Steve Roberts: Computing Across America
Steve Roberts may well have been the original digital nomad. Several decades after his “Computing Across America” tours, we’ve uncovered his offbeat story of living and working from the saddle. You can learn more about Steve and the fascinating computerized bicycles that made his 17,000-mile journey around the United States possible here…
Back in the early 1980s, Steve Roberts was working as a freelance author and computer consultant in Dublin, Ohio. It was a time well before cell phones existed, the internet was barely in its infancy, and working remotely was still a far-fetched idea. Steve had recently marked the milestone of turning 30 and felt acutely aware of a deep sense of wanderlust that many of this site’s readers will understand well. Discontent with being tied to his desk, he began searching for another way of living and working that could satisfy his craving for adventure, freedom, and fun.
Despite not having any footsteps to follow or a guidebook to consult for such an endeavor, Steve dreamed up a plan that would be unthinkable to most people, even today. He spent six months making meticulous arrangements and outfitting a custom recumbent touring bike with a solar-powered Radio Shack Model 100 portable computer that would allow him to keep in touch with his clients and publishers while living on the road full-time. He’d haul camping gear to be able to sleep anywhere and could hit deadlines by connecting to the internet via phone and uploading his pieces in a manner nearly all of us take for granted these days.
Steve was so committed to the idea that he sold his car and suburban home before setting off on his first “Computing Across America” trip. In September 1983, he made the first pedal strokes of something that started as a boldly experimental high-tech bike tour and eventually became his career. The media took a keen interest in what he was up to, and he’d go on to write a book and publish various columns and features for magazines. In addition, he gave regular interviews for print and TV outlets as he rode along.
Throughout the years that followed, Steve pedaled some 17,000 miles around the United States aboard three iterations of his extraordinary technomadic touring rigs: Winnebiko, Winnebiko II, and BEHEMOTH. The world of technology was evolving at a breakneck pace in the seven years he was touring, and his successive bikes reflect some of those technological leaps and bounds. You can find a look at all three rigs below, accompanied by a selection of TV clips that charmingly capture the spirit of each epoch.
Winnebiko was Steve’s first mobile office, and he rode it approximately 10,000 miles between 1983 and 1985. Essentially a proof of concept for his digital nomadic vision, Winnebiko lacked the more advanced bicycle-computer integration seen in its successors. It was designed around a fillet-brazed chromoly steel recumbent frame built by Jack Trumbull of Franklin Frames in Ohio. According to Steve, it weighed as much as 195 pounds when fully loaded.
At the rear sat a 48-spoke 27″ wheel laced to a Phil Wood hub. There was a smaller 16″ front wheel up front, and an under-seat steering mechanism connected to the fork via a stainless tie-rod. Winnebiko had a “wide-range” 18-speed drivetrain with a triple crankset up front and was sporting rim brakes. A Blackburn rear rack held a set of panniers and a heaping pile of bags that would be refined as the trip went on. Behind the windshield sat a zippered bag containing various electronics.
Among the electronics mounted to the bike was a CB radio for emergencies, a paging security system with a piezoelectric vibration sensor, a speed and distance sensor, a 12V battery, and a five-watt solar panel. Winnebiko’s lights included a yellow barricade flasher, a pole-mounted xenon strobe, a taillight, and a sealed-beam headlight. Steve’s Radio Shack Model 100 laptop sat in the rear pack and was replaced by a more advanced HP-110 portable in 1984. Although Winnebiko lacked provisions for writing while riding, it featured a remote-controlled audio cassette deck that he could use for recording voice memos on the go, which he used throughout the process of writing his Computing Across America book (along with a stack of good old-fashioned spiral notebooks).
Winnebiko II (1986-1988)
Technology progressed rapidly during the two years Steve was riding Winnebiko, and after 10,000 miles together, he’d started feeling like its capabilities were antiquated. An update was overdue. The main question that drove the second version of Winnebiko’s design was, “What fun is a computerized bicycle if you can’t write while riding?”
In 1986, after months of dreaming about the capabilities he wished he’d had at his fingertips while riding, followed by an intense development period, Winnebiko II was born. “The geeky parts were intense,” Steve wrote about the process of incorporating a host of powerful new electronics into his recumbent setup. Excitingly, Winnebiko II was a substantial leap forward from its forerunner, but getting its five computers and two solar panels to fit elegantly and pair nicely proved exceptionally challenging. Despite the steep learning curve, Steve managed, and he also made several upgrades to the bike at that time.
Thanks to the built-in keyboard that allowed him to type around 35 words per minute in binary, Steve could now write on the go, and he says he may have the dubious honor of being the first person to text while driving. In addition to typing, he could also communicate via ham radio, providing a sense of connection he’d sorely missed during his time on Winnebiko. As it happens, he met a woman named Maggie around this time, and she was willing to drop everything and leave her Midwest life behind to join him on the road.
Winnebiko II Electronics
- 68HC11 Bicycle Control Processor, running Control BASIC, dedicated 2-line LCD
- Handlebar chord keyboard with auxiliary button set on console
- Repackaged Model 100 computer built into console, Traveling Software Booster Pak
- Packet radio TNC (PacComm) for on-the-road email
- Votrax speech synthesizer
- Yaesu 290 multimode 2-meter ham radio transceiver
- DTMF keypad for repeater autopatch use
- DTMF decoder for remote control via ham radio
- Cat-eye solar speed/time/distance display
- Motion-sensing security system with remote actuation
- CB radio
- Analog altimeter
- Digital Panel Meter and thumbwheel for voltage/current monitoring
- Digital clock
- Console switches for lights, power supplies, security, and other resources
- 20 watts of solar panels, with charge controller
- AC charging when utility power available
- Console speaker
- Ten-Tec Argonaut 515, keyer, and auxiliary solar panel & battery for HF operation
- Bag of single-band wire dipole antennas
- Hewlett-Packard Portable PLUS with acoustic coupler
Maggie and Steve drove from Ohio to Vancouver, British Columbia, to display the nearly finished Winnebiko II at the Expo ’86 World’s Fair. Afterward, they spent some time putting the finishing touches on it, and the pair embarked on what would turn into a 6,000-mile bicycle adventure together. During their ride, Steve continued publishing articles and attracting media attention.
By February 1987, Steve and Maggie had made their way down the Pacific Coast and landed in Silicon Valley. They spent a few months there, meeting interesting folks with a shared interest in technology, then loaded up the bikes and drove across the country to continue touring in the Northeast and down to Florida. Following that eastern leg of the tour, they took a break from the bikes. They converted an old school bus into a mobile home and drove 16,000 miles around the US over the course of a year to visit friends and promote Steve’s recently finished Computing Across America book, “converting book sales into gasoline purchases and generally enjoying life.”
Always one to dream of the next project, Steve was also planning a third iteration of the bike during this time. He says Winnebiko II hit the “sweet spot of usability, geekery, practicality” and was his favorite of the three technomadic tourers. Still, he had plans for a new version that would be “over-the-top in a weirdly satisfying way.” By early 1989, Steve and Maggie were again in Silicon Valley to create the ultimate computerized bicycle.
As with the original Winnebiko, it didn’t take long for Winnebiko II to feel outdated. Steve was frustrated by the position this put him in, writing, “Technology was moving fast—much faster than the ambling pace of a guy on a bicycle. I had become a spokesman for the very gizmology that was leaving me behind, stuck in the slow lane, getting whiplash from rubbernecking the miracles zipping by and not having nearly enough lab time to keep up.”
Back in Silicon Valley, having built quite a reputation by this point in his unusual career, he convinced around 160 corporate sponsors and more than 45 volunteers to support his vision of a third and final state-of-the-art computerized bicycle in 1989. What followed was a development period of roughly three and a half years with an estimated cost of $1.2 million USD (about $2.7 million in today’s dollars) that involved total immersion in several labs working at the forefront of various technologies.
To create this new bike, Steve would dive into fiberglassing, sheet-metal fabrication, machining, system architectures, harsh-environment packaging, networking, bike tech, power management, audio processing, haptic interfaces, and antenna design, among other realms. Looking back, he described with awe the “dedicated team of geeks driven by the obsession of machines flickering to life, novel architectures, and the thrill of integrating the best available technologies into something that had never before been attempted.”
He called this new bike BEHEMOTH, which, hilariously, stood for “Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine… Only Too Heavy.” It represented the culmination of six years and 16,000 miles of lessons from the road, connections with like-minded individuals, and advances in computing technology.
“It was inevitable. Extrapolating from the first two, I had no choice but to build a geek extravaganza of mobile computing tools,” Steve wrote of BEHEMOTH’s creation. A far cry from the relatively simple setup he left Ohio on in 1983, BEHEMOTH housed multiple computers, satellite communications, a heads-up display, a head-controlled mouse, a multimode ham station, speech synthesis, cellular connectivity, and much more.
New for this third iteration was a trailer with a steel frame built by Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Cycles and a fiberglass-over-cardboard composite structure. Steve called it the WASU (Wheeled Auxiliary Storage Unit), and it opened up a thrilling range of expanded capabilities that otherwise wouldn’t have fit on his trusty recumbent frame. These included an embedded cellular phone with interfaces to a modem, fax, credit-card verifier, cordless phone, and answering machine; a Qualcomm satellite antenna that gave him 24/7 email connectivity; and the top-mounted BYP (Big Yellow Pole) that provided global coverage on HF amateur radio bands.
BEHEMOTH Feature List
- Macintosh 68K (control GUI and primary workspace)
- Bicycle Control Processor (FORTH 68HC11)
- Ampro 286 DOS platform for CAD system
- Toshiba 1000 repackaged laptop for scrolling FAQ
- 80 MB hard disk space
- Audapter speech synthesizer
- Speech recognition board
- Trimble GPS satellite navigation receiver
- Audio and serial crosspoint switch networks (homebrew)
- PacComm packet TNC (VHF datacomm)
- MFJ 1278 for AMTOR (HF datacomm)
- Diagnostic tools (LED matrix, DPM, etc.)
- Handlebar keyboard processor
- Ultrasonic head mouse controller
- Icom 2-meter transceiver; dedicated Larsen half-wave antenna on seat
- Radiation monitor
- Cordless phone and answering machine on RJ-11 bus
- Folding 6-segment aluminum console
- Fiberglass fairing
RUMP (enclosure behind seat)
- Stereo System (Blaupunkt speakers, Yamaha 18W amp)
- 10 GHz Microwave motion sensor (security)
- UNGO physical motion sensor (security)
- Rump Control Processor (FORTH 68HC11)
- Audio crosspoint network, bussed to console
- Ampro DOS core module for heads-up display
- LED taillight switch-mode controller (including turn signal logic)
- Single LED taillight cluster
- Motorola 9600-baud packet modem for backpack link
- 7-liter helmet-cooling tank and pump
- Personal accessory storage
- Air compressor for pneumatic system
- 15 amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery (1 of 3)
Brain-Interface Unit (Helmet)
- Reflection Technology Private Eye display
- Ultrasonic head-mouse sensors
- Helmet lights (2)
- Life Support Systems heat exchanger for head cooling
- Setcom headset with boom microphone
- Rear-view mirror on gimbaled mount
- Jacks for stereo ear-insert headphones
SPARCpack (aluminum case on top of RUMP)
- Sun SPARCstation IPC with 12MB RAM and 424 MB disk
- Sharp Color active-matrix display
- Motorola 9600-baud packet modem
- 10-watt solar panel
- 72-watt Solarex photovoltaic array (4.8 Amps at 12V)
- Qualcomm OmniTRACS satellite terminal
- Ham Radio station
- Oki cellular phone, repackaged and integrated
- Telebit CellBlazer high-speed modem
- Telular Celjack RJ-11 interface
- Credit card verifier for on-the-road sales
- Trailer Control Processor (FORTH 68HC11)
- Audio crosspoint network, bussed to console
- Bike power management hardware
- Two 15 amp-hour sealed lead-acid batteries
- Security system pager
- Canon BubbleJet printer
- Fluke digital multimeter
- Mobile R&D lab, tools, parts, etc.
- Makita battery charger (for drill and flashlight)
- Microfiche documentation and CD library
- Camping, video, camera, personal gear
- Fiberglass-over-cardboard composite structure
- High-brightness LED taillight clusters
- Bike- and Frame-Mounted Components
Custom recumbent bicycle
- 105-speed transmission (7.9 – 122 gear inches)
- Pneumatically-deployed landing gear
- Pneumatic controls, pressure tank, air horn
- Hydraulic disc brake
- Under-seat steering
- Handlebar Chord Keyboard
- CD player
Once completed, BEHEMOTH was a rolling collection of every advanced gadget that Steve and his team could imagine fitting onto a bicycle and integrating into its limited user interface. However, all that technology came with a significant weight penalty, and BEHEMOTH became a 580-pound mammoth by the time everything was mounted. Riding such a beast of burden meant rethinking the bicycle itself. Among other modifications, it needed to be equipped with a 105-speed transmission, hydraulic disc brakes, and pneumatically controlled landing gear that made it possible to crawl up hills in its 7.9-inch ultra-granny gear.
Steve took BEHEMOTH to RAGBRAI in Iowa to try riding across the state in July 1991, but it was a largely unsuccessful maiden voyage. A hub failure and subsequent field repair slowed him down two days in, and most of the event’s 10,000 riders pedaled on past him. He plodded further east to Illinois and up into Wisconsin for a tour along the shore of Lake Michigan, where, as much as he enjoyed the idea of being back on the open road, BEHEMOTH didn’t quite feel ready.
He headed back to California to finish development and eventually bought a trailer to haul the bike around the country for various speaking engagements and presentations, including an hourlong episode of the Phil Donahue Show in 1992. Most of his rides aboard BEHEMOTH involved TV cameras, and it would seem that all that technology ultimately came at the expense of the easygoing riding experience he enjoyed aboard Winnebiko, captivating and remarkable as BEHEMOTH was.
While he was touring around the shore of Lake Michigan, Steve was already dreaming of his life’s next enthralling chapter, which would be no less fascinating and would see him swap bikes for boats. He’s spent the three decades since the BEHEMOTH days exploring his fascination with boats.
From 1993-2002, he built his dream boat, a hybrid amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran called Microship, and he has since gone on to live aboard two different boats that he converted to mobile labs, Nomadness and Datawake, where he’s immersed himself in “nautical geekery” including communications, virtual reality, an underwater vehicle, a piano, an audio studio, data collection, a machine shop, and a deployable micro-trimaran for local exploration. These days, Steve lives aboard a boat in Washington’s San Juan Islands and runs a digitizing business. BEHEMOTH now resides in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
With thanks to Steve Roberts for providing photos for this piece. You can take a deep dive into the utterly engrossing world of Steve and his Nomadic Research Labs over at MicroShip.com.
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