EXHIBITS: Little (and Big) Engines That Couldn't

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Science  03 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5765, pp. 1221
DOI: 10.1126/science.311.5765.1221b

A bicycle powered by solid-fuel rockets sounds like one of Wile E. Coyote's schemes for catching the Road Runner. But in the 1920s and 1930s, German inventors built and even raced the souped-up cycles. In a 1931 trial, one model reportedly hit 88 km/h before the “pilot” wiped out. The rocket bike is one of the doomed designs on display at the Museum of RetroTechnology, curated by London-based audio equipment designer Douglas Self. Crammed with period photos, the exhibits explore dubious achievements in transportation, power generation, computing, and communications. Self explains how the machines worked—most got at least to the prototype stage—and why they failed to catch on. Although it's tempting to laugh at contraptions like the strap-on helicopter and the steam lawnmower, “poking fun at misguided inventors is absolutely not the aim of the museum,” Self says. Instead, he says, scrutinizing these machines might furnish insight into how inventors create.


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