I have always been an inventor.
Children tend to start out that way naturally enough, but I grew up in an environment that fostered exploration. My grandfather (who I resemble) was a tinker and jack-of-trades and could fix anything and was always inventing tools for his special uses. I grew up around farm equipment, was allowed to take things apart and put them back together, and when I was young built bicycles and even built a car from parts in boxes. Literally. Boxes.
None of that is invention, of course. But exposure to things and in particular mechanical things fosters inventiveness; you see into the mind of Nicola Tesla when you take apart an electric motor.
I also learned not to give up on ideas and in particular not to be afraid of trying. Invention is usually about not being afraid, of not worrying if anyone will like your invention, and almost always it is about pleasing yourself with what you can do with your mind and your hands.
So, it is a lot like art.
Things I have invented recently:
We are remodeling a pub and turning it into a house. The floor was badly warped from decades of exposure to water and weight. I invented a kind of raised floor that hovers over the old one, supported on height-adjusted bolts, smoothing it out. The engineering is elegant and invisible. It is really sexy, for a floor.
A friend has a disabled dog. She wondered if I could create a wheelchair for it. I have, using parts from a grocery basket and PVC pipe. It is really cool. I hope the dog likes it.
And of course, I invented the Blackbird.
The Blackbird is a special kind of project, and represents a far greater commitment. It was born from necessity, as is most invention. The story is interesting enough to tell in full, because of what it reveals about the process of inventing.
About my motivation.
Our family is car-free by choice. We own three cars, they are all quite ancient, we try not to use them, we are not going to buy another ever. Instead we ride bikes everywhere. I ride a bike to work. I'm over 50 so it's not always easy. I was riding 25 miles a day at one point and really feeling it when I decided to try an electric conversion kit, to make my daily cruiser an electric bike.
This is what I call a human-scale solution, a solution to a human-focused problem that remains at the human scale of things, rather than being beyond human and over powering. I have little interest in inventions that do not move humans forward as humans. It's not a concept that many understand. That's okay.
The kit consisted of a new rear wheel with a motor in it, a battery, and all the controls to make it go and stop. The kit was nice and I had it installed on my conventional fat-tire cruiser bike in an afternoon, and it made the ride a lot easier. However after a month the problems started. The spokes in the new wheel started to break, probably due to a combination the power of the wheel, my weight and the rough roads. And the bicycle frame broke, because of the roads and how fast I could go on the motor.
They don't make roads for bicycles, you see. Potholes and cracks that cars can handle break bicycles fairly quickly.
I decided to re-engineer the motorized wheel I had bought to update the spokes. After several designs I settled on something that I could make from commonly available materials, and that would hold up to wear. I now have about 15 thousand miles on that wheel. It is heavy but it is reliable. It also looks really neat, steampunk and primitive, like something from the 1889 Paris World Exposition.
Having done that I began to think about the rest of the machine. Could I, never having done so before, build the perfect bike for my needs?
I'm an inventor. The answer had to be why not?
Probably the biggest challenge would be defining the design of the perfect long-haul bike.
The perfect bike. It would be comfortable for long periods, having a seat like a kitchen chair with plenty of padding and a smooth ride. The ride could be made smooth in two ways, first by including springs in all parts of the suspension, and then by making the machine long overall to even out the road. It would be made of iron. I can weld iron, and iron is tough. The weight of the iron would help smooth the ride. And iron is cheap, you can get it at the hardware store, and you can get it at scrap yards. I like to recycle so building a bike out of scrap iron and scrap bikes had a lot of appeal.
I sat down in the garage on a comfortable yard chair. That should be the height. I put a wheel close behind the chair propped up on bricks. That is where it will start. I put another wheel a ways out on the floor. That is where it should end. I held my arms up pretending to hold handle bars connected to the front wheel, and held my feet out pretending to pedal. Then there appeared forks and a frame and then something happened.
Suddenly it was there, in my mind. And it was perfect.
Iron pipe and pedals and chains for miles and gears inside of gears and springs and the wheels going around and around. Like Athena stepping whole from the brow of Zeus, the Blackbird was born.
Clear the workbench! I bought a bunch of thin wall electrical conduit and other iron bits from Orchard Supply Hardware, sawed up a couple of scrap bikes for other parts, and started welding.
There would be challenges in the suspension. The roads are hell, so it needs to be tough as hell. The forks would have to be long to put the front wheel in line with the handle bars, which would need to be high to clear my legs in turns. Will the thin walled pipe take the load? We'll have to see, if not I can add a truss. The pedals are really forward. That makes the ride nice, with your legs stretched out like that, but now the drive chain is eight feet long to the wheel, so it needs an idler gear in the middle to cut the chain in half.
And so on.
People ask me all the time how long it took to build it. Often it is their next question right after “did you build that?” Instinctively they know two things; 1) it took a lot of thought, and 2) it took a lot of trial and error.
Regarding the first point, yes it did. I sat for an entire weekend in that yard chair, with those two wheels propped up on bricks, not doing anything about it but thinking very carefully about ever single part of the machine. My wife came out and I said I was building a bike. She was probably amused, I had never built anything like that before. By the second or third weekend I was ready to “make noise” as we like to say in our family. Two months of weekends later I rode it out of the garage.
Regarding the second point, there was no trial and error process to speak of. It worked the first time out.
It was hard to learn how to ride. The balance and steering are completely different than a regular bike. The first time I rode it into a turn it fell over flat on top of me. I thought well that was interesting and tried it some more. The trick turns out to be you don't lean into the turns at all. Ah, okay then ... onward.
The initial frame design was not quite strong enough. One day a car ran me off the road. I hit a pothole on the shoulder and on the second bounce the frame folded up under me. I cut that part out and welded in a truss. Should have thought of that the first time around, but never mind ... onward.
I rode it for two more years, nonstop, without serious issues of any kind, having a blast every mile.
Victory. The perfect bike, realized.
After about 10 thousand miles the steering became stiff. The bearings I used from a scrap bike were too light for the massive loading on the forks, and they broke. It became hard to balance because the steering was unresponsive, but I couldn't fix it because the steering yoke was welded together. I started thinking about making a new bike from scratch improved by the lessons learned. But like rust the inventive mind never sleeps and one day I noticed a jogging stroller at the thrift store. It had large wheels in the back attached to a solid axle. I thought hey I could weld that axle to the underside of the bike and with the wheels acting as outriggers solve the balance problem. It would look like a little kid with training wheels, but it would also look awesome. I welded everything together in an afternoon and rode it for a while. Those stroller wheels were too light for the duty and the axles eventually broke, but not before I got a feel for the effect … and the effect was good. Clearly I would have to make something specific to my needs, being weight distribution and massive torque handling. I bought a small metal lathe and cut my own hubs from scrap metal, fitted in over-sized bearings from Orchard Supply, welded half-inch steel axles to the frame, and welded the spokes onto the hub and bolted up the rim. Long story short, it worked … onward.
And onward. And onward. And that's how it is. You never stop pushing. Ever.
My next project.
Let me tell you about my next project; it hasn't found me yet. Sometimes the inventor finds the invention, the way Thomas Edison went after the light bulb. It must be nice to have that kind of free time, to just go after something for months or years on end like a blood hound. For people like myself where real life intrudes the invention must sometimes find the inventor. This is a genuinely mysterious process; I think I do it in my sleep. Like when the Blackbird appeared in my mind out in the garage, entirely built. When that is the case it's less science and more art, the way Michelangelo described carving the David from a marble block; you just remove all the marble that isn't David.
So yeah, there is probably some idea out there waiting for the moment it can grab a slice of my attention. Until it finds me I'll keep an open mind.
When it does, I will invent.
—=:: A Footnote ::=—
My original choice of name for the bike — The Blackbird — was taken not from the winged animal of that name, but from the jet with which the bike shares a passing resemblance — the mighty SR-71. But the SR-71 is an icon from another era, one we should perhaps prepare to leave behind. So now the bird is the better namesake.
Besides riding a bike is about being under the sky.
You see a lot of birds.