Category Archives: Human power

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

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Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Bicycle Innovations

red cruiser bike parked on metal bike stand

Photo by Jodie DS on Pexels.com

While cars have continued to iterate convenient features like cup holders and hill holding assist, bicycles haven’t really changed much since the safety bicycle was introduced in 1876. While some of that is because the diamond frame bike is actually a pretty cool design, it feels like unless it’s something to make a racer on the Tour de France go faster, the bicycle industry has ignored it.

As a solarpunk, I feel that bikes are a really great option for low carbon transportation for the able-bodied. What about people who need adaptive solutions? Luckily, one of the areas that there has been innovation in the bicycle industry is in adaptive bicycles. I didn’t really know much about them, but I stopped by a bike shop in Vienna, VA where they told me about some of the models they stock.

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Hase TRETS trike (image from Hase’s website)

Accessible bikes are available with electric assist and other adaptive technologies to make riding fun for people who might not be able to ride a more traditional bicycle. Handcycles are available for people who can’t use their legs to pedal, and Hase makes a popular recumbent/upright tandem that can accommodate a wide level of abilities. I was able to test ride the tandem, and while I think the handling would take some getting used to, it’s a very well-built machine.

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Hase Pino tandem (image from Hase’s website)

The rise of cargo and urban bikes will hopefully help with adoption of bicycles as a transportation method. This article at Bike Shop Girl, “What If Bicycles Were Designed Like Cars?” discusses how most cars are designed around the normal user, but bikes have been designed around racers for a long time. Ron George over at the Cozy Beehive has an article titled “Brainstorming Bicycle Design Ideas with an Example” further discussing the lack of innovation in the bicycle space.

When looking for practical bicycles, my wishlist would be:

  • Internally geared hub
    • Internal hubs are available from 3 to 14 speeds and pretty much eliminate all that mucking about with drive-train maintenance required with a regular set of gears (bonus points if it has a belt drive!)
  • Step through design
    • Nobody wants to have to swing their leg over the back of their bike or the center bar to get onto their ride.
  • Electric assist
    • While I don’t yet have electric assist for my bike, I’ve heard it makes a great difference in your ability to carry heavy loads (including other humans) or ride up hills. Being sweaty on arrival is a big turn off for many aspiring riders, so I think this is a good piece of tech to get more butts on bikes.
  • Racks and fenders
    • You should be able to carry stuff and not get splashed if it’s wet out.
  • Lights
    • Ideally charged via a dynamo or connected to your electric assist battery. They don’t sell cars without headlights, so why are they extra on a bike?

Granted, I’m a privileged person who doesn’t have any major physical problems. I really think tooling around town on a bike is super fun, so hopefully accessible bikes (and trikes) will be easier to find with time. I don’t think we should be forcing people to ride bikes to get around in a solarpunk society, but I think we should make it a lot better option. Investing in biking infrastructure and making bikes easier to adopt for newbies are the two main barriers to adoption here in the US. I’ve been riding for over a decade now, and I still find bike shops intimidating, so I think there’s a lot of room to grow. If you want to know more about making bicycling more inviting, be sure to check out Bike Shop Girl’s Shift Up Podcast.

Do you ride a bike? If not, what would make you feel more comfortable doing so?

 

LEGO Human-powered tool station

LEGO Modular Tool Station

Technic Man pedaling his tool platform

I had some time to make a crude LEGO prototype of the human-powered tool station.  I made do with meshed gears instead of pulleys since I didn’t have any rubber bands to use as a belt. Given some of the constraints of spacing with LEGO, our brave Technic Man can’t actually pedal the machine, but I think it does get the idea across more or less.

LEGO Modular Tool Station Internal Workings

Some of the internal workings of the LEGO prototype

Do you have any thoughts about the system? Are there LEGO parts that you like to use for prototyping purposes? Let us know below!

More butts on bikes

Bike ride

The Shift Up Bicycle Podcast is about getting “more butts on bikes” and recently launched a series called “Bridging the Gap” to discuss the issues facing female and female-identifying cyclists. As of now, 75% of trips by bike are taken by males, and since human-powered transit is an important part of a solarpunk future, growing the number of trips taken by bike is critical, especially for underrepresented communities.

Arleigh, AKA Bike Shop Girl, meets with guests each week to talk shop, discuss advocacy tactics, and encourage people to find ways to bring more people into the cycling fold. You can find more information at her new website, Bike Here, which is particularly aimed at the new cyclist.

Some other great resources for both new and veteran cyclists are Just Ride by Grant Petersen, and Bikenomics by Elly Blue. Just Ride is a refreshing take on the important parts of riding a bike, dispensing with the helmet and Lycra-clad image that intimidates many new cyclists. Bikenomics makes a case for how bicycle infrastructure can quickly pay for itself by increased economic activity and wellness. I’ll add them to the Resources Page, but you might also want to cruise around Microcosm Publishing as a lot of their books and zines are particularly applicable for solarpunks regardless of your interest in bikes.


Image is “Bike ride” by Jaime González via a CC-BY 2.0 License

A human-powered modular tool station

Solarpunk is about being friendly to the environment, so I’ve been thinking a lot about areas where human power could be used instead of electricity. I drew up this (very) quick sketch of a modular table that could accept a wide range of tools. It’s based on the old treadle sewing machines, but I think it could also use more conventional bike parts and be pedal powered. I’m not sure what the advantages are of treadle vs pedal, so if anyone knows why the old sewing machines used that system instead I’d be very curious to know!

Sketch of a human-powered base for various tools. Loosely based on treadle-powered sewing machine tables.

A rough idea of a human-powered (treadle or pedal) modular system

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Treadle sewing machine. The sewing machine folds out from the center of the table when needed.

Caleb Spears from Portal Bikes said that Portal was using a modified cottered bottom bracket spindle to drive the attachments for their system. I think using a similar setup would be beneficial when building the table since tools could then be interchangeable between both systems. Caleb mentioned that the Portal Bikes usually have one person pedaling and one person operating the tools. Having a PTO hookup on either the inside or outside of the table to allow one-person operation of smaller tools and two-person operation of larger mechanisms would be ideal.

Picture of a cottered bottom bracket spindle with a notch cut in the end. The notch allows for the attachment of various tools.

This is the spindle picture I was sent by Caleb at Portal Bikes

I think my next steps will be to make a mock-up of the system in LEGO to see if there are any obvious flaws with the idea. If you can find an old treadle base for a reasonable price, I think it would be a great starting point for a full-sized prototype.

gettheshot75

Treadle base with no top

Be sure to sound off in the comments if you’ve ever used a treadle sewing machine or any other kind of human-powered tools! Thanks for stopping by!


Photo credits:

  1. Jim Hammer: “Singer Sewing Machine” (CC-BY-SA 2.0 license)
  2. Caleb Spear: Picture of Portal Bikes PTO Spindle
  3. gettheshot75: “Treadle Sewing base” (CC-BY-SA 2.0 license)