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Bicycles reveal engineering creativity and offer opportunity

In the past two weeks, I've seen a pair of somewhat related bicycle items which show clever engineering and use of modern technologies. Both had to do with spokes, although in very different ways.

The first was a novel spokeless bicycle-wheel student project (no, it was not a “disk” wheel, those are old news), here. The other was an emergency field-replacement-kit for broken spokes, using an aramid fiber (aka Kevlar) and turnbuckle, here. [Side note: a decent bicycle wheel will not fall apart if one, two, or even three spokes are missing—it depends where they are relative to each other on the wheel, of course—but the wheel will go out of round, and start hitting against the brakes and frame, thus making riding difficult if not impossible. ]

What's nice about using a bicycle as an idea-development platform is that a bike is relatively inexpensive, yet highly developed and refined, system. Parts are available, everything is visible, and there's good physical access. I've seen bikes which substitute a gear-drive mechanism installed within the frame tubing to replace the exposed chain; which use strain gages on the pedals to measure pedaling force and consistency; which use clever geometry to provide a lightweight, efficient, fold-up design, and even one with an electronically controlled, self-tuning, adaptive front-fork shock absorber, just to name a few examples.

Just because the technology you have in front of you is “mature” doesn't mean it can't be improved upon, or just used for creative-thinking exercises. And let's not forget the Wright brothers. Though they are often referred to as just a pair of “bike mechanics”, with the implication they were merely lucky tinkerers, that's not true at all. They set up and ran careful experiments in their bike shop, and even built a wind tunnel to carefully measure airfoil performance since they felt the standard tables were in error. They used their mechanical skills and knowledge from their bike shop (as well as its profits) to be true scientists and engineers, in the best sense of those roles.♦

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