Chassis and Bodies of Power part 1

by Marcus Martinez

Since the early 19th century, inventors and ‘tinkerers’ alike have reworked the arrangement of human power, ergonomics and mechanics combined in the bicycle. The adoption of the bicycle influenced new industries of pneumatic tires, ball bearings, and chain driven sprockets that impacted many fields of knowledge to advance steam power, combustion engines, electric motors, and even flight. As materials evolved from wood, hollow tubes, to carbon fiber so followed the mechanical dynamics and new range of possible speeds, use, and configurations, many of which will be explored in future posts.

The examples in this entry follow a conceptual transformation that seem to revisit three themes: structure as envelope, a mechanical extension, and hybrids that coordinate with the human body’s range in motion for optimal control input or power output, and in some cases consume or reshape the body as to complete the frame to manage weight and aerodynamics.


The ‘Highwheel’ bikes from the 1870’s, sometimes referred as a ‘Penny Farthing’ because of large and small wheel configuration resembling British currency of a large and small coins: the penny and the farthing. Today, bikes are sized calculating your height and leg length;  ‘Highwheels’ however, were sized for the largest wheel your leg reach could accommodate. The larger wheel and its long spokes offered a more comfortable ride, which was a response to the ‘bone shaker’ bicycles which were wood frame and iron wheels that shake the spare change out of any rider on the mostly cobble stone roads. The elevated ride also made for a high center of gravity leading to hard falls, and mounting challenges.

Royal Salvo, Beamish Museum Photostream Flickr

Royal Salvo, Beamish Museum Photostream Flickr

Trikes like the ‘Royal Salvo’ in 1877 responded to the challenges presented by the Penny Farthing. The James Starley’s Royal Salvo positions the rider in a lower to the ground and between two large wheels, could more gracefully ‘step into’ position. Features that became later associated with automobiles like the differential gear, which and rack and pinion steering opened up the machine to a wider audiences including its namesake: Queen Victoria.


The mechanical complexity of the Royal Salvo was a new paradigm of the machine as human interface: the body placed inside the machine, at the center of gravity, chain driven pedals, and steering and differential gears.

Starley’s application of innovative gearing is rooted in his many inventions, including the hand operated ‘Europa’ sewing machine (above). Sewing, mostly done by hand through the mid 1800’s, the sewing machine was one of the first labor saving devices made for the home use. The impact of this machine can be measured by both the interchangeable assembly that enabled mass production and simplified repair. The cultural/consumer impact of these machines produced affordable lines of ready-made affordable clothing.



Countless inventors worked toward the automobile using the framework of the bicycle as their host structure. Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 contribution of ‘Reitwagen’ or ‘Riding Car’, similar to the rider in the frame, nested the motor with the wooden bicycle chassis. While many argue that Diamler’s ‘Riding Car’ was more motorcycle than automobile, it carried a compounding effect toward the automobile we know today. A year later in 1886, Carl Benz patented the ‘Motor Car’ where Benz concluded that new methods of propulsion also necessitated an entirely new chassis.



Back to bicycles…kind of…bicycle racing is a fascinating intersection of human, machine dynamics, and aerodynamics. The first 1200 meter race in 1868 in Parc de Saint Cloud, Paris, was won on iron wheels connected on a wood frame. In racing, the advantage is achieved in managing drag to maximize pedaling effort. The emphasis on the managing the body’s drag has spurred innovations like the ‘Aerobars’ on triathlon or time-trial bikes to keep the rider in their ‘tucked’ position. These bars are modified to the spec of the user for their optimal position. Like tuning the aerodynamics of a vehicle design, or flaps and rudders of an airplane; bars, gloves, and helmets like the Giro ‘advantage’ and Bell (shown above) are wind tunnel tested and micro-tuning on the helmets controlling the fore and aft position of the helmet on the head for peak performance. Some riders will even glue their numbers to their jersey to minimize drag.


So, how far have these interest in aerodynamics gone? In the late 1970’s, American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B. MacCready’s AeroVironment co opted the function of a geared frame to direct pedal power instead of two wheels to a two bladed propeller to create the first human powered flight beginning with the Gossamer Condor in 1977, and shortly after, the Gossamer Albatross, which crossed the English Channel in 1979. The rider is less confined by their position and shape within the mylar enclosure which was centrally oriented in the 97.7 foot wingspan, totalling an empty weight of 77lbs by virtue of a lightweight body constructed of carbon fiber, polystyrene, and mylar.


Finally, toward a more virtual civilization of Tron (1982, 2010’s Tron Legacy, and the upcoming sequel) are the memorable ‘Light Cycles’. These too have had an interesting evolution across the movie franchise. In the first generation light cycle, the rider would be involuntarily forced into position and covered by canopy. The ‘Tron Legacy’ light cycle gets interesting iteration in the boarding sequence. The rider with a ‘baton’ in hand would run and leap with the baton held with both hands like a bike handle, as the bike materializes (digitally?). The body of the cycle is imposed over the spine of the rider at a minimal tolerance as to ‘pin down’ the rider. The body panel coordinates with a helmet closely resembling the Giro ‘advantage’ helmet, together the two features merge as one aerodynamic mass.

There’s so much more to talk about, and this entry is only touching on far reaching narratives in engineering, innovation, and social mechanisms. This is part of a multiple entry series which will later include my own attempts in this broad field of the future and mobility.