This article appeared as BEHEMOTH was being feverishly readied for departure from the Bikelab hosted by Sun Microsystems. A couple of the mentioned items were not completed by launch time (the shocker to the seat and the variable-reluctance motor-generator that I was planning to use for regenerative braking), but this is pretty level-headed magazine with a business focus, and the piece was generally accurate. Between this and the later Wall Street Journal article, my crazy bike was making it into mainstream corporate consciousness.
FROM A DESK-BOUND CORRESPONDENT
The Economist – February 2, 1991
BUCK ROGERS might envy Steven Roberts his bicycle. Not many pedal powered vehicles have a satellite navigation system, a word processor, or the ability to fend off thieves with the bluff: “Do not touch or you will be vaporised by a laser beam.” Mr Roberts’s BEHEMOTH has all these and more. It is the result of seven years of tinkering towards the ultimate bicycle. Along the way, he has attracted the amazed interest—and sponsorship—of some of Silicon Valley’s brightest engineers.
BEHEMOTH is a dream inspired by boredom. In 1983 Mr Roberts was living in Columbus, Ohio, as a consulting engineer and freelance journalist. He was not happy. So he loaded his portable computer onto his bike to see if he could make a living doing what he enjoyed: cycling, writing and playing with electronics. The focus of these efforts was the “Winnebiko,” his bicycle, office, laboratory and obsession in one.
Some of Winnebiko’s first innovations were aimed at helping Mr Roberts to ride and write at the same time. He built into the handlebars a sort of eight-fingered keyboard. He sent his words to publishers by modem, connected to telephones in motels or roadside telephone booths. For several years he lived quite happily, pedalling 16,000 miles around America. Two years ago, however, he stopped for a bike-rebuilding rest near Silicon Valley. What is emerging, from a laboratory on loan from Sun Microsystems, is the BEHEMOTH: the Big Electronic Human-Energised Machine… Only Too Heavy.
Together with its trailer, BEHEMOTH weighs about 160kg (350lb). Much of that is packed full of electronics, including:
- Communications. BEHEMOTH has a cellular telephone (inevitably) and radio transceivers capable of reaching ham-radio enthusiasts around the world. Both are adapted for sending computer data. Mr Roberts can check facts in databases across the vast INTERNET computer network, then send articles and correspondence via electronic mail while he pedals. The bicycle even talks to a navigation-satellite system, which enables it to fix its position to within about 15 meters (50 feet) at all times.
- Computers. A word processor is among the least of BEHEMOTH’S computing resources. The bicycle’s communication systems, lights and other gadgets are controlled by another computer—though instead of issuing instructions with a desktop mouse, Mr Roberts points to his screen with an ultrasonic beam attached to his helmet. BEHEMOTH has a computer-aided system for designing circuitry and a full collection of computer-programming tools. Mr Roberts is also working on a geographical database and mapping software powered by a Sun workstation, which will take the bicycle’s position (from satellite link) and create a topographical map of the road ahead.
- Security. To protect itself, BEHEMOTH has a six-layered security system. The first line of defense is a microwave detector that can spot anyone approaching the bicycle. Linked to a speech synthesizer, the system automatically issues threats or warnings. Although it cannot actually vaporize anybody, Mr Roberts reports that—outside Silicon Valley—most people treat intelligent-sounding machinery with respect. If push comes to shove, the bicycle is programmed to call the police and report its own theft, giving its exact latitude and longitude. Or it can deliver a 60,000-volt shock to the seat.
- Power. The power to move BEHEMOTH comes from Mr Roberts’s legs, pedaling through 54 gears. On hills, he must use low gears, and training-wheels automatically descend to help stabilise the slow-moving bike. Electrical power for the gadgetry comes from solar cells on the lid of BEHEMOTH’S trailer, which recharge 12-volt batteries inside. Extra power comes from a system linked to the front wheel which converts some of the bike’s momentum to electrical energy when braking.
- Comforts. BEHEMOTH has stereo sound and an on-board refrigerator. Coolant from the fridge can be pumped through the lining of Mr Roberts’s helmet for hot days and long hills.
Although his project can never be entirely finished, in July Mr Roberts will return to life on the road. After a warm-up ride across the flat roads of Iowa, he and his companion, Maggie Victor, will resume a nomadic life of bicycling around America and, eventually, the world. Along the way they will publish a quarterly journal, called Nomadness, and explore “the outrageous notion that very soon now it might not matter where your body happens to be, as long as you maintain a presence in the networks.”
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