The sun may not always shine, the wind not always blow. Yet, like ’60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon caveman Fred Flintstone’s, feet remain a source of renewable energy—ready anytime, anywhere.

Foot-powered rides have been around since the late 18th Century. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History credits Comte de Sivrac with developing the first velocipede (aka the “wooden horse”) in 1791. Improvements like a steerable front wheel and pedals were added over the next 70-odd years so that, by 1869, coachmakers were mass marketing bicycles in the U.S.

While Americans today are thought to be ultra-reliant on their cars, a 2019 Statista survey showed that 1-in-4 is apt to bicycle on open roads and that another 7.5 Million stick to trails, avoiding contact with automobiles. Statista added that the number of modern velocipedes available through bike-sharing programs across U.S. cities doubled to 100,000 in 2017.

Pedal power is making a comeback!

Land, Sea & Air

A typical 12-speed may be fine for in-town use, where cars average 20 mph or less in rush hour. For real speed, though, some turn to aerodynamically-sheathed, three-wheeled velomobiles. These recumbent bicycles allow riders to sit back with legs outstretched, as if riding recliners. Several companies have even made street-legal versions.

In 2015, the World Human Powered Vehicle Assoc. announced that Canadian design firm Aerovelo’s own version set a human-powered speed record of 86.65 mph on an ultra-flat stretch of Nevada State Hwy. 305. But what about pedaling across sea and air? Human-powered submarines, in fact, date to the U.S. Revolutionary War.

Encyclopedia Britannica, the pre-wiki source of all knowledge, noted that prior to becoming a U.S. Army Corps captain David Bushnell built the large oak barrel with crank-operated propellers used to attack British warship H.M.S. Eagle. Roughly 80 years later, a hand-crank-powered Confederate sub, the Hunley, sunk a Union warship before it sank with crew onboard.

Today’s versions are free-flooding, wet submarines with scuba-equipped pilots at their helms. People have dreamt of taking human-powered flight since at least Daedalus and have been designing flying apparatus since DaVinci’s time. In 2010, though, Aerovelo took a bona fide ornithopter—an aircraft with flapping wings—for a person-powered, 19-second flight.

Is 300 Watts Enough?

By pedaling a stationary bike attached to a small generator, a healthy person can generate up to 300 watts of electricity per hour. In 2008, “Mother Earth News” described a duo of pedal-powered generators manufactured by Windstream. One, the PPG-B300W, is a pedal-powered generator belt stand that fits an ordinary bike which then spins an electric generator. The other, the Human Power Generator, is a floor-mounted, pedal-equipped generator. Both come with a battery pack and inverter for powering devices which run on AC—alternating current.

For those in countries where electricity can be easily obtained by plugging into a wall socket, an hour of effort for a “measly” 300 watts may not sound like a big deal. However, the difference can be life-changing for the 1.3 Billion people (roughly 50 percent living in Africa) whom the Int’l. Energy Agency said, in 2017, still had no access to electricity.

Manoj Bhargava, founder and CEO of Innovation Energies, LLC, brought 5-Hour Energy to market. He also invented the Hans Free Electric hybrid bicycle with its recumbent seat and pedals mounted on a tube-steel frame, a large flywheel attached. Bhargava has said pedaling one can produce enough electricity to power light sources, a small refrigerator, a 44-in. LED TV and other appliances.

In a related 2015 web doc, he said his goal for the Hans Free was to “empower the powerless,” providing a pathway out of poverty.

Other Light-Bulb Moments

Another innovative way to produce small, usable quantities of electricity is literally child’s play: the Sockket—the brainchild of four Harvard students who equipped a soccer ball with an energy-generating, inductive-coil mechanism like the ones found in shake-to-charge flashlights. Kicking one around for 15 minutes can generate enough electricity to light a lamp or charge a cell phone.

Companies in the U.K., Italy and Netherlands are encouraging reduction of carbon footprints, as well, through the use of floor tiles which flex and generate electricity with each step. London-based Pavegen Systems estimated that its tiles produce 5 watts per flex.

In its own innovative approach to harnessing pressure energy, the State of California began testing a piezoelectric roadbed for use in its freeway system in 2013. The potential outcome? Electric cars recharged by the roads themselves. Still, Fred Flintstone: An innovator?

Yabba, dabba—could be!

Chase that Digital Unicorn!

Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Gulland, John. “Make Electricity While You Exercise” (Oct./Nov. 2008, Renewable Energy).

Irfan, Umair. “Scientists Harness Human Power for Electricity” (June 26, 2012, Sustainability).

Nat’l. Museum of American History. “The Development of the Velocipede” (Smithsonian: Bicycle Collection).

Statista. “U.S. Bicycle Industry: Statistics & Facts” (Sept. 9, 2019, Transportation & Logistics).

World Human Powered Vehicle Association (HPV).