Experiments and Unusual Projects


The world is full of ideas, good ideas, bad ideas, amazing ideas,and just down right bizarre ideas. Because bicycles are so common and so accessible, many people have tried many variations and experiments. The vast majority of new ideas around bicycles haven't caught on and become popular. But occasionally something takes off and becomes mainstream. It is easy to write off all new ideas, but without them there would be no progress, and the modern world as we know it wouldn't exist.

FIG.1  A helicopter and a plane design by Leonardo Da Vinci.

FIG.2  A glider jump by Otto Linienthal, who later died in a fatal crash.

Maybe the wildest idea of all is flying through the air, powered by nothing than human power, since humans first looked up at the sky, and saw the ease with which birds fly, people have wished that they could be as free and as mobile as birds are. In FIG.1  we see drawing made by the famous Italian engineer and artist  Leonardo Da Vinci in the sixteenth century. He designed an airscrew-type helicopter and plane with bat-like flapping wings.  The German inventor Otto Lilienthal, (FIG.2) studied the flight of birds and desinged kites and gliders.  In the 1890's he was able to glide 250m from a hilltop. His designs were studied by the Wright brothers, who mounted an engine on one of their gliders, thus creating the first airplane. 

FIG.3  The Gossammer Albatross, a bike transformed into an a plane (1979).

FIG.4 The Deadelus from 1988, a plane flying by pedalpower.

FIG.5  The fastest Human powered boat: Decavitator (photo MIT).


Better science and new advanced materials actually achieved human powered flight! Nearly half a century ago (in 1979) someone flew across the English Channel using nothing by muscle power - the super lightweight aircraft was named the Gossamer Albatross (FIG.3), which had been created by a brilliant team of engineers,designers, scientists and technicians from the famous MIT university in Boston America.

The aircraft was built using special high tech materials such as carbon fiber and aerospace grade aluminium, and extra lightweight building techniques, such as making the ribs for the wings out of low density plastic foam, and covering the wings with a very thin but strong plastic film. The aircraft was so fragile that it could only be flown in the very best weather conditions, when there was no wind at all.

MIT continued to develop their human powered flight,and in 1988 they were able to successfully fly the aircraft Deadelus (FIG.4) over 100 kmover the sea, to reach the Greek island of Santorini after more than 3 hours of flight.


In more recent years, human powered helicopters have been successfully taking off  for very short time periods, inside large sports halls. A picture of a giant quadricopter can be seen here .

Even the flapping wing design has been built and flown in Canada, though the start was helped by a car:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0E77j1imdhQ&t=14s 

FIG.6 Vogabike, a sliding seat drive in an Italian trike.


Humans have been using muscle power to drive boats forwards,for many thousands of years,  using  wooden oars or paddles. The first human powered submarine  was made by the Dutch inventor C. Drebbel in the 1620's. Oars have been the most popular power transmission, and there were developments that made sports rowingboats faster, like the sliding seat. In modern human powered vehicles many cross-overs have been designed like the Vogabike of FIG.6 with a sliding seat  rowing-action drive.

With more advanced technologies and better engineering, faster human powered boats have been possible.  The fastest is the Decavitator of FIG.5, using underwater hydrofoils to lift the boat up. so the hull clears the water, and there is the least resistance to forward motion. It has bike drivetrain and an air-propellor for maximum efficiency and speed (W.R. 34km/u) .  


FIG.7 The Snek cable power transmission.


Many different designs for bicycle transmissions have been tried, including threadle devices and rowing action systems, but so far none has gained the universal popularity of the simple rotary cranksets with pedals. Of course people have tried to improve upon the simple round chainring, using ovals, ellipses, and other shapes, to try to reduce muscle fatigue,and to match the downward thrust of the pedals to the maximum muscle output of the rider. A combination of arm and leg muscles is used by Thys rowing bikes "the Snek" (FIG.7) , see the video below (this drive was used in the "flapping wing plane").

Apart from different shapes of chainrings, people have tried different types of pedals, such as those with lowered axle bearings, or with ratchets on the pedal bearings.

Different widths of foot spacings have also been tried, from extra narrow (maybe more aerodynamic), to extra wide (maybe more power with some people).

There have been very many different designs of bicycle handlebars tried, from very wide (maybe more control), to very narrow (maybe more aerodynamic), every different handlebar height has been tried, from very low to very high,with lots of different shapes and bends experimented with.

Probably the most famous innovation in the design of bicycle handlebars was the introduction of the "triathlon bar" where both hands are held in front of the rider, with the weight being carried by the elbows and forearms of the rider. These new aerodynamic handlebars were made famous when LeMond won the 1989 Tour De France using them, while his rival Fignon didn't use them.

Naturally many different designs of wheels have been tried, one of the more experimental things tried was the adding of weights to the wheels, to try to create a flywheel effect, where the wheels would continue to rotate due to the momentum of the weight, which was thought might be helpful to a rider during a time trial, and was experimented with by Moser for his 1984 attempt on the world hour record.

Many different designs of gearing systems have been tried, including spring loaded chainrings in an attempt to create an automatic gearing system,where the chainring would automatically adjust it's size depending on the force of the rider.

Other attempts at automatically changing gears have included rear dérailleurs with flywheels which operated the gears depending on the speed of the chain.

People have built pedal powered machines with one wheel, two wheels, three wheels, four wheels, or even more wheels, as part of long vehicles with many riders.

Many different materials have been used to make bikes with, including wood, bamboo, plastic, carbon fiber, glass fiber, steel, aluminium, magnesium, titanium, beryllium, even paper and cardboard.
There are thousands and thousands of patents showing designs that never became popular, with just a very very few hitting the jackpot and changing the world.


Happy experimenting !



Flying Oveverview In French
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A video about new designs: