This relic from 1989, early in the BEHEMOTH project (before it was called that), came to my attention exactly 30 years later thanks to Paul Schleck who alerted me to the website that is replaying usenet. At this moment in my life, I was fully immersed in the third bike version, at once thrilled and overwhelmed by its scope. Only ten days earlier, I had given a short presentation at Xerox PARC (video), then zoomed to San Francisco to display at the West Coast Computer Faire (video)… and later on this same day met up with NHK for a filming near Milpitas. Three decades down the road, I can barely remember that energy level…
Anyway, this quest for geeks was cross posted to comp.misc, rec.bicycles, rec.ham-radio, and sci.electronics… and lots of conversations got started as a result. I am posting it here as pre-formatted monospaced text (which might be weird on phones) to preserve the pure-ASCII flavor of Usenet.
Call for Wizards:
Computing Across America needs YOU!
by Steven K. Roberts
March 24, 1989
I have a problem. As you may have read elsewhere on the nets
or in various magazines, I'm in the process of rebuilding the
Winnebiko -- the computerized, solar-powered, recumbent bicycle that
has already carried me 16,000 miles around the US. The new system is
intended for open-ended international travel, with enough on-board
computation, communication, and power-generation resources to make
its location on the planet essentially irrelevant.
The design is developing well, and numerous subsystems are
arising from the clutter of my temporary lab here in the wilds of
Silicon Valley. But I've come to realize that hitting the road in
this decade requires more manpower: wizards of all types,
machinists, technicians, programmers, design engineers, PC fab
houses, RF magicians, project-management heavies, and even a few
crank-turners. I've bitten off a big one, and if I try to finish it
alone I'll be old and fat by the time I return to the road (and the
parts of the system finished first will already be obsolete!).
Are you interested in hands-on involvement with the Winnebiko?
There's no direct cash in it, but there ARE some distinct benefits...
--> First and foremost, FUN. This continues to be the bottom
line: that fundamental passion that makes our eyes light up
at new gizmology, triggers dreams of future systems, and makes
the whole idea of a computerized bicycle with real-time
aerodynamic modeling, live mapping, navigation, CAD, solar
power, regenerative braking, a handlebar keyboard, speech I/O,
and a satellite earth station seem endlessly alluring. There
is a delicious feeling of conquering steep learning curves,
applying creative skills across a wide range of specialties,
beating trade-offs by inventing new rules or breaking old
ones, and generally exercising the brain -- for this project
is unlike most work in industry in that cost is no object. We
have over 100 corporate equipment sponsors, habitually choose
the best of everything, and remind ourselves constantly that
this is art as well as engineering.
--> Second, there's glory in it. The system has spawned hundreds
of magazine articles over the years, and I'm always happy to
share the spotlight with those who have had a creative role in
the design. If you're on a competitive career track,
publication credits will dramatically spice up your resume; if
you're looking for exposure, a few well-placed mentions are
worth infinitely more than paid ads.
--> Third, there's strong potential for indirect money in it.
This comes from two sources: product spinoffs and consulting
gigs. A number of these subsystems have potential in
environments other than compu-bikes, and I'm starting to build
joint ventures to get a few of them into the market before
someone beats us to it. And consulting deals come my way
constantly -- instead of my usual mumbled, "uh, no, I'm too
busy," I now refer clients to the people who have proven their
wizardry on related projects. One fellow has billed almost
$50K in the last year as a result of such leads; another is
just now bootstrapping himself into full-time freelancing on
the strength of CAA referrals.
--> Finally, there are all those other little things that add up.
The Winnebiko design team (an ad-hocracy called Nomadic
Research Labs) is a wild, networked community of kindred
spirits: making contacts like this can have far-reaching
consequences. You'll be kept current on the adventure,
receiving a copy of my book and a free subscription the the
Journal. And you just might be invited to trash your
lifestyle and go for a long bike ride.......
The Winnebiko III
Before outlining specific projects I need help on, I should
give you an overview of the new machine. After 16,000 miles, a
number of deficiencies in the existing design have become apparent --
most notably architectural inflexibility as evidenced by the
hardwired front panel. I'm tired of editing with a soldering iron,
and the design is frozen in 1985 technology.
The key to the new structure is a "resource bus" controlled by
a 68000 running FORTH. This is the bicycle control processor (BCP),
responsible for active management of everything on board via a SCSI
bus, I/O processor, and a few high-speed serial links. The SCSI
channel is expanded into a novel I/O structure that consists
primarily of 128-point crosspoint matrices: Mitel parts that toggle
an array of FETs as dictated by a field of RAM. Through these pass
all serial, analog, and audio information on the bike.
Other I/O is more traditional, tying to a standard I/O
expansion bus. The effect of all of this, stepping back one level of
abstraction, is a five "channel" bus (power, serial, audio, analog,
data) that links the following devices in any imaginable combination:
speech synthesizer low-power packet TNC
all-mode RF data system UHF transceiver (business)
2-meter VHF transceiver UHF transceiver (ham, sat)
10-meter all-mode transceiver cellular phone
cellular phone modem DTMF transceiver
analog mux (with quad-slope D-A) fax and modem board
console printer/plotter HF ham transceiver
GPS nav receiver with temp LORAN auto transmission logic
286/386 DOS engine security system and pager
audio cassette recorder entertainment electronics
bike instrumentation package 49 MHz full duplex base unit
speech I/O subsystem utility I/O board
audio processing board MIDI system
console DB-9 speakers and helmet headset
switched loads such as lights the BCP itself
Some of the interconnections, of course, would be absurd -- but
consider some of the possibilities: Mobile phone patch between
10-meter ham QSO with Japan and cellular phone. Reconfiguration of
packet datacomm to allow full remote console operations from
manpack-laptop via UHF data link. Logging and diagnostics to disk
file or console printer. Remote touch-tone commands to transmit
local audio on 49 MHz or any other RF channel. Logging on to DIALOG
and doing research while mobile. Introduction of audio filtering and
other functions to enhance any communication mode. Synthesized
security alerts that beacon the bike's exact coordinates on ham
frequencies (or celphone 911) if it's ever moved without the correct
On top of all this, there are two DOS environments -- one a
robust 286/386 for the CAD applications and computer-generated maps
from CDROM, the other a low-power V40-class board for basic editing.
These share a 40 Meg hard disk through a LAN and present the basic
operating environment beyond the FORTH that actually runs the bike
Two large console LCDs provide the bulk of the user interface,
with a heads-up display a distinct possibility. A 640 X 480 VGA
backlit DST LCD from Sharp is the main graphics display, but it
requires a 2.5 watt backlight. When this is a drain on the power
budget, the DOS systems can request a reflective super-twist 640 X
200 normally owned by the BCP. The HUD, if it happens, can be used
by any system -- primarily for text, database, and map graphics from
CDROM and GPS data. Incidentally, the large display will be set
behind a surface acoustic wave touchscreen to help support
interaction with the mapping package (point to "contact" icon for a
pop-up text box with corresponding database contents).
Speaking of power, there are 6 18-watt solar panels on the
trailer, and 10 watts on the bike. These are bussed together to feed
an array of switching power supplies associated with each battery,
the status of which is actively metered by the BCP. The processor
decides which battery bus is assigned to each load bus, switching
them dynamically through a heuristic algorithm that attempts to track
usage patterns and prevent loss of power on a dark night ride. The
fallback position here is a variable-reluctance motor/generator
embedded in the new rear hub, capable of sourcing enough power to run
everything if I'm willing to put out the human effort. (Dynamic
braking, by the way, is automatic -- a pot in the brake lever invokes
this process invisibly before the hydraulic disc kicks in.)
Communications includes cellular phone with modem as well as a
very robust ham station. The most interesting part of this is the
OSCAR satellite station (modes B & J), which uses a collapsible
antenna and a pair of multimode transceivers to uplink 435 MHz
through 12 dbdc gain and downlink 145 through 10 db and a preamp (or
the inverse). Supporting this is software in the PC that integrates
orbital elements into a real-time graphic display of satellite
location and footprint, along with AZ-EL-Range data. I do have to
stop the bike for this, of course -- the beam array when extended is
almost 9 feet long.
The BCP keeps busy doing things besides managing the bus and
dealing with the handlebar keyboard and mouse -- it also controls the
bike's new automatic transmission. Monitoring speed, cadence,
torque, heart rate, and a subjective "wimp factor" keyed in at any
time that indicates robustness of the engine, the system manages
three Browning derailleurs covering 36 separate ratios. This seems a
step backward from my existing 54 speeds, but of those, I use less
than half. The key is range, provided equally well by the new
There's more, but it gets progressively more detailed. Suffice
it to say that the overall intent is to expand upon the existing
theme of my "high-tech nomadics" -- maximum communication and
computation ability without any geographic or utility support
requirements. The obvious practical reason is the enabling of
open-ended freelance writing and consulting without concern for
location (linked via a web of networks to base office and publishers,
powered by the sun, etc.) The originally unintended spinoff is a
growing set of relationships with sponsoring companies, many of which
are now becoming involved in technology-transfer joint ventures as
the importance of some of these systems becomes interesting to a
wider segment of the population than computerized cyclists. And, of
course, it is demonstrating through extensive ongoing media coverage
a host of exciting new technologies... all flavored by fun and
adventure that often seems too good to be true. The public loves it,
while learning something at the same time.
The Project Potential
There are dozens of subsystems, custom parts, circuit boards,
programs, packaging challenges, and various other system components
that have to work together before the Winnebiko III can roll. Do any
of these make your soldering iron, CAD system, or milling machine
The transmission control system: linking speed, torque, cadence, and
cardiac sensors to a dedicated micro under BCP management, and
developing the algorithm that will learn from observation of my
own shifting patterns under varying conditions. Output is six
bits that control a trio of Browning transmissions.
Virtual front panel control for HF and satellite transceivers: using
a micro to replace hardware front panels and present virtual
radio consoles to the BCP screen. This may requires hacking of
radio I/O logic, with the processor sleeping between commands to
The solar/battery manager: processor control of the entire charging
and power-distribution function, including interface with custom
switching power supplies (under construction) and a quad-slope
A-D scanning system voltage and current values. This subsystem
should include full profiling of battery performance to aid in
CDROM-based mapping from GPS input: Nav data must be integrated with
map data to produce a real-time wireframe model of surrounding
areas, keyed by lat-long-el data to the database on hard disk.
This is a big one. Subprojects here include GPS implementation,
hooks into the map software, and the possibility of using a
serious graphics engine to do the crunching.
Regenerative braking controller, working with the variable reluctance
motor inventors and the battery management team. A bonus here
is the potential for assigning the 118 watts of solar capacity
to the motor for a small power assist (though I won't have
enough battery to run the bike on electric power).
Trailer brake system: using a spring-extend double-acting cylinder
built into the hitch and a pair of Mathauser hydraulic brakes,
reduce the effective load of the trailer during braking to about
10% of its normal value.
Heads-up display system: helmet-mounted LCD with associated optics
and backlight (optional), perhaps with a steerable optical path
to accommodate microfiche maps as well.
Improved handlebar keyboard: waterproof, fast binary keyboard with
thumb mouse or other pointing device and a few other controls.
Must be ergonomically optimized and non-interfering with
mechanical hardware... and must work well with the MIDI system
in flute-emulation mode.
Forward Reconnaissance Unit: This will only happen if the CAA team
expands to include a nomad with spare cargo capacity, but it's
interesting. Basically an RC plane with live video transmission
via ATV channels back to a Walkman display. We're looking at
the new Philips camera and AEA ATV boards, which have other
applications on the bike as well.
Audio matrix system: Based on the Mitel array and a replicated
normalization amp, this allows processor-controlled
interconnection of any number of audio sources and sinks. Best
accomplished as PC board, since the 32X32 array has an identical
amp circuit on every I/O line.
Packaging projects: Beam antenna drawer, hard disk shock mounting,
satcom area, and a variety of other attempts to protect delicate
equipment in a brutal environment without robbing it of utility
or making it too heavy.
Trailer system, mechanical: New trailer design with solar roof,
battery compartment, RF and power cabling, and integration of
related subsystems like brakes and antenna mast components.
Manpack system: DOS laptop with small solar panel, UHF packet
system, and full duplex audio/video links. Must be rugged and
waterproof... and it happens to be a model for a future
commercial personal RF mailbox product.
Antenna system: With the help of KLM, Larsen, and Telex, optimize
HF, satellite, VHF, UHF, and cellular antennas for minimum
weight and maximum utilization of shared cabling. Satellite
GaAsFET preamps must be protected from transmitted RF.
Video and Mini OCR system: CCD video to character recognition
software... as well as to the FAX board (with suitable scan
conversion). Same components transmit bike video to remote.
MIDI system: start with commercial MIDI products (Yamaha DX100 and
Breakaway's Vocalizer) and interface to the bus, removing
standard keyboard and control panel and replacing with virtual
ones driven by handlebar keyboard, voice input, and sequencer
Peltier-based water server: Derive surplus solar or regen braking
power and cool a Melcor thermoelectric device in a baffled water
reservoir. A second Peltier device goes in the helmet for
active body cooling on hot days, pumping heat out through a heat
sink in the airstream.
Software to accept scanned or other input and create bitmap images
for output to the console graphics printer. These are primarily
for on-the-road sponsor referrals.
Countless other software projects, ranging from FORTH tasks to
dynamic airflow modeling. The environment consists of three DOS
platforms, the 68000 FORTH system, an I/O processor, a
high-speed array processor, and a half-dozen dedicated micros on
the network. I assume a laptop Mac will provide biketop
publishing capability by 1990.
Various mechanical projects as well: hydraulic rear disk brake,
heavy duty headset bearing, new steering bearing, flip-down
service/work stand for the whole bike, utility boxes, rear
... and so on. There are enough projects here to keep a whole
party of creative people happy for months. If this were a company
with a production deadline, I'd panic... as it is, I keep reminding
myself that the bottom line is fun and this is artwork, not business.
With that in mind, how do you feel about getting involved?
I can be reached most anytime at <redacted>. The address at
this Silicon Valley layover is <redacted>. Network addresses are:
Thanks for your interest, and for putting up with this long
document. Cheers from the vapors of Dataspace!!!
-- Steve Roberts, High-tech Nomad
Computing Across America