so, do you want to be a part of ypsilanti’s manhattan project?

Earlier this year, I posted something about this idea I had to get a bunch of people together to watch the old Robert Mitchum film Night of the Hunter along the banks of the Huron River in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. It apparently resonated with a few folks and we began kicking the idea around. Someone offered the use of a PA. Someone else offered a projector. I got a few emails from folks willing to tie their bed sheets up in the trees alongside the river to show the film on. And we began to work on the big outstanding issues: how to get power and how to stay on the right side of the law. Someone brought up the idea of bicycle power, and my high school friend Paul offered the following:

I’ve thought about trying to build a bike generator. You could just replace the rear wheel of an old bike with a motor, add an energy storage/AC inverter box, and presto, you’d have free power (and get good exercise too).

When I learned how much power can be generated by a human body though, I got discouraged. For instance, a super-fit, Tour de France-caliber bicyclist can sustain about 400 watts over several hours. But even that would barely be enough to run the portable theater.

The main problem is the projector, with its super-bright lightbulb. A quick google search reveals the average projector consumes about 250 watts. Add a sound system and factor in generator inefficiencies, and you’d probably need Lance Armstrong to power this thing. And he’d be pretty tired by the end of the film.

For the average “fit” adult, you could count on around 150 to 200 watts being available (after inefficiencies, maybe 100 watts). So you could power the theater with three or four such riders, or maybe 6-7 kids. The effort would be similar to riding a real bike (with wind resistance) at about 20mph for a few hours.

Using the human body as a reference point gives me a good feel for how much power is actually consumed by all the everyday devices we take for granted.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I began thinking that it would actually be a relatively inexpensive way to put Ypsi on the map as a “green” city. I began thinking about the national press we could get for pulling something like this off, and how much Ypsi needed something positive to rally around after the murder at EMU and the recent battle over the income tax. And I began trading notes with local alternative energy guru Dave Strenski. Here’s what Dave had to say about bike power:

…Human powered generators (would be) the best option for safety and “coolness” but can be expensive…

If I’m reading your mind correctly, this is what you want.

You can find DIY plans for bike generators here, here, here, and here.

You can also buy finished bike stands here or here.

Keep in mind that a healthy/fit person can produce about 100 watts of power for maybe 30 minutes. I think you would need 10 to 20 bikes plus a line of would-be pedelers. Each bike would have it’s own small battery to smooth out the power coming from the bike and to handle people switching riders. All the power would then be collected behind the screen (some place safe) and combined and sent to an inverter to convert the DC power to AC to run the projector.

Sounds like a great event, but would be costly to put on. Maybe you could sell the bike stands after the show to recover some of the costs. I could see people sitting on the Riverside Park’s sledding hill watching a movie with a line of bikes in back. There would be two prices to watch the movie. One for sitters and one for bikers….

So, let’s say we want to do this by spring. As I see it, we’d need at least three work groups. One to handle the math, engineering and implementation. One to handle the pr, marketing and fundraising. And one to handle the logistics, permits, etc. My sense, just looking at the notes from Paul and Dave, is that we could probably do it with 14 bikes, if we had fresh riders to rotate in. I bet we could also get 14 used bikes donated. I even suspect that we could find someone here in town to contribute space to store them and work on them. And, if we’re lucky, I bet we could even find some local mechanical types to put all the pieces together. So, all we’d really need to do is raise money for the motors. My friend Homeless Dave just built out a system in his house (see his video further down) and I suspect he’d be willing to help us cost everything out.

So, here’s the question… Am I stupid to think that this might be possible? Is it unreasonable to think that we can get 20 bike riders to rotate in and out for the duration of a two-hour movie? Is the cost of 14 or more motors going to be too much? Is the city going to want to charge us the same as they do other local festivals that charge admission, etc? (I would want this to be open and free to the public.) I don’t know. There are a lot of components and a lot of unanswered questions. It’s exponentially more complicated than something like the Shadow Art Fair, but I think it might be worth it… How cool would it be to get something like this off the ground? And, once it’s up and running, there’s no reason it couldn’t be done on a regular basis. (Unless we follow Dave’s advice and sell the bikes afterward, which is also a good idea.) Once all the pieces are together, we could break everything out several times a year if we wanted to. We could even use the bikes to generate energy for other events. We could run the PA at the annual Herritage Festival. We could use it to power the lights at other city-sponsored events. We could even keep them somewhere, like at the Senior Center, for people to charge their phones and laptops with… I’m sure there are other things that need to be said, but I’ve got some other work to do now, so I’m going to leave you with Homeless Dave’s video on bike power. Watch it, imagine the possibility of what I’ve laid out here, and let me know whether or not you’d be interested in meeting to discuss it further.

update: Another approach that may be worth considering is getting a number of local businesses, not-for-profits, social groups, neighborhood associations and the like to each sponsor a bike. We could give them the plans, and help them out, but they would each be responsible for getting the bike there on the day of the event, having it staffed with riders, etc. It could be pretty cool.

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  1. Joe
    Posted December 12, 2007 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Do it. Would the bikers be able to watch the movie as well…hope so. I’ll donate some pedal power, have some engineering skills, and i think we should also consider some human sized hamster wheels so Ypsi’s runners can also contribute.

  2. KT
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    We could get the local bike shop and local cycle groups involved. There may also be classes or student groups at UM, Eastern, WCC and the local high schools who want to participate.

  3. Rex
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’m definitely interested in helping out, with pedal power and manpower.

    I wonder how loud these generators would be, if they’re all spinning simultaneously. and how far away from the movie they’d need to be to prevent the sound from interfering.

  4. Posted December 13, 2007 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    in a2, east quad bike coop.

    as a victim of a live-in hauler, we currently have a spot in our backyard with 5-10 rescued bikes that are not road ready but would be perfect for this application.

    sign me up for the engineering and pedaling teams.

    if bike noise is an issue you could always stick to silent films.

  5. Ol' E Cross
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Sign me up for a lemonade and nice spot on the lawn, preferably with a good view of both the screen and those cyclist’s sexy, pumping legs.

  6. Posted December 13, 2007 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I would be interested in sponsering a bike, and I am sure I could exploit Forrest as a rider. With his deliveries to the brewery all year round he should be in good enough shape to pump out a few watts for at least an hours. The PA I have is 150 watts I think, and it would probably work fine for something like this.

  7. brad
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    i’d be willing to help however i can… keep me posted!

  8. Mark H.
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    this is a way cool idea, and it would get a blurb in the news, i’d bet. i’ll pedal a stationary bike for it!

  9. MCNB
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    misc note: This reminds me of an old SNL skit with Dan Akroyd playing Jimmy Carter, providing his own electricity for a televised speech from pedal power. Couldn’t find the clip online, but found it mentioned within a pitch for a product that turns your TV volume down/off if your heartrate slows down during exercising. This was during the energy crisis, and whenever Carter slowed down the TV would turn to static.,2704,1908060,00.asp

  10. BVos
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    The Police Dept. has a ton of bikes in lock up that they find abandoned around town. I don’t know what the regulations are on disposing of these bikes, but it might be worth looking into since it would be a good supply of semi-junky bikes that could be modified without feeling guilty about taking a perfectly fine bikes apart.

  11. egpenet
    Posted December 13, 2007 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    If we re-purpose all those lost-and-found bicycles, which usually end up being given away or in the hands of local pawnbrokers, what will drug dealers do for deliveries?

    What will pimps use to chase down their ladies or round up “johns”?

    What will thieves do, who depend on those “borrowed” bikes to haul away their ill-gotten gains to the local scrap yards and pawn shops?

    OMG! This would devastate Ypsi’s entreprenurial economy!

  12. Posted December 14, 2007 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    What a hoot. Too much work for a one-off, but if’n you’re thinking “film series,” I’m in for a summer of pedaling and other types of grunt work (no engineering or fundraising for me, please).

    BTW, EMU’s public safety also has a substantial stash of abandoned bikes.

  13. dan from austin
    Posted December 14, 2007 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I bet some of the local bike shops would most definitely get involved!

    This is a really cool idea Mark.

    Austin has a regular Movies in the Park series, but it’s not human-powered.

  14. HD
    Posted December 26, 2007 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Re: Ypsi’s Manhattan Project (YMP)

    Question: What’s the YMP equivalent of Fat Man and Little Boy?

    Background: Directly powering an electrical device by pedaling a generator still requires something in the circuit to smooth out the voltage delivered to the device and to accommodate the variation in the voltage required by the device. There are at least two ways to do this: (i) capacitor (ii) battery. The 58-Farad ultra-capacitor I have costs around $150, and was shipped wrapped inside 6 inches of bubble wrap with CAUTION labels and language suggesting to me it might as well be nuclear waste. As I understand it, the virtue of an ultra-capacitor lies in its ability to very quickly charge up and discharge its voltage on demand, say for example, in applications like accelerating an automobile. So apparently there’s lots of ultra-capacitors involved in getting decent performance out of electric cars like the Tesla Roadster. By comparison, the battery I have from BatteriesPlus on Packard Street cost maybe $25 and is no more dangerous than any lead-acid car battery … which is still plenty dangerous, I suppose.

    Based on cost and availability, batteries are probably the way you want to go for YMP. You’ll be charging the battery as it’s simultaneously discharging into the device. So it doesn’t have to be a huge battery, if your goal is to directly power some device by pedaling a generator. It just has to be big enough to perform its voltage-smoothing function. But as long as batteries are a part of the equation, it’s worth thinking about a battery as something more than just a way to smooth out the voltage delivered by pedaling. I mean, what people typically use batteries for is storage.

    Answer: Two large (200-300 pound) batteries (consisting possibly of smaller batteries linked together). They should be the largest batteries that are still portable on some sort of human-powered cart.

    Question: What’s the point of these huge fuckin batteries?

    Answer: Once charged up, they will supply the already-stored power necessary for the ‘show’ without any pedaling effort during the event itself. The communal pedaling effort to charge up Fat Man and Little Boy could be distributed over several days, weeks, even months prior to the event to be powered by these batteries. And because the pedaling activity can be distributed over a longer time, there is a reduced need to construct a multitude of pedal-powered generators. A couple of them would probably be sufficient. So you could focus on making those couple of pedaling units really efficient and nice (adjustable seat-posts for different size riders, adjustable handlebar stems, clipless pedals and adapters for non-cleated shoes, whatever), instead of trying to make lots and lots of them. Even though the number of units would be way smaller, the number of pedalers participating in the enterprise is potentially way larger.

    Local non-profits that are willing and able to provide a publicly accessible space could act as stewards of the pedaling units and batteries during the charging. The idea is that folks who wanted to help charge the batteries by pedaling would go and do that pretty much at their convenience–by themselves or with a group of friends taking turns–at whatever non-profit the units were housed.

    Ideally what you’d want is a realtime update on the web indicating progress towards a full charge–something along the lines of one of those United Way giving thermometer-type deals where the level of giving is reflected in an upward-creeping red column–perhaps some image more evocative of Ypsi than a thermometer, like the water tower … um, yeah, okay, maybe a giant phallus growing redder with each pedal stroke is not exactly what you want. But the idea is that people could check in on the web and see where things stood at any time.

    Getting the batteries charged up for some upcoming ‘show’ is certainly an impetus to participate in the pedaling project. But charging up the batteries could be an ongoing project that, in principle, never needs to end, even if there’s no ‘show’ scheduled. When fully charged, the batteries would then be an impetus to schedule a ‘show’, because Fat Man and Little Boy would need to have all that pent-up charge released.

    Question: Isn’t it more like a community activity to have the activity of group pedaling during the show, instead of individual efforts prior to the event? It sounds boring to just go pedal by myself.

    Answer: Maybe, I dunno. I think the potential for wider participation in the pedaling (if it’s done prior to the show) means that you have the easy conversational gambit among strangers of, “Did you do any pedaling for this?”, or “So, how many watt-hours did you do?” or “So where did you do your pedaling?” So the event itself could be an opportunity to build community by sharing individual histories, whereas group pedaling at the event would emphasize building community through a history shared directly as a group. You wouldn’t have to pedal by yourself–you could go with a friend and take turns. It’s worth mentioning that pedaling a stationary pedaling device is a pretty brutal way to spend even modest chunks of time, no matter what the context. You might well want to be alone in your physical and mental agony.

    Question: This one movie we want to watch in the park runs for 2 hours, so what makes you think it’s possible to put together batteries that weigh 300 pounds or less that will deliver the roughly 4kWh we need for that?

    Answer: That’s a good, empirical question. Someone with more expertise than I’ve got should analyze it. It’s worth considering though, how long you can power a ‘show’ with the equipment you think you need, given just the power of a couple of 200-300 pound batteries–whatever that capacity turns out to be. And then you consider what kind of ‘show’ can be put on within that constraint. One example of a concept that could be a shrunk or expanded to fit would be a SlideLuck PotShow type event, where the material to be displayed consists of several short sets of images selected from artist submissions. If you’ve got enough power for 30 minutes, well, then you only select 15 of the two-minute sets, instead of 50. In fact, asking the SlideLuck Potshow itself to consider Ypsilanti as a venue wouldn’t be a bad idea. (Detroit and Ann Arbor are already slated for 2008, I think, and a key organizer has local ties–Casey Kelbaugh is the son of the UM School of Architecture’s Dean, Doug Kelbaugh, who is among other things … a cycling enthusiast.) Or perhaps there will be a repeat of ArbCamp, which Fat Man and Little Boy could allow to happen in a real camp-like setting, say in Nichols Arboretum–now that would be a real ArbCamp worthy of the name (what’s the power requirement beyond a bunch of laptops–I dunno)

    Question: Why is it necessary to push this metaphor of Manhattan Project all the way to needing an equivalent of Fat Man and Little Boy? This seems more like just a rhetorical ploy to make us think about using stored charge instead of pedal-powering directly. Why do you want to associate this enterprise with death and destruction? Fat Man and Little Boy were BOMBS, remember?

    Answer: Granted, it’s a rhetorical ploy. But there’s a promotional and marketing advantage to having a reduced set of items to focus on–like just two big-ass batteries. If you’re pitching a prospective donor, you can say, “Your money is being spent on Fat Man, a big-ass battery. Period.” That’s easy to parse in two seconds, or about the average modern attention span. In the physical form of these two big-ass batteries, you also have two very focused and readily apparent places to sell sponsorship space. Shoot, Tesla Motorworks might be happy to donate the batteries themselves (they have a dealership in Detroit somewhere, I think) … but I’m not sure that the association they want with their product is bicycle power–they’re trying to target the sportscar market. And yes, there’s the death and destruction aspect. That could be tackled head-on with a slogan/motto something like: Ypsi’s Fat Man and Little Boy–they’re batteries, not bombs.

  15. Posted December 27, 2007 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I think the great film The Triplets of Belleville requires a mention here.

  16. mark
    Posted December 27, 2007 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Dave. I’ll move your comments up to the front page.

    And I can’t remember the details, but I seem to recall that someone in Ann Arbor made national news when they punched another audience member in the face for talking during a screening for Les Triplettes de Bellville.

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