Human-powered Appliances

There are a few good reasons – and many fairly silly reasons -- why one might wish to convert a washing machine to pedal power. But perhaps the rationale for doing so is building lately. Many of us in the Western industrialized world have suffered shocks to our self-esteem and sense of security as we have watched our intricate systems of work and task distribution teeter. So many citizens are unemployed, with limited prospects for finding work. Work itself, we increasingly realize, has been precariously distributed among specialists, while we have become dependent on complicated machines that are powered by energy sources conveyed from a distance by means of cables and tubes.  This has happened at a time when vital survival skills known to earlier generations have been lost.

For a variety of reasons, some now look appreciatively at crude home-power devices, like the bicycle-operated water-pumping device used in rural India. However inefficiently such systems function, they work even when the electric utility bill hasn’t been paid!  Admittedly, not everyone finds the crude, tiring chores of earlier pioneer generations worth emulating. But for decades, philosophies of Simple Living have found adherents in the U.S. Once solar panels became a viable source of home power, off-the-grid living became possible. Individuals, as well as communal groups, have experimented with alternative power sources including windmills, hydro pumps, solar panels -- as well as human and animal muscle power -- to perform everyday tasks. A search of Google Images for “bicycle-powered washing machine,” for example, shows many home-built contraptions, some laughably awkward, others ingenious.

I am not sure why human-powered appliances intrigue me so much. They amuse me. I have designed, but never built, several such devices.

The AutoPak is a non-electric “appliance” for compacting home trash and garbage by means of the family car.  The concept, which I conceived in 1983, might be difficult to appreciate for many readers who learned to drive or first owned a car that offered a fragile painted bumper made of a single large painted piece of easily-destroyed plastic, cushioned internally with chunks of Styrofoam. When the AutoPak was conceived, bumpers had evolved from sturdy chromed steel to composite devices that included a hard rubber impact cushion on the outside. These sturdy bumpers were perfectly designed for push-starting a friend’s car (or for compacting trash).

In place of electric timers for home yard watering tasks, I conceived of a “natural”, non-electric, gravity-feed timed soaker hose system. No doubt the design seems to add an unnecessary level of difficulty to the task of watering a planter bed.

Meanwhile, inside the home, many people have a habit of starting their day working out on a treadmill or a weight-lifting machine. Yet the same people might be disinclined to use their own power to operate a home appliance. With cheap electricity already available in the home, why not simply plug in and turn on your washing machine?  Still, some folks may be receptive to my line of exercise appliances, shown below.

Many appliances can theoretically be powered by hand or by foot.  A side benefit of these systems is that one would get needed exercise at the same time useful work was accomplished.

A home garbage disposal could be powered by hand, though it would require some effort!

In the early 1990s I conceived of the PedalWash. Like me, the pedaler in the illustration is addicted to reading comics and comic novels.

These 2006 model pedal-washing machines are little different from the earlier PedalWash machine.

A variant of the PedalWash and WashCycle machines is the StepperWash. It’s the same idea but provides for a different type of exercise. And it offers TV or Internet capability.

The Pedaling Toilet was published in 1991 in Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-A-Mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century. Oddly, I cannot recall if the act of pedaling performed any functions besides exercise. The man -- fully dressed! – seems happy while making use of the pedaling feature, but I don’t recall if his efforts were supposed to assist the flush function or to pump water back into the toilet tank. And I cannot figure out what purpose was served by the device located above and behind his head. Was this a part of a weight-lifting machine? Or was it a fold-down worktable? Even as I am aware that I drew this pink Pedaling Toilet system 20 years ago, I am today intrigued by its possible uses, which I have forgotten!

Visit Steven M. Johnson at his website.

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

Forget about Microcube, this was a fun read with pictures. These are not so crude devices, we may end up doing this more and more in the future with the state of the economy and the cost of electricity the way it is. Also, it's not so bad for the environment.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)

Did you just have a bad day, or do you always respond to everything you don't like or necessarily agree with in such a delightful manner? I'd love to see you browse a bookstore shelf and witness your reaction every time you came across something you didn't like.

I wonder if Microcube refers to the size of your brain!
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
good lord, I don't think i ever scroll down as fast as I do when I see your self-righteous mug sitting on top of an article stuffed full of faux self-depreciating humor and your particular style of narcissism. Dont you have a bottle of Cabernet to passive-aggressively complain about, or possibly a tiny dog to walk around with and pretend to not notice when it has a bowel movement on the sidewalk?
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Human-powered Appliances"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More