Making Trouble — Celebrate the Machinery

At the moment, the thing that’s exciting me more than anything else is a tricycle. I know that probably doesn’t sound like a big idea, or even cool in any way. Tricycles are for kids at best, right? Well, makers get involved in all sorts of projects and follies for reasons we probably can’t explain to our spouses, and sometimes can’t even explain to ourselves.

But this time it’s a little different; I can explain exactly why I’m building this thing and why I’m passionate about it. I’m trying to live an experiment right now, an experiment in living a climate-friendly life.

I know there are MAKE readers who don’t believe in the science of climate change (some wrote me nasty emails last time I mentioned it), but I do believe in it, and I’m trying to do something about it.

I’m trying to go through the things in my life one by one and improve them or remove them, until I have a high-quality life that 7 billion other people could also live while avoiding the worst of climate change.

In order to accomplish that, one thing on my list is to build a cargo tricycle to get myself to work. But it needs to tilt around corners for stability, and it needs to go fast, faster than a normal bicycle. Faster even than those unfortunate souls who must battle city traffic in their cars? You bet — with an electric motor, this trike can do 20mph all the time, up any hill, anywhere.

But that’s not why I’m writing this article. That was just my wordy preamble. You see, I like to imagine that really good design still has a place in the world. And if you want to make your projects beautiful to people other than yourself, you need good design. So I started thinking about how to make a new kind of electric hybrid tricycle with a lasting, attractive design.

I spend a lot of time in bike shops, to my wife’s chagrin. (Though, to her credit, when we tried to think of fun things to do for my birthday recently, her first suggestion was, “Let’s go to every bicycle store in the city, in one day.”)

But bike stores aren’t where the great design inspiration I wanted was to be found. Modern bikes are all kind of same-same, generic, the way modern cars all seem to be the same. Design is not dead, but sometimes it seems we’re hell-bent on killing it — or at least burying it alive beneath a sleek, shiny surface.

So I was delighted to stumble across a funny little bar in the middle of San Francisco. I always like stumbling across little bars, but this one, Eddie Rickenbacker’s, actually houses a collection of 20 or 30 early motorcycles.

What we might forget when we look at a modern Harley-Davidson is that motorcycles actually came from a heritage of motorized bicycles. I’ve often quipped to friends that the bicycle was to the 1890s what the internet was to the 1990s. There was huge design innovation and experimentation in all things bicycle, and then this weird thing called the internal combustion engine came along and the possibilities seemed boundless.

I found all the inspiration I needed at the intersection of the eras of the bicycle and the motorcycle. People didn’t even know what to call these things yet! The 1911 Excelsior Auto-Cycle was one attempt to name the genre. The 1902 Peugeot Motobicyclette, the 1907 Indian Racer, the 1912 New Imperial Light Tourist, the 1915 Cleveland, the 1922 Motosacoche: these bikes hang from the walls and ceilings of Eddie Rickenbacker’s, dripping with inspiration, gleaming with brass and chrome, all of them proudly showing off the new technology.

Every cam, every lever, every carburetor and belt drive was worn on the outside. These machines had nothing to hide; they celebrated new technology. There were no perfectly bland plastic housings, there was just sheet metal and castings and rivets. Why is it that on the cusp of the electric vehicle revolution, we feel the need to hide the interesting stuff? Why not show it off? I guess it’s hard to make batteries beautiful and electric motors sexy, but that’s the challenge I now have.

How do you capture the spirit and promise of a new technology and express it with delight in a new design? How do you exaggerate the coolness, not bury it in plastic? That’s what I need to do with my tricycle. I’ve got to make you want and love the quirks, the oddness, to express the trike’s freedoms visibly. In this case, freedom from carbon and foreign oil.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

View more articles by Saul Griffith


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