This is Bicimakina

Inventor Neil Kearns discusses his pedal-powered metal lathe with Matthew during filming of an episode of Bicimakina

Inventor Neil Kearns discusses his pedal-powered metal lathe with Matthew during filming of an episode of Bicimakina

Um, bici what?  

bee + see + MA + key + nah

It's Spanish, and it literally means "bike machine." Okay, actually, bicimaquina (spelled with a QU) literally means bike machine, bicimakina means... nothing.  But when I came up with the idea for Bicimakina I knew no anglophone would get the whole QU-as-K-sound bit. Heck, hardly any non-Spanish speaker can even repeat it back to me after I've said it. So why? Why, why, why would I ever choose a name that so many people can't say? 

It's an homage to this project's roots in Central America. 

Also, I could get it as a dotcom. 

Our beginning

In 2009, a fateful “I’m Feeling Lucky” Google search sent me down to Guatemala to learn how to build pedal-powered machines with an organization called Maya Pedal. Maya Pedal takes old bicycles, donated from Bikes Not Bombs and Working Bikes, and converts them into all sorts of human-scaled, leg or arm powered devices. From bici-liquadores (bike blenders) to bici-lavadores (washing machines) to bici-bombas (water pumps), Maya Pedal crafts an incredible array of fossil-fuel free implements for home and farm. 

The three months that I spent volunteering in Guatemala were life-changing. I got to see, up close, how these machines were empowering women, increasing productivity, and pulling people out of poverty. I knew then that this was my life's work. Ever since, I've continued to look for opportunities to invent, construct, and share with others the beautiful simplicity of this technology. And that's why I've created Bicimakina, an upcoming web-series dedicated to telling the stories of the people who build and use these machines. 

The larger vision for Bicimakina, however, is to be more than just a show. 

A lot more. 

More than just a show    

Something that's always struck me as odd is the dearth of resources on human-powered machines. Other than a couple of terrific books, like Tamara Dean's The Human-Powered Home, there really isn't much out there for folks who want to geek out on this technology, let alone the chance to geek with others who share their interests. Seeing a clear need, I'm setting out to create the go-to resource for all things human-powered. While Bicimakina will be a show, it will also be an online hub with:

  • A platform for you to show off your creations
  • A blog featuring different machines, makers, and upcoming events
  • Tutorials (print and video) to learn how to create a variety of human-powered machines
  • A directory of featured inventors, homesteaders, and businesses that you can connect with
  • An online community geared toward conversation & collaboration
  • Frequent updates on best practices, tips & tricks
  • Contests and opportunities for funding

The ultimate goal of Bicimakina is to spark a renaissance in the exploration and creation of human-powered technology. As Tamara Dean points out in her book, nearly all development in this field ceased in the 1800's when fossil fuels began to supplant nearly every other form of energy. With few exceptions, in the intervening 200ish years, virtually no progress has been made on increasing the efficiency, capabilities, and adoption of human-powered machines. This means there is an incredible opportunity to explore, design, and invent a whole new class of human-powered machines. Collectively, we have more access to shared intellectual capital and the means of producing high-quality goods than at any other time in human history. Given the wide range of materials, both traditional and modern, emerging manufacturing technologies, and a burgeoning DIY/DIT movement we have everything that we need to unleash a new low-tech revolution.

Why does this matter?

With the ubiquitous adoption of fossil-fuels we unknowingly traded away a number of really, really (really) important things. In exchange for explosive economic growth, an exponential increase in the earth's carrying capacity, and near god-like technological developments, we've sacrificed the health of our planet, the health of our bodies, and a deep sense of connection and community. 

Now, you might be thinking, "Bullocks, pedal-power can't possibly meet all of our needs!" And you're right, it can't. I'm not proposing that it should. However, I do believe that it can play a small —but important— role in shifting the paradigm from one of zero-sum competition and ceaseless extraction to cooperation and regeneration. The truth is that we will need a multi-faceted approach, that emphasizes resilience, redundancy, and de-centralization. And it's going to take all of the energy sources we've got, yes, even fossil fuels

For better or worse, we can't get to where we're going with first being exactly where we are. And that means burning more fossil fuels, because solar panels can't build solar panels. Not yet anyway. The watchwords are embedded energy and transitional technology. To the best of our ability we need to think wisely about how to embed energy, from fossil fuels, into the technology that will help us transition away from fossil fuels. Of course, we can (and will) make significant gains in things like re-localizing our food systems, cooperative resource sharing, and curtailing our overall energy usage. But transitional technology happens to be the thing that gets me going and I'm uniquely qualified to help us transition in the field of human-powered machines.

Okay, so maybe now you're thinking "sure, we need solar panels and wind turbines, but what difference is a bike blender going to make?" 

I'm glad you asked 😉

Human-powered machines have a special role to play in the transition away from fossil fuels and toward a sane and compassionate existence. There are several key points that lead me to this conclusion: 

  1. Human-Powered Machines are Appropriate Technology
  2. Our Desire for Play
  3. The Power of Symbols 


Appropriate Technology

Machines like those created by Maya Pedal, are simple and approachable. When properly cared for they can last, at least, a couple of generations. Caring for these machines is also relatively straightforward, requiring basic tools, a handful of spare parts, and some form of lubrication. The mechanics of human-powered machines are fairly easy to understand; easy enough for an eager mind to grasp with only a little bit of tinkering. Bikes and bike parts are readily available, as are the metal-working tools needed to transform them into bicimaquinas. Once constructed, these machines are easy to transport, don't rely on the power grid, and can be operated by practically anyone, often with little or no explanation.

In the book Small is Beautiful, economist E.F. Schumacher described all of these traits as the elements of "intermediate technology," which we now call Appropriate Technology. Schumacher's vision was that approachable, small-scaled, labor intensive, de-centralized technology was key to creating just and equitable economies, or as he put it "economics as if people mattered." While appropriate technology is a broad and roomy umbrella under which many amazing things exist (composting toilets, solar ovens, evaporative coolers, etc.), I believe human-powered machines play a special role. 


Play time for grown-ups (and kids)

"In every human is the fundamental desire to play, to leap and laugh in pure joy." 


My own attraction to doing this work, at its deepest level, is about joy. I sometimes find it hard to clearly articulate my passion for what I do, but the quote above is a pretty good summation. I love these machines. And the feelings that they evoke in me are about as close to the feelings I used to have as a kid when my dad would take me to my favorite playground: amazement, curiosity, excitement, and love. Of course, the values embodied in this technology speak to my care for the earth and all of its inhabitants, but that's almost tangential to the deep feelings of joy that they stir throughout my whole being. And I'm not alone!

Over the 9+ years that I've been studying, building, and demonstrating this technology I've seen it spark everything from intense curiosity to watershed, life-changing moments (like one woman who made a sharp turn in her life-plans to travel to Maya Pedal and learn directly from the masters). Across the ideological spectrum, there seems to be a basic admiration for these machines, which, I suspect, taps directly into our fundamental desire for play. Of course, the most enthusiastic participants are kiddos. To them, the machines need no explanation, no rationalization, and no purpose other than to have fun. They just jump right in and begin playing. Welcome to the playground. 

As these machines are mini-playgrounds, of sorts, they attract crowds in a very similar way. The opportunities that they provide for spontaneous socialization are immense and profound. And that, my friends, is the real magic that this technology holds in its power to help us transition into a new way of being.

The ubiquitous adoption of the automobile, and the subsequent construction of our public and private spaces around its demands, has left us with socially-degraded civic environments that discourage community and human-connection. As cities and towns begin to restore their waterfronts, build dedicated cycling infrastructure, and create community gathering places free from cars, they take crucial steps toward restoring the social fabric of their communities. Human-powered machines are a delight at any event, a social magnet in any public space, and a catalyst for human connection. And while any given human-powered machine can't compete with the productivity of it's alternatively fueled counterparts, it carries a symbolic weight that few other technologies ever will. 


Symbols as agents of change

It's no coincidence that Gandhi chose the charkha, a humble spinning wheel, as the symbol of India's movement for independence. The simple hand-cranked device allowed individuals to spin their own fibers and create their own clothing. It's uncertain how much the promotion of this machine directly displaced the production of fibers under colonial rule, but its meaning was crystal clear: we are resourceful and self-sufficient (so get out). 

Human-powered machines evoke a sense of deep connection with our bodies, our humanity, and our fellows. They symbolize re-localization, ingenuity, energy independence, and interconnectedness. And most importantly, they represent the childlike spirit in each of us that wants to leap and laugh in pure joy. As the radical feminist Emma Goldman once said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." I couldn't agree more. The revolution that I want to be part of begins with joy in our hearts and laughter in our lungs. 

I hope you'll join me. 

Matthew Corson-Finnerty, Founder, Bicimakina 

Matthew gets weird on his pedal-powered air compressor

Matthew gets weird on his pedal-powered air compressor