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Wilson extolls recumbent bike

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Chances are you've seen -- and noticed -- Professor Emeritus David Gordon Wilson, even if you don't know him by name.

Think bikes. In good weather, Professor Wilson of the Department of Mechanical Engineering commutes to MIT on a recumbent version of the vehicle. Among other distinctive features, the pedals of his bike are well forward of the seat, rather than directly below as in a regular bike, and the front wheel is significantly smaller than the rear one.

"As a graduate student here, I remember a person flying by on a flat bicycle. It was David," said Professor Jefferson W. Tester, director of the Energy Lab, who introduced Professor Wilson at a recent luncheon talk at the Energy Lab on human-powered transportation and tools.

Most of Professor Wilson's comments dwelt on the bike, including a history of the vehicle and the advantages (and some disadvantages) of the recumbent. Sprinkled throughout were bicycle trivia. (For example, did you know that the first bicycle, invented in the early 1860s, had no pedals and was propelled with the feet?)

What are some advantages of a recumbent over the traditional bike? According to Professor Wilson, who has designed a recumbent, it's "extraordinarily safe and extremely comfortable," and has far superior braking. The rider also has far better visibility, and in turn is more visible to drivers. He noted, however, that a recumbent is "no good whatsoever for off-road travel" (it'll never replace the mountain bike), and it performs poorly in deep snow.

Later in the talk, Professor Wilson discussed human-powered tools of the past -- such as a scroll saw powered by pedals -- and a few more recent inventions. Among the latter: a pedal-powered lawn mower designed by an MIT undergraduate for his bachelor's thesis.

"I hate seeing people mowing their tiny lawns with gas-powered machines," Professor Wilson said. "I believe there are a lot of ways in which human power can be used much more efficiently."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 1998.

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