Last week, the tech media stopped dead in its tracks after the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had a small army working on a car. The codename for the project is, reportedly, “Titan.”
But roughly 20 years before Titan came along, there was BEHEMOTH. Short for “Big Electronic Human Energized Machine, Only Too Heavy,” the 105-speed bike was the work of a self-taught computer hobbyist named Steve Roberts, who worked on it with about 45 other engineers, machinists, bike gurus, and chip-makers. And it was completely bananas.
“It felt like NASA,” Roberts told me.
The BEHEMOTH weighed a whopping 580 pounds and was pimped out with three laptops networked together—including a hacked Mac—several wireless communication systems, a color LCD display, a satellite earth station, a CD player, a handlebar keyboard, and solar panels to power it all. This green machine had more technology on board than most cars have today. And it was a group effort—most Friday afternoons, Roberts said, up to a dozen volunteers would come to the BikeLab in Mountain View, California to brainstorm about the kinds of sensors and gadgets that would be on the BEHEMOTH.
Roberts even built a Google-Glassy heads-up display with a built-in sound system, cooling apparatus, microphone and an ultrasonic head-mouse sensor so he could navigate the windows on the computer hands-free while biking. He was among the first first to use that kind of technology in day-to-day life, and the result sometimes was kind of jarring, he says.
Once, Roberts says, he was riding the BEHEMOTH in Wisconsin and saw a pretty girl. He turned to look, and gestured his mouse to click on her. It obviously didn’t work. “It was kind of interesting that I had gotten so involved in this system, that reality had become just another layer that didn’t quite fit the user interface,” he says. “It was frustrating.”
Roberts could also type and check his e-mail from the road, using the handlebar keyboard. Texting and driving, it seems, was an issue that preceded the smartphone era. “I’ve been accused of being the first to do that,” Roberts told me. “I’m not sure it’s a claim to fame I really want.”
Roberts’ quixotic project amazed other hackers. “The big thing at the time was that he could send and receive email and log on to various online services in the middle of absolutely nowhere,” Marc Weber, the curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, told me. “He’d be out in the desert and connected, which was really tough to do back then.”
Roberts’ wheeled contraption was so well-connected and so well-programmed, in fact, that if its sensors detected something was amiss, the onboard cellphone could dial 911 on its own and alert the police that it was being stolen, for instance. It would even give the police its coordinates so that they could come to its rescue.
BEHEMOTH was the third computerized bike Roberts engineered. He started building these ‘recumbent’ contraptions in the early 80s. (His first two mobile ‘computers’ were dubbed the Winnebiko I and the Winnebiko II.) And more than 30 years after Roberts first hot-rodded his own smart bike, the technologies he built for himself are now part of our everyday lives.
“Today, one could garner media attention by taking off on a cross-country bicycle trip without a laptop, living an ascetic life with no net connection,” Roberts wrote on his website. “But in 1983 the very concept of e-mail was mysterious to most people, and coupled with the sexy Winnebiko and a passel of onboard goodies, the effect was electric.”
After riding 17,000 miles around the U.S. on the Winnebikos and BEHEMOTH (they were all built on the same frame), Roberts donated it to the Computer History Museum, where it’s currently on display.
Today, Roberts lives in the San Juan Islands on his boat. He’s writing a book about his adventures with BEHEMOTH.
Futures Past is a weekly look at the technologies and science that imagined the future, correctly or not. If you’ve got a tip, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brownie points if you’re from the future.