Monday, April 27, 2009

Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part I

Last week, I had the honor to chat over the phone with Prof. David Gordon Wilson of MIT. It was an initiative I took as something told me I had to find out how he's doing and what he's up to these days, at the same time capturing some of his views and experiences on cycling, past and present.

Prof. Wilson is to the recumbent HPV as perhaps Gary Fisher is to mountain biking. A keen hiker and bicyclist, he was a former president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, and was editor of its journal Human Power from 1984 - 2002. During this time, he also taught engineering design, turbo-machinery and heat exchanger design to students at MIT. One of the many feathers in his cap was the Avatar-2000, a recumbent bicycle he co-designed with Fomac Inc. It won the non-UCI world bicycle speed record twice, 1982-1983.

While these things may not be quite familiar to people who don't know him well, his name is most popularly associated with the seminal text Bicycling Science, a book that acquired an almost cult like status after it was published by MIT Press in 1974. Flushing away previously held myth and folklore, it shed light into the physics and engineering of bicycles and steered the way for better technical understanding of the subject. This, together with some other supplementing events, stamped the official authority of bicycle 'guru-ship' on him.

Today, the book has undergone 3 revisions and is still studied and quoted from by cyclists and enthusiasts world over. I personally remember the occasions when I would borrow this book from my college library and sit on it for days. So much was my interest to read and understand this text that I got fined on several occasions by the library for not honoring my return dates (sheepish grin).

Source of photo : Wicked Local Winchester

Prof. Wilson was born in 1928 in Warwickshire, England - a long way in the shadow of the first World War, and just a year or two after John Logie Baird had given the first public demo of the television and English women over 21 years of age had been enfranchised (Source). Ever since his childhood, he loved riding a bicycle and made it an immediate hobby, even prime to that of his desire of being a pilot.

In a chapter of his upcoming Memoirs, he writes that it was on his ninth birthday in February 1937, that he was presented for the first time with a Hercules single speed boy's bicycle by his father. By the time he was 12, he was riding a 3 speed bike with 26 inch wheels and handlebars that could be reversed to the semi-dropped position. By today's standards, it would easily be called a 'clunker', but David looked forward to every journey on that machine. In fact, he was to ride it for the rest of his stay in Britain for almost a quarter century.

WWII came and went and despite having some difficult personal experiences to go through, he would be single handedly organizing bicycle tours across the country with his friends while studying at Bishop Vesey's Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield. After graduation, he was encouraged to take up mechanical engineering at the University of Birmingham. This was a course of action that he fell back on after being turned down for armed service in the Royal Navy due to the demobilization (Memoirs manuscript, Chapter 3).

He first crossed the Atlantic in 1953 after a PhD from University of Nottingham, working his way in the engine room of a cargo boat on the Glasgow-Montreal run. In 1955, he was awarded a post-doctoral Commonwealth-Fund fellowship for study and research at MIT and Harvard. He worked as a turbine engineer at Boeing. After returning to work in Britain in the gas-turbine industry, he taught for two years in Nigeria and worked briefly with the VSOs (the British precursor of the US Peace Corps) in the Cameroons. For six years before joining the MIT faculty in 1966, he was Technical Director and Vice President of Northern Research and Engineering Corporation (NREC) in London and in Massachusetts.

It was there while working for NREC that he got the bright idea of sponsoring a worldwide bicycle design competition. It worried him as he discovered that as opposed to England, fewer adults were actually riding bicycles in the US. From many unfavorable personal experiences, he was also concerned that there were glaring deficiencies in modern bicycles that made using them more dangerous than they should have been.

So a competition to design a better bike that would encourage more cycling was proposed. It was widely publicized in the magazine Engineering from 1967-1969 and on April 11, 1969 the winning design was picked. It would be a recumbent bicycle designed by W. Lydiard which, to David, would spur a deep interest in recumbent design. He designed one in 1970 and took it to MIT to show it to his students, after which he decided to ride it home through Cambridge. To his amazement, people cheered him as he went past. The comfort, speed and safety benefits of recumbents were a revelation to him and he openly supported the movement in his teachings, letters and interviews. This interest in human powered vehicles, together with the book Bicycling Science that he had published soon after, would lift him to the status of a bicycle guru.

As if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he also worked as a consultant to Abiomed Inc. where he designed the centrifugal pump used in Abiocor, the world's first artificial heart. In 2001 a group of MIT people ("Ignite") joined him to form Wilson TurboPower Inc., a startup company part-owned by MIT, with the aim of developing and producing very-high-efficiency regenerative heat exchangers and gas turbines. Dave was chair of the board of Common Cause, Massachusetts, in 2003, a group trying to reintroduce democracy into Massachusetts politics. He also co-founded and took leadership of MASH (Massachusetts Action on Smoking and Health), a group that worked for nonsmokers' rights.

He happened to even tell me the following :

"I used to be a beekeeper and worked for a bee farmer in Perry, Iowa a while ago."
David has held a number of respected positions, everything from an engineer at Boeing, gas-turbine designer at Ruston & Hornsby (UK), to editor of Human Power Journal, Chair of the IAP Policy Committee, VP of NREC, to currently Emeritus Professor at MIT, and President and CTO of Wilson TurboPower Inc. See here for more on his research interests and honorary titles accumulated over the years.

In the next couple in installments of this series, I will present to you some of the details of the conversation I had with him. Everything from Bicycling Science to his views on the current energy crisis. So stay buzzed!


Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part I
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part II
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part III
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part IV
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part V

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Human_Amp said...

Great piece - thanks. (I will tweet a link ... twitter can also be used for useful stuff, not just 'what I just ate' :-) it can even be used like a micro blog for those of us who are not as good at writing or blogging. (Come in Ron, the water's warm).

I too poured over every page of Bicycling Science - great book and great man. I was lucky enough to meet Dave in Toronto 10 yrs ago, a very modest guy. I am looking forward to Pt2 ... please keep us posted about the up coming Memoirs. .. Mark

Phil said...

Very nice. I can't wait for the next part.

Ken Hellier said...

Boy, as much as I admire this man, I'd hate to imagine what'd happen if he did sign up for the Royal Navy.

Human_Amp said...

Good point alloycowboy -
If you compile this blog, and useful links into a book, it would make a fascinating 1 stop biketech read - what do you think Ron ? .. mark