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Ancient Roman steam engines and mountainized unicycles
Clive Maxfield Clive Maxfield
6/7/2007 03:00 PM EDT  

Every now and again one runs into a reference about a guy called Hero of Alexandria, who (it is said) created a steam engine some time around 60 AD. In fact, I even made mention of this in my handy-dandy Timeline of Calculators, Computers, and Other Stuff paper. (Do you know when the paper bag was invented, when the first TV Dinner was served, or when sliced bread was introduced? If not, then this reference is for you.)

The point is that I really didn't have a good idea as to what this would actually entail. In the back of my mind I guess I was thinking of a toy steam engine, but this really didn't feel "quite right" because that would be a really complex undertaking. We'll, just this morning I was introduced to a cool website with some jolly interesting pictures of Hero's Engines and things make much more sense now. Imagine a water-filled pot with a tight-fitting lid and two or three tubes coming out of the top bent back to act as jets. When such a pot is suspended over a fire, the water turns to steam and forcibly exits through the pipes, thereby spinning the pot.

It would certainly have been possibly to create something like this back in 60 AD. The surprising thing to me is that they didn't take things further. On the other hand, I can't even imagine what would have happened if the Roman Empire had ended up with full-blown steam engines at their disposal. But we digress . . .

I don't recall mentioning unicycles recently, but it seems that I must have, because a reader sent me an email saying:

If you are a unicyclist, I would like to invite you to the Moab Mountain Unicycling Festival www.moabmunifest.com. It is the largest gathering of mountain unicycle riders in the country. It's over for this year but will be held again next year at the end of March.

I also turned 50 recently, but my unicycling continues to get more and more rowdy. Now that unicycles have been mountainized (beefed up with fat knobby tires, super strong hubs and cranks, frames and seats, and some even have hydraulic brakes for helping with the downhill slopes), it feels like I am a kid again with endless riding possibilities. You might enjoy seeing where the sport is going. Check out the photo/video links.

Now, it's not that I can actually ride a unicycle, you understand, but I do of course have one here in my office (doesn't everyone?). As fate would have it, a guy I used to work with was an enthusiast, so when he said he had upgraded to a new unicycle and was selling his old machine I found myself unable to refuse. After a lot of practice during lunchtimes at work, I was poised to "fly solo", but then things got really busy and . . . well, you know how it goes. Now my unicycle sits beside me in my office looking rather forlorn and making me feel distinctly guilty.

But I had never heard of a mountainized unicycle before. Who amongst us doesn't feel a thrill running up and down our spines when we hear words like "fat knobby tires" and "super strong hubs and cranks". How mega cool! Of course, it's hard enough to ride a unicycle on a flat surface, so I can only imagine how difficult it would be to ride one up (and down) a mountain. But then I hear the words "hydraulic brakes" and I get that "Ooooohhhh, Shiny" look on my face.

So where would one find such a beast? Well, my correspondent informs me that a really good place to see the range of possibilities is the www.unicycle.com website. I am informed that this Internet company, which is run by John and Amy Drummond, is one of the best sources for mountain unicycles around. Apparently, a typical machine has a 24" × 3" tire, although some folks prefer the even larger 26" × 3" tires for cruiser trails in the woods 'n' such.

I WANT ONE! I am all enthused. How could I fail to learn to ride the unicycle if I had one of these little scamps in my hands (or under my tush). Hmmm, I'm going to have to start saving up for Christmas

As an aside, I LOVE www.dictionary.com where I just discovered that the slang word "tush", which originated around 1962 meaning "backside or buttocks, is an abbreviation of the word tochus, which itself comes from the Yiddish word tokhes, which is derived from the Hebrew word tahat, meaning "beneath". Isn't the Internet wonderful?

Last but not least, in the header for this article I said: Did Hero of Alexandria create a steam engine around 60 AD? Can I ride a unicycle? And are these topics in any way related? Before you start writing in, the answer to the last question is: "No!"

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me – Clive "Max" Maxfield – at max@techbites.com). And, of course, if you haven't already done so, don't forget to Sign Up for our weekly Programmable Logic DesignLine Newsletter.

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