High-tech nomadness, circa the late 80s

Bikes Fun & Games
High-tech nomadness, circa the late 80s

Steve Roberts, the “high-tech nomad,” posted this awesome image to his Facebook page. He writes:

Thanks to Dan Burden for this image from the Deep Archives, taken during a 1988 photo session with him in Florida. I’m aboard the Winnebiko II, which used a hacked Radio Shack Model 100 in the console, along with a binary handlebar keyboard processed by a 68HC11. It also carried packet radio, operable while riding, a speech synthesizer, 20 watts of solar panels, 2-meter ham radio, and full touring gear. This was my favorite of the three bike versions.

I vividly remember the images of the Winnebikos and the BEHEMOTH, subscribing to Steve’s email newsletters, and learning A LOT about “gonzo engineering” from him.

Nomadic Research Labs


12 thoughts on “High-tech nomadness, circa the late 80s

  1. Shadyman says:

    Even today, that bike is a laudable accomplishment.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      I agree. He was such a huge inspiration to me, a real proto-maker. Think about it: MAKE is about “technology on your time.” Steve was (is) all about taking control of your tech and speeding up what makes sense and slowing down what doesn’t. I wanted to be like him, to have that efficacy with the technology in my life. And his adage of “Engineering without art is calculation, art without engineering is dreaming,” and the lifestyle and aesthetic that it implies, lies at the heart of what I think MAKE/Maker Faire is all about. Dorkbot, too.

      1. Carnes says:

        Ok, slightly off topic but I’ve been looking in Burning Man and it looks like there is a tech-nomad type group there too. There is a lot of art and a lot of engineering and somewhere in there the edges get blurry.. there you’ll find stuff like the above. You can youtube search for “Mutant vehicle” and come up with hours of crazy to watch.

  2. toyotaboy says:

    OMG, I remember seeing him in the mid 80’s on some talk show (either donahue or that thick red frames glasses woman). The thing I remember more than anything was him talking about how he built his boxes out of corrugated plastic and coated them with fiberglass (lightweight, super-durable).

    To this day I think about him every once in a while, thinking of a way to recreate what he did (in a modern way). I would love to ride across america like him.

    1. Jason says:

      The biggest thing I remember about him in that interview was that his handle bar (right side I believe) had two buttons, and he programmed in binary while he was riding. I was totally amazed and mystified by that as a young programmer in the 80’s, and I always think of him when I see wearable computers with single hand input devices. Brilliant guy.

  3. Microship says:

    Thanks for the invitation to join this thread, Gareth! I’m honored to have made an impression during those wonderfully crazy adventures.

    Couple of replies to comments above…

    Toyotaboy – thanks for the kind words! A BEHEMOTH of today would be tiny, and much more manageable… the final version of the bike (not the one in the photo above) weighed in at 580 pounds fully loaded. It needed 105 speeds and deployable landing gear just to manage the hills! Anyway, the show you’re probably recalling was indeed Phil Donahue, and the construction method was something I call CSPC, or cellulose-core silicon-matrix, polyester-filled composite… hot-glued corrugated cardboard with fiberglass over it. The surface takes resin very well, and with some care, you can even do compound curves. I have a short how-to here:


    Jason, thanks also for the comment! The keyboard on the Winnebiko was a homebrew 8-bit chording system split between both hands; I actually typed in a slightly modified ASCII, with the low 5 bits mapped to the strongest fingers (3 on right, 2 on left). The others were return, backspace, and space if used alone; in combination they were the zone bits to get to special characters, numbers, etc. Not the best approach from a usability perspective, as some common letters took multiple fingers, but the basic alphabet was easy to learn.

    On BEHEMOTH (circa 1990), each hand had its own full chord keyboard, using a letter-frequency-based coding scheme. In both cases, my maximum typing speed was about half my normal QWERTY rate (squeeze… squeeze… squeeze… with no rollover as in a normal keyboard). I offset this with a macro-expansion hack that let me type in abbreviations that were expanded on-the-fly, much like the current TypeIt4Me and TextExpander on the Mac.

    The current project is a lot bigger… an 18-ton steel pilothouse sailboat named Nomadness. Tales of that and other epochs are scattered around http://microship.com

    Cheers and fair winds!

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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