Monday, May 11, 2009

3 Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part IV

I've been away from the computer for the past one week, so here's the much awaited part IV of my phone conversation with Prof. David Gordon Wilson, author of Bicycling Science. In this installment, he shares some experiences in pedal powered flying and views on safety, bicycle manufacturers and the room for improvements in bicycle design. Enjoy.

Q. David, what prompted you to move to the U.S?

DGW : I taught for two years in Nigeria but contracted severe malaria and had to leave. I received an unexpected job offer from London University to teach engineering there, and accepted it. But the big shot making the offer went back on his word. Eventually I accepted another offer from a Cambridge, MA R&D company which I joined in 1960. In 1965 MIT offered me a position as associate professor and I joined the faculty in '66.

Q. Did you find yourself absorbed in the cycling scene here pretty quickly or...?

DGW : Oh yes. Infact, I was a member of the League of American Wheelmen for sometime. Now its known as the League of American Bicyclists.

Q. I had the privilege of glancing over a few pages of your memoirs. You mention a most delightful experience when having granted the opportunity to fly the MIT Chrysalis. This was a human powered airplane?

DGW : Oh yes. Yes, it was. It was slow, but human powered.

Q. Could you tell me a little more about that experience?

DGW : I'm not sure of the year, but there were some faculty members and a group of Aero- Astro students who formed the MIT Chrysalis committee. The idea was to construct a human powered airplane to challenge other designs to the Kremer Prize. It was a monetary award given to the aircraft that could maneuver a one mile course in the least time. I think the wind had to be below 3mph or something like that. Anyway, the group came up with this human powered biplane made of aluminum tubing, styrofoam and Kevlar. At that time, I was editor of Human Power and on that account, I was invited to be part of the MIT committee. It was a privilege indeed. That's how I was given the opportunity to fly the aircraft when it was built. I didn't go up too high but it was an thrilling experience. I recall as I was flying it, my flight instructor pedaled on his bicycle on the runway beneath me shouting out instructions. It was like a dream come true. I think even a few women in the faculty were given the chance to fly the aircraft.

Q. Let's shift gears and come to the topic of bicycle designs. Over the past few decades, the UCI has become this notorious entity for stifling innovation in cycling. As a prominent bike guru yourself, do you believe there's something more to be discovered? There are some that say the bicycle has reached a level of perfection. Others believe there's more room for improvement. What do you feel?

DGW : Looking at it, so many designs have come about over the years and numerous configurations have been experimented with, removed or changed. It would baffle me if, despite all this, a new change to the bicycle be something enormous. Frank Whitt shared the same conservative outlook. I mean, in his writings, he said he believed the bicycle had achieved a state of near perfection.

Are there little places for improvement? Yes. I like the new enclosed belt drives, and if coupled with a an efficient transmission system like a Rohloff 14 speed, it could see very good potential. Considering recumbents, I think there is room for improvement especially in making designs that assists people with physical challenges. A narrow, leaning tricycle design is an example. Ron Beam was a recumbent enthusiast who had to switch from bicycles to tricycles (regular tricycle recumbents) when he became too old and frail to be able to pedal up a hill and keep his balance. We should also see some development of lightweight disc brakes for road bikes in the coming time. Rim brakes are bad, especially on long descents when they can heat up your rims and cause your tire to explode and so on. I remember back in the days when I took note of Shimano's bad brake designs and wrote letters to them advising what could be improved upon. Ofcourse, they read it and chose to ignore me. I spend a huge amount of time developing a wet weather brake. Me and my students worked on a wet weather braking system based on Raybestos, a material with a remarkable property of having nearly equal dry and wet coefficients of friction. This was at a time when we had almost zero braking in wet weather. My students and friends and I labored for around ten years and produced a brake that was almost perfect (I'm rather modest about it). It worked as well in the wet as in the dry, it was self adjusting, would fit in the same place and with the same brake levers as regular brakes, and the pads would last almost for ever. (I used a Positech brake for several years as the only brake on my first recumbent at a time when I was riding around 10,000 miles per year. It never needed new pads, and only one cable adjustment was required in that period) We worked with three companies to try to get it adopted. A lawyer who read about the brake in Bicycling petitioned the CPSC to have its performance specified on bicycles. The bicycle industry didn't want this, it dithered, and then suddenly switched to aluminum rims to avoid having to use our brake. So now we have rims that, if used long enough, will certainly explode - I have had six do so in my lifetime. If you are unlucky you could be converted into an instant vegetable for life. The bike industry knows about this but is apparently uninterested in doing anything about it.

Q. You sound very irked about this issue.

DGW : Absolutely. It irritates me that in countries where there's little regulation, the biggest changes to bicycle designs have to come through the ambulance chasers - the lawyers. The lawyer route is expensive. First someone prominent has to be killed. Then years of discovery and pre-trial stuff goes on during which more bicyclists are killed and seriously injured,and then usually the case is settled out of court. I have frequently been involved as an expert witness, and it is not pretty. Shimano's brake designs were appalling during the time. Having found my own family in peril (I have written about it here), I wrote to Shimano advising them to revise their design and consider some of my own recommendations. All I got for my trouble and concern were a whole lot of nasty letters from US enthusiasts who felt that I was damaging the sport through over-concern on safety and implied that I was a muddled academic who was somehow responsible for my own family's life-threatening experience.

Q. Could you tell me more about these brakes?

DGW : The concept for the brakes was developed and patented by Brian Hanson and me, and we built many prototypes and I hawked them around to try to get them picked up by bike or brake companies. Positech, mainly Allen Armstrong, a super designer from Arlington MA, heard about the brake and we happily came to an agreement to work on the concept together. He improved on our design, patented it and made about five prototypes. We tested them thoroughly - amazing performance, even on steel rims - and sent them to various companies for their tests. The brakes performed equally well in the companies' tests. No company wanted to take out a license or to buy the brake rights. The only result was that a prominent company tried to design something to get around the patent and called it something like a double-leverage brake. Also we spent a huge amount of time and money. I used one of the prototypes for many years on my first SWB, which had a highly loaded Moulton 16x1-3/8 steel wheel, and it worked beautifully wet and dry. The hard pads we used lasted for years.

* * *

David Gordon Wilson's and Brian Donald Hanson's brake patent can be viewed here.

Hanson was a graduate student in the Mechanical Engineering department at MIT. His thesis on the brake, titled "Wet-weather-effective bicycle rim brake: a product-development exercise" (1971) can be read in a PDF here.

End of Part IV


  1. Again fascinating, looking forward to reading Dave's Memoirs.

    "not invented here" syndrome is alive and well in the bicycle industry, and several over industries. Sad, but its part of human frailty that manifests within companies ... something like ... "If I promote an idea from outside, it might show I am not actually the only source of good ideas". The only way to sort-cut this impasse is to get past the may layers of filters and go to the top of confident, receptive companies. ... yeh I DO have scars too ... Mark

  2. Mark :

    I look forward to reading the book as well. In my talks with him, I forgot to ask him when he intends to get it published.

  3. Mark : David tells me :

    "My book is about ready for a publisher to review – Ellen is doing some delightful cartoons in illustration – but finding a publisher is not going to be easy. Everyone seems to be writing his/her memoirs nowadays. I’m trying to get some pieces in a magazine so that a demand will instantly arise – ha ha!"


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