Worcester, Mass.
July 21, 1996

"Technomadic" traveler pays a visit

    Fielding questions about his 580-pound, computer-equipped recumbent bicycle, Steven K. Roberts took the word right out of an inquiring young man's mouth: "Overkill."

    Yes, Roberts said, it's a little much to load a bike with a Macintosh computer, cellular phone, CD player and security alarms, not to mention the backup laptop computer and ham radio in the four-foot trailer with all the camping gear. But he designed and built BEHEMOTH (Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine ... Only Too Heavy) with a fundamental goal familiar to everyone who's ever toured by bicycle: freedom.

    "The whole idea is nomadic connectivity, so my location is irrelevant," Roberts told an audience of more than 100 employees of Quantum during a lunchtime talk at the computer disk-drive maker's plant in Shrewsbury. In other words, he could be traveling by bike anywhere and stay in touch with people all over the world via the Internet, with solar energy and his own horsepower as the only power sources.

    Roberts took his two-wheeled office on the road for a 1,000-mile trip through four Midwestern states in 1991. He'd pedaled an earlier, lighter version called the Winnebiko for 10,000 miles in 1984-85, and rode its successor, the Winnebiko II, on a 6,000-mile tour in 1986-87.

    But by the time BEHEMOTH hit the road, after three-and-a-half years in development with Sun Microsystems as a primary sponsor, Roberts was more obsessed with the machinery than with travel possibilities.

    At Quantum, he apologized for the limits of the computer hardware, much of which has become obsolete, such as the pair of 40-megabyte hard drives. His helmet, an old Bell Tourlite, also would seem antiquated, except that it holds a device that acts as a computer mouse, controlled by head movements. Roberts also uses a heat exchanger to circulate ice water through a helmet liner for cooling.

    He knows it looks extraterrestrial. Once he rode through the drive-through of a Taco Bell and intoned, "Give me a burrito. Resistance is futile."

    Another time some racing cyclists whizzed past him -- the best he could do was 10 mph on the flats -- while he was playing some languorous jazz on the 18-watts-per-channel stereo with Blaupunkt speakers, and one guy asked if he had any Grey Poupon. After that he did carry little packets of mustard.

    Roberts could park the bike without locking it, relying on motion detectors that would trigger several responses. If disturbed, the bike would phone Roberts' beeper, play a recorded message warning the intruder to back off, send an urgent message to Sun Microsystems in San Diego, Calif., and dial 911 and play a recording for the dispatcher: "Hello, police, I am a bicycle; I am being stolen. My current coordinates are ..."

    "It's never happened," Roberts said, "so I don't know what the police would do."

    The bike itself is a custom-built recumbent, retrofitted with a third derailleur to a tandem-like crossover drive assembly on the left side to give it 105 speeds. Gears range from 7.9 inches to 122 inches. The computer "keyboard," a set of 14 finger keys, is on the under-the-seat steering bar. Hydraulic brakes are controlled by hand levers, and there's a mechanical parking brake and a hydraulic disk brake on the rear wheel. Shock absorbers mounted underneath the computer console help prevent wear on the headset bearings.

    Lighting includes a spotlight and a floodlight on the helmet, a halogen headlight on the console, a yellow flasher behind the seat and taillights and turn signals on the trailer.

   "In short," Roberts writes, "the bike carries just enough equipment to compensate for the weight of all that equipment ... but I prefer to think of it as art!"

    "I get a really perverse pleasure out of dropping into bike shops in rural America and saying, 'Can you help me with my bike? Every time I hit speeds over 20 mph, I'm dropping Ethernet packets,' " he said.

    Roberts has moved on to another technical challenge, the Microship, another solar-powered, Internet-linked mobile workstation, this one seaworthy. Roberts and his fiancee, Faun Skyles, aim to launch the 30-foot trimaran in 1997.

    Meanwhile, Roberts is showing off BEHEMOTH and selling his book, "Computing Across America." The "technomadic" traveler says it's the wandering, as well as the technical challenge, that continues to exert a pull.

    Journeys are more important than destinations, he reminds his audiences. "If you think too much about where you're going, you lose respect for where you are."

    In fact, his success at making electronic connections from far afield hasn't erased the occasional urge to disconnect and really get away from it all. He and Skyles will take two single kayaks on the Microship for those kinds of escapes.

    The thing to remember about his super-wired vehicles, Roberts said, is: "You can turn it all off. It is optional."

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