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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Wheels of Desire – The Guardian

This is of a different breed from the usual newspaper article… a very well-written and thoughtful piece in the Guardian, covering not only the Winnebiko II but the adventure story itself. 

by Hugo Cornwall
The Guardian — December 1, 1988

Steve Roberts had the fantasy of becoming a hi-tech nomad. Hugo Cornwall reports on the machine that helped it all come true.

It is the highest hi-tech bike in the world. Its eight-foot length (12 foot including a towed trailer), recumbent design (the handlebars are located, not inconveniently, below your bum), 125kg weight and 54 gears are perhaps its least interesting features.

Its command console runs off high-output solar batteries, and features a computer into which you can type as you cycle. But of course you have to know binary code, as typing is done by squeezing combinations of buttons fastened to the underside of the handlebars.

When you have finished your message, you can send it as electronic mail via the cellular telephone, which handles both voice and data via a modem. Or you could pass it to a packet radio terminal linked to an amateur radio 2-metre transceiver. This will in turn feed it into the world-wide network of packet radio digipeaters. The same transceiver can be used to voice-chat to local “hams.”

Steve Roberts, the owner and builder of this ridiculous confection, has been clocking up 17,000 miles cycling around America for the last five years. Because for most of that period he’s been cycling solo, being able to call on the hospitality of hams and computer freaks nation-wide has been an important ingredient in survival.

Roberts has no clear motivation for what he is doing. A moderately successful technical writer, and less successful entrepreneur, he appears to have reached a stage in his life where, if he didn’t seize the chance to realise his particular fantasy, then he never would.

His fantasy was to make a living writing about being a hi-tech nomad. The specific elements had to include a bike of recumbent design, computers and amateur radio…

A flavour of how he runs his fantasy comes from this extract of a technical explanation: “To keep things reasonably simple for the operator, I shuffled the handlebar bits enough to allow my five strongest fingers, working alone, to generate lower case alpha. The right little finger causes upper case, the left, control. The left ring finger signifies numeric or special characters and various combinations of those three yield less common codes or a short library of frequently used words.

“Alone, the three minor fingers produce return, back space and space. The thumbs handle 2-meter and other radios’ press-to-talk, airhoms and sirens. The fleshy outsides of the palms handle two of the three dimensions in the 54-speed transmission, and the entire hands abort their typing and squeeze like hell when the disc brakes are needed.

“How do you concentrate on the road when running the computer? The two activities occupy such different parts of the brain so that no wetware resource-management is necessary.”

Initial finance came from selling up his modest house in Columbus. Ohio. Other “costs” have been a failed marriage, a disappointed girl-friend and, until recently, a disjointed private life. Sponsorship as well as writing have kept the enterprise solvent, though in the early stages, the hazards of mechanical and financial failure were always close.

The Winnebiko — a pun on Winnebago, manufacturer of those recreational vehicles that are the US substitute for caravans — has five computers to maintain the various systems. The most obvious is a modified Tandy 100 laptop with 2S6K of extra memory. But the bike needs support systems almost as elaborate as a Space Shuttle.

Remember, this is no concept car which merely has to look good on an exhibition stand. The US has a huge variety of geographic and climatic zones, from near-Arctic to desert, from plain to mountain range. US traffic is even less friendly towards non-motorised two-wheeled transport than its UK cousin. Mounting computers and radios onto a bike is not simply a question of sticky tape and angle brackets.

In fact, there’s a network of five computers which can be reconfigured on the fly. Network management is handled by a 68HC11 microprocessor which spends much of its time decoding the handlebar inputs and persuading the Tandy 100 it still has an ordinary keyboard, but it also passes instructions between the other processors, including the packet radio controller.

It will, when so set up, respond to touch-tones sent from a amateur radio handie-talkie to the onboard transceiver, so that certain of the Winnebiko’s functions can be commanded remotely.

It can: speak one of 32 pre-programmed utterances via the Votrax; sound the siren; transmit local audio from the bike; pipe received audio to console speaker; turn yellow flashers on and off; enable/disable the security system.

The question of powering everything looms large. You may have 20-watt solar panels, but battery technology is an other matter. In any case, each item of kit has its own requirements for voltage and current levels. All need to be monitored by the onboard computers too and on the command console.

The set-up keeps on changing. You want to look intelligent as you peer over the machine’s console — “Is that your CB?” You point. “Oh, that’s coming out,” says Roberts. “I prefer 10 metres (an amateur band) and I can put this new one just there” — he indicates another pari of the console, “and I can re-use the slot left by the CB for this really neat mini-printer HP has.”

Other plans include junking the Tandy 100 for an adapted Apple Macintosh laptop that no one is supposed to know about yet. “I want to get the US road system on digitised maps.” says Roberts. “I can store them on CD-ROM and then, with a large chunk of RAM acting as a cache, get up on my console a display map of the local area. I could also interface to satellite data to get my exact location …”

Roberts has written up the first part of his adventures in his book Computing Across America. You wouldn’t expect it from a mere techie-writer, but it really does stand comparison with some of the best of modem travel writing.

He’s surely no more crazy, not much less literate, and certainly more resourceful than earlier walkers across the desert, through Britain, or train-journeyers to Patagonia.