wheels).  Of course, climbing a wicked hill on a hot day would result in considerable body overheating, so a heat exchanger in the helmet allowed circulation of ice water via a small hand-crank peristaltic pump, pulling about 75 watts out of my body and dumping it through the magic of phase change (a 99-cent bag of crushed ice in a 7-liter tank, topped off with water that also provided hydration through a bite valve).  There was just enough technology on board to compensate for the weight of all the technology.

One day in the summer of 1991 I was pedaling across Iowa, with Cleo Laine smoothly crooning jazz via the bike’s CD player, 18-watt amp, and Blaupunkt speakers behind the seat.  The coolant flowed, and I was lazily answering email on the Mac while pedaling along at 10 mph or so, data oozing slowly between my bike and a geosynchronous bird 22,241 miles above the equator.  A speck in my rearview mirror rapidly grew and resolved itself into another cyclist, gaining fast.

Slick, smooth, and lightweight, he was the model of efficiency.  He slowed to check me out, chuckled, and in a faux upper-crust British accent, inquired, “Pardon me… do you have any Grey Poupon?”

BEHEMOTH ham shack

 N4RVE working the world from BEHEMOTH, somewhere in Wisconsin.

But despite such amusing encounters and a sweet on-the-road romance that rendered the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan forever idyllic in my memory, there was something missing.  I had a healthy supply of geek delights, obviously, and the philosophical underpinnings (and associated sound bites) had evolved along with the public’s growing network consciousness to render the bike a cultural icon of the new epoch.  I had an hour on the Phil Donahue Show, an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, a front-page story replete with one of those stippled portraits in the Wall Street Journal, features in Discover and countless other magazines, article and column assignments around the world, and local news coverage at every stop.  The quirky business of technomadics was flourishing, and I was even finding my way onto the professional speaking circuit… a strange and formerly unthinkable pursuit that quickly became my primary source of income.

Still… something was seriously amiss with the underlying passion, the wild dream of romantic escape that had long ago propelled me out of Ohio.  I had taken my wanderlust and turned it into a job—a hard one, actually, given the work necessary to schlep all this tonnage around and explain it to curious crowds in front of every roadside café…

“Hey, just one question there, fella.  What’s all that stuff do?”

“That’s not one question!  Sorry, gotta run…”

It wasn’t easy to admit, but something had to change.

Aquatic Fantasies

I think gravity had something to do with it.  Pedaling up the Lake Michigan shoreline in the summer of ’91, I kept gazing out over the watertop, chafing subconsciously at the need to follow a hilly, busy road north around the lake when I really wanted to head east. All I had to do, I mused, was wrap a hull around the bike and connect the pedals to a prop, maybe add a couple of training wheels—er, outriggers—to provide stability and create space for a solar array that could run an electric thruster…

Such daydreams were amusing, but I didn’t take them seriously:  there was something about the whole yachting world that wasn’t me, and it just seemed unrealistic.  Besides, BEHEMOTH was still a new toy and it would be a sacrilege to launch a new project so soon after waving goodbye to all my volunteers and sponsors, now awaiting tales of technomadic adventure from the machine they had helped create.

Aquatic Fantasies

 The daydreams of a technomad. (Composite image by Faun Skyles)

But an unavoidable truth kept resurfacing.  Weight and practicality issues could probably be dealt with, but something much more fundamental was afoot—something so absurdly obvious that I was embarrassed at having overlooked it.  Quite simply, I had been there before, many times, and the whole bicycle touring lifestyle was routine.  The road had become the equivalent of living room walls; riding into a new town no longer represented a panoply of intoxicating options.  Camping was a hassle, muscling expensive gear through narrow motel room doors a nuisance, doing the show ‘n tell for new friends tiresome and much too familiar.  In the rush of development engineering, frolicking with brilliant techies and prowling the industry for goodies, I had been in my element, having so much fun that the 3-year BEHEMOTH project became an end unto itself.  But hauling it down the road was just like the old days, only harder… and the driving energy of discovering new love at every stop had worn thin.


While these realizations were burbling into my consciousness, unbidden and unwelcome, the demand for paid public appearances continued to grow… seducing me more and more into the next level.  How could I say no to fat speaking fees, when I was otherwise barely scraping by?  More than ever, I was making a living by telling people how I make a living, nudging me further and further from the adventure itself.  This was something I was going to have to address someday, but meanwhile, those gigs were being dangled in front of me, tempting me…

I took a deep breath and built myself a Mothership, outfitting a Wells-Cargo trailer as a mobile lab with a big honkin’ Ford F350 dually diesel pickup truck as a tow vehicle, telling myself that I’d periodically launch bike adventures from it during the interstices of my speaking schedule.  By 1992, I was on tour full time, but instead of converting pizza and omelets into slow-twitch muscle contractions that propelled me sensuously along, I was taking solar power generated millions of years ago and liberating it from the dense matrix in which it had been stored for eons, gobbling diesel fuel to haul my big rig down the Interstates.  I became a trucker, delivering my bike to trade shows and corporate annual meeting venues, then parking, checking into a hotel, cleaning up, and appearing on stage the next day in high-tech nomad regalia to rhapsodize to a rapt audience about the liberating technology, the allure of freedom and adventure, the delicious promise of nomadness.

It was a pretty decent business, actually, but how long would I be able to rest on my laurels before greasy truck-stop fare and a sedentary life in the drivers seat would turn me into a potbellied has-been, spouting long-practiced but passionless riffs like a declining lounge act in the back streets of Las Vegas?  My graying fans from the good old days would shout, “Tell the one about the convicts, Steve!” and I’d dutifully recite the tale of that weird encounter in the Maryland woods so long ago, the accents polished, the punch line perfectly timed, yet, somehow…

Interop Spring, Washington, DC, 1993.  BEHEMOTH had its own booth, and I was one of two keynote speakers (the other being a fella who ran a war a while back—Stormin’ Norman, talking about interoperability in the armed services while his limo idled outside).  After my own performance on a more peaceful theme, I settled into booth duty, looking forward to hanging with the Net gurus of the day.

She breezed into my life in corporate garb, startling me, all smiling tall and blonde and—wow—I think she just hit on me!  Christina was a Unix sysadmin, jazz singer, and sea kayaker… the dance was electric, and by the end of the conference we had a plan.  We would rendezvous in the Adirondacks and explore the waterways in her tiny boats. The implications were dizzying, the sense of major change in the air as intoxicating as frangipani in the tropics… and it wasn’t just love, nor the fever of springtime.

Kayaking in Maine


NOTE 1:  There were four pushbuttons on each handlebar, and I typed in raw binary.  To form each character, the OR of all the active bits was strobed by the transition to no bits (when I let go).  The action was synchronous and without the speed advantages of “n-key rollover,” but I was able to reach about half my normal typing speed.  Later versions added a table-lookup step that allowed more efficient letter-frequency-based coding instead of ugly ASCII.

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