Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Nomadic Research Labs

This was published as Chapter 49 in the Miles With Maggie series on GEnie. The Winnebiko III was not yet named BEHEMOTH, and I had just settled on Nomadic Research Labs as a proper formal name for my business (which had been Computing Across America for a few years). The story below is the first published technical overview of the new system; that is my friend David Berkstresser above, in a pedal-powered kayak in the waters off Port Townsend. 

by Steven K. Roberts
Milpitas, California
February 20, 1989

Well, I’m doing it again. I’m living that old familiar pre-launch blend of terror, overload, excitement, and project management. Settled in the fringes of Silicon Valley with David the Vacuum Velocipodiatrist and Chip the fantasy sculptor, Maggie and I entertain friends, build systems, work with sponsors, and spend countless hours rearranging bits on hard disk. We putter in the garden, chase off to speaking gigs, and even rent the occasional video. We visit friends — square dancing with little girls in Marin County one weekend, creeping through midnight woods the next, having business meetings the next. We make forays to Livermore Labs to buy the cast-off furniture of America’s national defense establishment. And through it all, the window of fleeting opportunity that separates past from future moves inexorably onward, onward, bringing us slowly closer to our next abrupt escape into everything that Silicon Valley is not.

David Berkstresser pilots the Vacuum Velocipede at almost 20 mph between my legs on a dare. Yes, I was terrified…

But for now we’re Milpitian suburbanites pro tem, living in comfort with friends. It won’t last forever, of course, so we chuckle at our luxurious space and flagrant energy consumption with only occasional twinges of guilt, nuking the leftovers and waking to the gentle pattering of automatic sprinklers. It seems an extravagance, even though this is the low-rent end of the Valley (the house we wanted back in Palo Alto rents for $30,000 a year… $82 a day plus expenses. For a roof!)

The reason for all this illusory stability, of course, is the Winnebiko — that perennial obsession of mine, both mistress and tyrant… that vaguely bicycle-like extravaganza of surface-mount circuit boards and gleaming antennae. The machine is undergoing surgery so major that I have begun to realize that it’s becoming a whole new bike, constructed of treasures imported from afar and mined here in the Valley, all layered together like a silicon spanakopita atop my faithful old recumbent frame. I haven’t told you much about the new system yet, other than to hint at satellite communications, expanded computing power, and wide bandwidth user interfaces. Since this chapter is a sort of literary pivot between bike generations, perhaps now is the time… even though it’s dangerous to write about things that aren’t done yet. Changes are assured, for every new low-power bifurcated widgetframus that looks even halfway bikeable sets my wetware CAD system afire with system-enhancement fantasies. (There’s the disclaimer.)


I suppose I should make a quick comment about the reason for all this. You’ve already read the basics in previous CAA chapters, of course: ticket to nomadness, agile computing tool, combination of passions, gizmological door-opener, etcetera. None of that has changed; it’s only grown more ingrained over the years, part habit, part obsession. There are a few new twists, though…

The next journey will be open-ended, and may well take us overseas where rare is the access to modular phone jacks, power outlets, and the whole automatic infrastructure of familiar American society. To do this right, I want near-total independence in all domains: computation, communication, electric power, propulsion, life-support, and so on. This instantly escalates the system to a new level.

That, plus the bottom line: it has to be fun. The old machine is obsolete. It’s architecturally inflexible and much too hardware intensive. Changes of function require a soldering iron instead of a screen editor. It does too little for its weight. There’s no computing horsepower of any real consequence, there’s too little solar power, setup of the radio systems is a pain, and, well, it’s just boring by current standards of engineering elegance. And so the celebrated console system is being retired, consigned to a wood stand under a dust cover in the CAA museum.

“Hmmm, can I call my human on 146.52 simplex?”

But rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the past is the Winnebiko III… (see the video of my talk at Xerox PARC at about this time)


I don’t want to go into too much detail here, for it could, quite literally, fill a textbook. But during the coming months, as these stories ooze slowly from solder-burned fingers into a laptop buried in the clutter of my workbench, you might grow impatient for real adventure. It’s out there, believe me. Lots of it. But first… the engineering adventure… a new machine.

There’s lots of power on this one: my current system with 20 watts of solar panels, 12 amp-hours of batteries, and a plug-in charger could never support all the new equipment. The new bicycle carries 118 watts of solar panels, a regenerative braking system to turn hard-won potential energy into something more useful than hot brake pads, and the ability to use any external power source from a car cigarette lighter to 220 AC. All this dumps into a charge bus, which is tapped by three dedicated controllers attached to three 15 amp-hour batteries — one in the trailer, one in the communications equipment bay behind the seat, and one up front in the console.

Managing that is one of the myriad tasks performed by the bicycle control processor (BCP) — which is now a 68000 running FORTH, linked by SCSI bus to an I/O expansion unit serving the whole bike and a network of other computers. There are dedicated microprocessors for text-to-speech synthesis, automatic transmission control, satellite and ham station control, local area network management, security and remote operations, variable-reluctance motor-generator control, and so on.

None of this takes care of the applications layer — that’s all to run the bike systems. On top of the whole control environment is another network: two DOS systems (a 286 and a V40) to handle CAD, satellite tracking, text, database, and software development. One would be enough in theory, but the 286 board is power hungry… I use the little one when primarily waiting for keystrokes and not interested in heavy duty processing horsepower. The two share a 40 megabyte hard disk, a 3.5” floppy, and a tape backup unit. And along with the obligatory math coprocessor, there may be an RTX-2000 FORTH engine dedicated to image processing for video capture, hidden-line plotting for topographic mapping, and other calculation-intensive tasks.

I carry a separate laptop in the new manpack, of course, but it’s a lightweight machine. When off-bike and needing file support (or wishing to check status of autonomous subsystems), I can sign on via the UHF business band. The bike first responds at a low BBS-like level, accepting a special command to boot the BCP for remote FORTH command-line control of the whole system. If I want to get into the DOS environment, another reserved word boots the 286 and redirects console I/O via the radio link to my backpack system, eliminating the need to carry heavy hardware anywhere except in the bike itself (where there is space for good shock-mounting).

Any of the communications features can be accessed from any operating level, whether in remote mode, from the handlebar keyboard while pedaling, or from the maintenance keyboard while stopped. Cellular phone modem, packet radio, local network control… all are essentially servers on the network.

Legends were applied with Letraset, then coated with a few baked-on layers of Krylon clear spray.

The new console, by the way, is designed to be as flexible as possible. Most of its real estate is given over to a pair of giant LCD panels — one VGA backlit display (640 X 480) and the other a more conventional laptop display. A surface acoustic wave touchscreen covers both, and any processor can request either… depending on power budget, ambient lighting conditions, and resolution requirements. Typically, the BCP’s status and maintenance functions are on the little one, and graphics-intensive DOS (and, eventually, Mac) applications are mapped to the big one. One particularly interesting project is computer-generation of wireframe map models, showing from any viewpoint the earth’s surface in my immediate vicinity with road vectors overlaid in bold strokes and my own location a blinking arrow. (The databases are on CDROM; my location is derived from a GPS satnav receiver.) Entries from the contacts database can then appear as icons, which, when touched, expand into text windows. In addition, if time permits, there will be a helmet-mounted display that presents text or graphics “in the sky” at a comfortable focal length. All this allows wider-bandwidth I/O with the neuron-based parallel wetware system under the helmet, with speech, three display spaces, a thumb mouse, handlebar keyboard, and touchscreen as comm channels.

Other front panel devices include a miniature 300 dpi graphic printer for sponsor referrals and business paperwork, digital instrumentation for speed, cadence, altitude, temperature, time, and raw power measurements, and a minimal assortment of switches and LEDs to provide low-level maintenance access in the event of a major system crash. The important thing here is that everything on the bike, except for basic safety equipment like lights, is under computer control and thus completely hackable.

New folding console metalwork, with mechanical display paging (taken a few months after this story was written)

The architecture that keeps this from being an interface nightmare is the key to the whole machine. I call it a “resource bus,” linking as it does all nodes in the system — power, audio, serial, analog, and digital. The devices on the bus are diverse: a MIDI music synthesizer, all dedicated micros, radio equipment, cellular phone, stereo, digital answering machine, printer, fax board, modem, nav system, speech synthesizer, audio function modules, and so on. The bus is only a bus in philosophical terms — up close it’s a massive FET crosspoint matrix with each junction controlled by a bit in a write-only memory (finally a use for one of those!). The implications are interesting: any interconnection is simply a matter of programming (SMOP), which at the FORTH level is pretty easy. I’ll be able to run phone patches between ham radio and cellular while mobile, remotely redirect local audio through an RF link to my pack if security is triggered, perform diagnostics, have the bike’s speech synthesizer beacon on ham radio frequencies live updates of its exact location if it’s moved without the correct password, turn alpha particle hits into MIDI boing events, fax out digitized video images, and so on… all using the resource bus and some basic software drivers.

Mechanically, the new bike is growing in sophistication as well. I’ve never been happy with my brakes, so the new machine detects the first displacement of the right-hand brake lever as a command to begin proportionally drawing power from the trailer wheels via custom microprocessor controlled hub motors. A hard squeeze invokes a hydraulic disk brake on the rear wheel, and the other lever is a purely hydraulic link to a front rim brake. The transmission is changing too — from a 54-speed manual to a 36-speed automatic. Here, the processor monitors speed, pedal torque, cadence, heart rate, and a keyed-in “wimp factor” that expresses my subjective robustness… changing gears to optimize the impedance match between bio-engine and wheels.

Communicating from the bike back in 1983

One of my big thrills in this has always been communication, ever since those primitive few thousand miles in 1983-4 with 300-baud acoustic cups and a CB radio. I’ve been carrying 2-meter and HF ham gear for a while — now there’s a 10-meter rig built in to take advantage of the sunspot peak, as well as 2-meter and 70cm multimode rigs. An HF station is still on board with two antenna choices — mobile vertical and wire dipole… and there are various links between bike and backpack, my bike and Maggie’s, and so on. But the best part is the new OSCAR-13 station (modes B and J): I’ll be able to stop the bike, assemble a pair of crossed-yagi beams totaling about 10 feet in length, fire up the satellite tracker software (it calculates Keplerian elements, inputs my location from GPS or Loran, and displays a world map showing the bird’s location, azimuth and elevation values, doppler shift, and other parameters). With this new satellite, I’ll have a hemisphere of coverage at a time during a half-dozen 6-hour windows a week from anywhere in the world, with the ability to communicate via full-duplex audio under solar power. The uplink is about 30 watts… and the satellite’s orbit takes it out to 22,000 miles at the apogee (2.8 earth diameters).

Working the OSCAR-13 satellite (Mode J) with the Yaesu 290/790 “twins,” a pair of ARR preamps, and KLM crossed-yagi antenna clamped to the early bike trailer mast mount. I took this slowly down the street during one QSO, although completely impractical… just to say I did it. With this, the Vacuum Velocipede above, and fiberglass smells… we were an oddity in that conservative Milpitas neighborhood.

Let’s see… what else? Oh — what to do with extra solar power from the 118 total watts available in full sun (almost 10 amps of 12 volts)? Simple — the software can either throw it into the trailer wheels for a 1/8 horsepower boost, or use it to cool a Peltier-effect device buried in an insulated space behind the seat. This should have some nice effects, including cold beer in a hot desert (one of the world’s great pleasures).

There are various standalone additions — a miniature digital oscilloscope, a butane soldering iron, and countless improvements to the camping and touring gear. But you get the idea… this system is an all-out effort aimed at creating a self-maintaining mobile autonomous information platform, constantly in communication with a worldwide network while freely wandering the earth’s surface and providing unlimited fun to the rider and companions.

And that’s the kind of design spec I like.

The bike’s Createc SC-02 Digital Storage Oscilloscope

Oh. I did mention the word “companions,” didn’t I? Two things are happening that involve other people.

First, I’ve been putting the word out for a while that we’re looking for a few exceptional people to take up this life of nomadness with us. The responses are trickling in… a lady named Barbara is planning to travel with a high-end graphics and video system to develop her concept for “artitorials,” and I’ve been getting mail in response to a recent usenet posting. There seems to be a hunger for adventure afoot in the land.

Second, the human intellects and energetic companies that are cooperating on this new machine represent a truly dazzling resource of creative ability. For almost six years, I’ve been collecting wizards… and with some of the very best I am now forming an ad-hocracy with two linked goals: market Winnebiko spinoffs and take on selected consulting projects.

That’s enough for now. As the months wear on and the weather turns seductive here at the base of the Diablo Range… as the greening hills tease me with thoughts of whistling descents and slowly changing vistas… as the legs tense in rhythmic urgency here in my static space… I’ll grow ever more desperate for the road. It’s out there, a near-infinite thing of wonder and possibilities, unhurried, patient, waiting. I pound away on eccentric machinery, implementing dreams, thinking all the while of that cold beer in the desert. You’ll be hearing from me at odd intervals: bear with me until the adventure toggles once again from intellectual to visceral.

In the meantime… Cheers from the lab!


This NHK piece was filmed at approximately the time the above was written, still with the Winnebiko II console, and my short talk at Xerox PARC goes into playful technical detail. A few months later, still in this house, we experienced the precursor to the Loma Prieta earthquake (by then, we had moved to Santa Cruz). 


Here is one more photo from this era… the brilliant engineer David Berkstresser on the Vacuum Velocipede he designed, a rocketship of a three-wheeler with some fascinating design features. David contributed heavily to BEHEMOTH design, including the folding console, steering linkages and other structures, panel fabrication, welding, teaching me how to do fiberglass, and much more.