David Gordon Wilson
Remembering David Gordon Wilson
An article by Michael Eliasohn, St. Joseph, Mich. - September 2019


David Gordon Wilson (1928-2019)
MIT Dept. of Mechanical Engineering photo
David Gordon Wilson held more than 60 patents, presumably most not involving bicycles, but to those of us who think there’s something better when pedaling than bending over the handlebars while sitting on a narrow saddle, he was one of the creators of the modern recumbent bicycle, co-author of Bicycling Science, and long-time editor of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association’s Human Power technical journal.

Wilson, engineering professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died May 2, 2019, at age 91.

He was a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT from 1966 until retiring in 1994, but remained an active member of the mechanical engineering community until his death, a news release from the Department of Mechanical Engineering noted.

The Boston Globe reported in a lengthy article about his passing that Wilson regularly pedaled a recumbent cycle until he was 90.

Much of his research focused on gas turbine and jet engine design, he taught thermodynamics and mechanical design and advised many students conducting research in turbo machinery, fluid mechanics and various design topics, according to the MIT news release.

A biography on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website notes Wilson “designed the centrifugal pump used in the world's first artificial heart.” (A centrifugal pump moves fluids by rotational energy from one or more driven rotors, called impellers, so there are some similarities to turbine and jet engines.)

After retiring from MIT, Wilson started a company that developed micro turbines.
 
An interest in such advanced forms of propulsion would seem contrary to his interest in bicycles, but the introduction to a 2017 interview with MIT News said cycling was his preferred method of transportation since he first pedaled a bike at age 9 in his native England. “His passion for the bicycle helped inspire his decision to pursue a career in engineering,” it stated.

Wilson, born in 1928, grew up in Warwickshire, England, and ultimately earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Nottingham University. He then worked for a British engineering company, studied on a fellowship at MIT and Harvard University, taught for two years at a college in Nigeria, then worked for a company in the Boston area before joining the MIT faculty.

In a chapter Wilson wrote for Pedal Power: In Work, Leisure, and Transportation, published in 1977, he said “a succession of bicycle accidents (involving Wilson) … and those of many others, had convinced me of the dangerous exposure that results from the standard hunched over, head-forward position.”


David Gordon Wilson on a predecessor
 to the Avatar. This looks similar to what
 later became the manufactured
Hypercycle, introduced in 1981

David Gordon Wilson with his Avatar 2000, probably in the 1980s. Notice the fenders (and front fender extension), lights, safety flag, carrier rack, kickstand and tire pump, to make it a practical commuter bike.
MIT Press photo
He then organized a competition for improved designs in human-powered land transportation, which drew entries from 78 people in 64 countries, he said in the 2017 MIT News interview. He wrote in the first issue of the Avatar 2000 Owners’ Club newsletter (summer 1982) that most of the entries, including the winner (selected by a panel of judges), used a semi-recumbent pedaling position.

I (Mike E.) will skip all the in-between steps, lest this become a book, but eventually Wilson designed a bicycle that became the Avatar 2000.

After designing the prototype, he went to a local frame builder, Richard Forrestall, to get it built.

Wilson and Forrestall received a patent on the design, granted Aug. 11, 1981.

Forrestall and Harald Maciejewski, co-owners of two Boston area bicycle shops, formed Fomac Inc., originally to import German-made bicycles, but then to manufacture the Avatar 2000, according to avatar2000.com.

But it was a small operation. Forrestall’s workshop was in his garage, where he did initial construction of the frame and machined parts. Completion of the frame, making of the leather and mesh seat covers and some other operations were subcontracted. Then Maciejewski did the final assembly in his basement.

Specifications from the Avatar 2000 flier: 63 inch wheelbase (only one frame size), 29 pounds, 21 speeds, 27-inch rear wheel and 16-inch front. A review of the bike in the November 1982 issue of Gadget newsletter listed the price at $2,127

With it’s under-the-seat steering and steering link to the front fork, the Avatar 2000 was a complex design to build.

avatar2000.com doesn’t give the beginning and ending production dates, but does report, “Only about 140 bikes were produced before economics took over. Their ( Maciejewski and Forrestall) original intent was not to continue producing such a high-end and labor-intensive bike, but to eventually find a larger manufacturer that would be interested in buying the business and rights to the bike. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any interested company.”

(Dick Ryan, who did some work for Fomac, later bought the Avatar patent and produced an easier-to-manufacture version, the Ryan Vanguard. He made about 1,200 Vanguards and 250 tandem recumbents in the 1990s before going out of business, according to avatar.com.)


David Gordon Wilson was the subject of an article in People magazine in 1983. He's riding an Avatar 2000.

David Gordon Wilson was riding a short wheelbase predecessor of the Avatar 2000 on the cover of the May 1981 issue of East West Journal.
From going through my file drawer of IHPVA publications (so there may be some inaccuracies), Wilson was president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association in 1984, served on its board from 1977 through 1993 and was editor of and frequent contributor to Human Power from spring 1984 through 2001. Most of that time, HP was published four times a year. (The IHPVA was founded in 1975.)

Among the numerous books Wilson wrote, co-wrote or contributed to were Bicycling Science and his biography, Born, Blessed and Blitzed in Britain, but Battered by MIT. The Boston Globe reported he finished the fourth edition of Bicycling Science shortly before his death from complications from a fall in his Winchester, Mass., home.

Beyond his professional and human power interests, according to the Boston Globe, he was a former leader of the Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP), co-founded the Masschusetts chapter of Action on Smoking and Health, proposed a tax on fossil fuels during the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970s (precursor to current carbon tax proposals to reduce use of fossil fuels) and in the 1960s, served on an advisory committee to improve the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen; three children (two from a prior marriage); and a grandchild.
 

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