My first significant corporate sponsor, way back in 1983 when I started on this adventure, was Solarex. Starting with a 5-watt photovoltaic array for the Winnebiko, they took care of my electrical power generation needs for over a decade… 20 watts for the Winnebiko II, 82 watts for BEHEMOTH, and 510 watts for the Microship. More recently, in 2013, I have repurposed some of the modules donated for the Microship project and mounted them on a stainless substrate attached to the radar arch on Nomadness.
The first piece below appears to be from a glossy PR quarterly, the second is from a bi-weekly in-house publication for company employees, and the third is from a follow-up in the same pages a few months later. (The photo above is from 1987, when I visited their gorgeous “breeder” facility in Frederick, Maryland with the Winnebiko II.)
Cycling Across America with PV Power
Solarex Current – Second Quarter, 1984
A professional author and bicycle enthusiast is currently pedaling across the country, but not on an ordinary bicycle. He rides a long, custom-made vehicle, with Solarex photovoltaic modules mounted on the frame. The bicycle draws lots of publicity; but for its pilot, Steve Roberts, it’s simply the best compromise between work and play. The modules are what make that compromise possible.
Roberts, 31, is more than a bicycle enthusiast. An author, inventor, and “dedicated computurist,” his year-long odyssey around the United States is actually his work. A self-taught engineer and software designer who has authored three books and dozens of magazine articles, Roberts continues to research and write while he travels—with the help of local libraries, a Walkman-type player/recorder for dictation, his word processor and the photovoltaic power system. His finished work is regularly transferred to his editor in Columbus, Ohio for conversion to manuscript copy. During the trip he plans to complete two more books. One, Computing Across America, is about the trip.
Roberts uses two Solarex SX-2 modules, which charge a nickel-cadmium battery. The system powers the word processor, as well as lighting and security systems. The modules are mounted to the bicycle frame with a ball-and-socket device that allows the array to be pivoted in all directions for sun tracking during travel.
“The whole trip offers an opportunity to test the viability of the information society,” says Roberts. “I want to see if I can maintain a heavily interactive, information-oriented professional practice involving a lot of clients, with an absolute minimum amount of paper, and complete freedom from the confines of an office.”
In September, 1983, after a 700-mile “shakedown cruise” through Ohio and Illinois, Roberts began his 10,000-mile trip by heading east and following the Atlantic coastline toward Florida. His course will take him around the tip of Florida, across the southern states, up the West Coast through the Rocky- Mountains, through the northern states and north of the Great Lakes, through New England and back to Columbus. The only requirement for the trip is, of course, good weather.
Roberts contacts Solarex periodically with reports of his progress, and will supply a full report of the modules’ performance at the conclusion of the trip. On February 19, 1984 he noted, “The [modules] are working perfectly. and continue to be the big crowd pleaser.”
After the U.S. tour, what’s next? A tour of Europe, naturally.
Have PV, Will Travel
Solarexclusive – March 23, 1984
There’s a bicycle enthusiast traveling across the country right now who is drawing lots of attention. It could be the long, custom-made bicycle, or the computer he carries with him, or it could be the two Solarex modules mounted to its frame that catches the eye. Whatever the initial attraction, the vehicle is certainly unusual, and for Steve Roberts, its pilot, it’s the best compromise between work and play.
But Roberts, 31, is much more than a bicycle enthusiast. An author, inventor, and “dedicated computerist,” his year-long “odyssey” around the U.S. is his work. He is a self-taught engineer and software designer who has authored three books and dozens of magazine articles, and provides consulting services to several companies. Rather than interfering with his work, his cross-country trek is merely a new way of doing it. Roberts will continue to research and write articles with the help of local libraries, a Walkman-type player/recorder for dictation, and his word processor. His finished work is regularly transferred to his editor in Columbus, Ohio for conversion into manuscript copy. During the trip he plans to complete two more books. One, entitled, Computing Across America, is about the trip.
“The whole trip offers an opportunity to test the viability of the information society,” says Roberts. “I want to see if I can maintain a heavily interactive, information-oriented professional practice involving a lot of clients, with an absolute minimum amount of paper — and complete freedom from the confines of an ofice.”
Roberts’ word-processing computer naturally requires power, which is provided by, what else? Ideal, renewable, transportable Solarex modules. In August, 1983 Solarex donated two SX-2 modules for the trip. The modules charge a nickel-cadmium battery to power the word processor, lighting and security systems. In an unusual setup, the modules are mounted to a ball-and-socket device that allows the array to be pivoted in all directions to track the sun as the bicycle travels. Roberts found more than one use for his pivoting array, however. At lunchtime he turns it horizontal to the ground, puts a “tablecloth” over it and uses it as a table while he eats. The Solarex engineers probably never thought of that!
In a letter to Solarex before the start of the trip, Roberts wrote that, “This project is rapidly becoming something of a media event. I have regular column assignments from Today, Mini-Micro Systems, and Bicycle Sport (magazines)… Pieces specifically mentioning Solarex will abound, considering the fact that the (modules) will be one of the most visible features of the machine.” He added, “Exposure will include technical articles by me about the power system, the (modules) and their use on a human-powered vehicle.”
In September, 1983, after a 700-mile “shakedown cruise” through Ohio and Illinois, Roberts began his 10,000-mile trip by heading east and following the Atlantic coastline toward Florida. His course will take him around the tip of Florida, across the southern states, up the West Coast through the Rocky Mountains, up through the northern states and north of the Great Lakes, through New England and back to Columbus. The trip was planned for optimum weather.
In mid-October Roberts arrived in the Washington, D.C. area and met with Solarex’s Eric Daniels, who has worked on the project since last summer. “Use of the modules as a table may be bothersome to solar purists,” says Eric, “but this application certainly is proving the viability of PV as a reliable and transportable power source.”
Steve Roberts contacts Solarex regularly with reports of his progress, and will supply a full report of the modules’ performance at the conclusion of the trip. In a note to Eric dated February 19, 1984, he wrote that, “The (modules) are working perfectly, and continue to be the big crowd pleaser.” Roberts also reported that he is now considering a European tour after his U.S. trip.
The Solarex PV modules used by Roberts’ bicycle are demonstrating the versatility of photovoltaic power by supplying a unique need for a transportable power source. At the same time the PV modules are helping Steve Roberts obtain an unusual and important goal.
Watch for updated reports on the trip’s progress in upcoming issues.
Have PV, Will Travel – An Update
Solarexclusive – June 29, 1984
Remember Steve Roberts, the professional writer, featured in the March 23 issue of Solarexclusive, who is currently bicycling around the United States using power from two Solarex SX-2 modules? He’s in Austin, Texas, now, and Solarexclusive has received an updated report of his progress.
So far the journey has taken Roberts across 5,400 miles of the U.S. in nine months. Since his departure, he has written and published many articles about his trip, including one each in the July issue of Popular Science, and the August issues of Popular Computing and Byte. Roberts also contributes biweekly articles to USA Today, and the Solarex modules receive regular mentions. Roberts has also recently signed a contract for his book, Computing Across America.
According to Roberts, the modules are “working flawlessly, and just beautifully. They are probably the most efficient component on the bicycle.” The modules power his bicycle’s lighting and security systems, a CB radio, a tape deck, lighting for his tent, and his computer.
Contrary to the beliefs of most people Roberts meets, the solar modules do not power the bicycle itself. He shared some humorous comments people have made about his PV modules. One man was convinced that a white tube behind the seat, which holds road maps, was a solar-powered refrigerator, and a woman in Miami, who claimed to be a science teacher, wanted to know if the modules were solar heaters or a tool kit. Before the conversation ended, she has convinced herself that the bicycle was some sort of ambulatory device. Roberts enjoys the variety of explanations for his vehicle from the passers-by.
The journey will next take him northwest across Texas. The trip has been lengthened, and will now move through the Rocky Mountains and into Canada, then back down into California where he will finish his book. He plans to begin his return trip early in 1985.
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