Honoring Paul MacCready With New Bicycle-Powered Inventions

If you were born after 1990, you might not have heard of one of the most talented inventors of the last century, aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready. One of his crowning achievements was designing a bicycle-powered plane that flew across the English Channel--a body of water more than 20 miles wide. If you'd like to see this plane with your own eyes--the Gossamer Albatross, in flight across the channel, with Bryan Allen as both pilot and engine--check out this YouTube video.

The earlier part of the video shows the flight of the Gossamer Condor, an earlier bicycle-powered plane designed by MacCready. Yes, that's MacCready's then-10-year-old son powering the plane at one point.

MacCready passed away in 2007, but his ingenuity--his sense of curiosity--lives on. How can we today honor his curiosity and exceptional inventive talent? There's no better way than to invent engineering challenges in his name--and offer prize money to the first person or team to conquer that challenge. And since MacCready's special talent was designing bicycle-powered machines, the first MacCready challenges ought to be related somehow to bicycle power.

Here's an idea for a bicycle-powered machine I'd love to see invented. This small, $50 washing machine for apartments is electricity powered.

Could a version of this washing machine be designed that is bicycle powered? Not by live bicycle power, which could get tiring, but by the power of energy stored from a bicycle? Seems like that's an achievable goal. I don't know what kind of springs could be rigged up to store energy for this washing machine, but someone out there, I'm sure, must know. A MacReady Challenge to design and document a bicycle-powered washing machine could be announced and potentially completed within one year. I'd be one of the first persons to donate prize money for such a challenge.

Which organization or entity is well-suited to coordinate such a challenge? The good people at Make magazine come to mind. If Make is not up to the task, other organizations could fulfill this role. Yes, it's entirely appropriate for Make to allocate some of the donated prize moneys for the running of this and other invention challenges.

While a bicycle-powered washing machine might not have a huge global impact, the knowledge gained in designing such a machine might well transfer to a host of other engineering challenges. Someday we might even be able to construct a bicycle-powered bicycle. Such a bicycle would store energy when used in stationary bicycle mode and release that energy on demand. So a parent might have one of their children (or neighbors) store up energy in the bicycle over the weekend and then use that energy when riding up hills during their weekday commutes to work.

Sure, it's possible to store energy chemically, in batteries, but the expense of doing so detracts from the elegance of some of these inventions. Mechanical storage, to my mind, is where the most interesting discoveries lie. If we make headway with mechanical storage of bicycle-powered energy, we'd be honoring Paul MacCready's spirit and vision.

And then people who are not world class bicyclists might enjoy the experience of bicycle-powered flight, using energy they themselves stored from stationary bicycling--or energy donated to them by others who pedaled on a stationary bicycle. I don't want to fly entirely across the English Channel in a bicycle-powered plane, but I'd sure get a kick from going for a 20-minute flight using my own stored energy--very casually collected over a one-month period.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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