Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Galvanic Velocipede


Please note the following is a work of fiction. Before you write me pointing out some factual or historical error in the tale, allow me to preempt your action by recounting this anecdote that the great Ray Bradbury often told:

A few years back, one dreadful boy ran up to me and said, “Mr. Bradbury?”
“Yes?” I said.
“That book of yours, The Martian Chronicles?” he said.
“Yes?” I said.
“On page 92 where you have the moons of Mars rising in the east?” 
“Yeah,” I said. 
“Nah,” he said. 
So I hit him. I’ll be damned if I’ll be bullied by bright children.
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The Galvanic Velocipede

copyright (c) 2020 by Kent Peterson

I’d just returned from riding my wheel over to Fitchburg when my lovely wife Elizabeth said “Oh, you missed your friend Harris. He was just here looking for you.”

“I didn’t miss him at all,” I replied as I dismounted the machine, “and he’s really not my friend. He’s more of an irritating acquaintance.”

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. “You grumble about Harris, but you must admit that he is always up to something interesting.”

I held my position, “I am NOT his friend. Harris once said to me ‘I have no friends because I’m always right.’ I tried to point out to him that there are far more reasons than that, but he would have none of it.”

“Well,” Elizabeth countered, “you may not count Harris as a friend, but it is well known in town that you are, in fact, his best friend.”

“No!” I exclaimed, shocked at this assertion.

“It’s true,” Elizabeth said. “It’s because you’re civil to him. Everyone else is either openly hostile or better at avoiding him than you. Waldo has banished him from his house. Henry moved into that cabin in the woods just to escape him. But you…”

Elizabeth was unable to completely tell me exactly what it is I do because at that moment Harris came bounding up the path to our house.

“Ah, there you are,” he wheezed. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I took my wheel over to Fitchburg,” I explained as the portly Harris caught his breath. “The machine has been a bit sluggish of late, so I had Mr. Scott over there examine the bearings. It seems I’ve been negligent regarding their lubrication.”

“I bet he charged you a pretty penny for his work and advice, too,” Harris said. “You should have let me take a look at it. I have a complete workshop, you know.”

I was, in fact, quite aware of his extensive workshop. Harris’s
grandfather had designed and patented a particularly clever machine for weaving cloth which made his family fortune. First his father and now his brother supervised the operation of various mills and other acquisitions. Harris had declared himself to be the inheritor of his grandfather’s design genius, although each of his “improvements” to his grandfather’s original machines either decreased their efficiency or led to catastrophic consequences. After the “unfortunate incident” in which the Manchester mill burned down, Harris’s brother, a shrewd businessman but also a loving brother with finite patience, suggested that Harris needed “a place far from the distractions and bustle of daily commerce, somewhere that would give him the uninterrupted time to pursue his research.” Thus Harris decamped to our peaceful village with a generous stipend from the family business to establish his “laboratory of mechanical invention.”

Harris’s laboratory is by far the most striking building in our village and it contains the most advanced machinery our 19th century has to offer. Harris had a channel dug which diverted a portion of the river to spin a massive mill wheel, and he also erected an enormous Dutch-style windmill atop the three storey structure. Finally, he installed a massive furnace connected to a brass steam engine. An elaborate series of belts, cogs, springs and levers convert these various sources of mechanical motion to spin lathes, saws, looms and machines whose purposes that I confess I am ill-equipped to guess.

Harris also subscribes to a wide range of scientific journals and maintains a far flung correspondence with various keen minds of our day. Our postmaster, Mr. Davis, tells me that Harris gets more letters and parcels in a single day than most of the rest of us receive in a month. And at least once a week you can be certain that some large crate with machinery or supplies will arrive at the train station addressed to our enterprising Mr. Harris.

“I know that you’re a rather keen wheelman,” Harris said, “so you will have the honor of getting the first look at my latest invention. I’m unveiling it publicly tomorrow, but I’d like you to come to my laboratory now to help me figure out the placement of some final components. It’s a bit of a puzzle and I could use another brain on the problem.”

It is so out of character for Harris to ask for help with anything that I was momentarily struck speechless. “I, umm….promised Elizabeth…” I looked to my wife for help.

“That you’d be back from Fitchburg in time for supper. And you are, but the roast has at least another hour to cook, so you and Harris go off and work on your whatever it is. Make certain that you’re back here by six. Mr. Harris, of course, you are welcome to join us.”

Harris beamed at this suggestion, “That would be lovely. I shan't keep him long.”

When we arrived at the workshop I saw that Harris had added an additional level of complexity to the machines therein. Harris, of course, was his usual professorial self and proceeded to explain the workings with only the occasional “uhm”, “er”, or “of course” from me.

“You’re familiar, of course, with Galvini’s work on animal electricity?” Harris began.

“Of course,” I echoed, “Frog twitching and so forth…”

“Quite,” Harris said, “Well then I’m sure you know that Volta’s work diverged from Galvini’s when it came to the origin of the electrical fluid, Galvini believing it to be a function of the muscle and Volta believing it to be a metallic property.”

“And you…” I prompted.

“Well, obviously I think Volta is correct and his work developing batteries is quite impressive, but it seems to me that he’s become so enamored of the physical nature of electricity that he’s neglected to fully explore the biomechanical applications of such power. That’s what I’ve been working on.”

Harris went on to explain, in more detail than I can adequately convey here, exactly how each of the various machines in his laboratory connected together. As best as I could follow, the mechanical motion of the mill wheel, steam engine and windmill were all connected together to spin two large counter-rotating disks. The disks were partially covered in copper and metallic fingers brushed the plates as they spun. Wires ran from the fingers to two metal spheres while miniature lightning bolts sparked between them. Harris informed me that such a device is called a Wimhurst Machine.

Harris harvested the electrical fluid in Leyden jars, which he also called batteries. He tried to explain some advanced storage principle he was using  but by this point I could merely nod and say things like “I see.” This was a true statement. I did see. I did not understand, but I did see.

“But,” I asked, “what do you intend to do with all this stored electrical fluid?”

“Well,” Harris said with obvious delight, “that is where I have made my breakthrough. I can convert the fluid back into mechanical motion!”

“So you’ve made some kind of electrical motor, like a steam engine that runs on the electrical fluid?” I asked.

“Not directly,” said Harris, “although that is an interesting notion. See here, how do you propel your wheel?”

“By the force of my legs, of course, but..”

“But your legs only have your own strength, your own will,” said Harris. “Galvini first observed muscles reacting to electrical stimulation but he didn’t follow through. I have.”

“You have what?” I asked.

“I have built a Galvanic Velocipede!”

At this point Harris dramatically unveiled his modified machine. It was much like my own wheel, a front wheel approximately as tall as Harris’s shoulder, with a dinner plate sized wheel in the rear, the design the English call a penny-farthing. But Harris had added a clockwork mechanism behind the saddle and some sort of holsters behind the clock. Wires ran forward to the steering bar and below the bars hung what looked to be brass spoons with leather straps. A lever on the bar was connected via mechanical linkage to the clock in the back.

“What…” I began but quickly amended, “How does it work?”

“Let me show you,” said Harris. “Hand me one of those batteries, will you?”

As I reached for the battery, I heard Harris shout “No! Not like that!” but my fingers were already too close to the terminals of the Leyden jar. A small bolt of lightning leapt from the jar to my hand and my arm, independent of my own volition, snapped backwards. My outstretched and thoroughly surprised hand collided with Harris’s jaw at a high rate of speed. The Leyden jar crashed to the floor.

Harris and I both said some rather un-Christian and intemperate things, but after a moment to regain our composure and ascertain that neither of us had sustained permanent injury, said “Sorry” simultaneously and laughed in the way gentlemen do when they have recently escaped disaster. “Well,” Harris chuckled, “you’ve experienced first hand the problem I’m having. A fully charged Leyden jar is a dangerous thing. I need to have them mounted on my machine in such a way that they won’t jostle and discharge prematurely.”

His original scheme involved the holsters which were supposed to hold a grand total of six Leyden jars, but this seemed precarious at best. When going over a bump, the leather holster could flex and the cells either contact the metal frame of the velocipede or each other.

“A basket.” I said, “You need a basket. With individual compartments, like what Potter uses to ship eggs.” 

“Brilliant,” said Harris. “We can mount it on the back, on springs. But isn’t it getting near time for us to return to your home for dinner?”

I consulted my watch, which seemed to have stopped. Harris explained: “An unfortunate consequence of your brush with the electrical fluid, I’m afraid. I’ll buy you a replacement, of course.”

At dinner Harris explained the operation of his machine. The clockwork mechanism released pulses of the electrical fluid at a rate that was controlled by the lever on the steering bar of the velocipede. The tighter the grip on the lever, the more frequent the pulses.

“But where do the pulses of electrical fluid go?” asked Elizabeth.

“Why directly into my legs, of course.” Harris replied. “That’s what the brass spoons are for. Strapped to my quadriceps and buttocks, they channel the electrical energy straight to my body’s largest muscles.”

“Do you mean to say you voluntarily apply the lightning I experienced to your own body?” I asked incredulously.

“You yourself experienced the force a small spark gave to your arm,” Harris noted.

“As did you,” I reminded him.

“Yes,” he said, rubbing his jaw, “and if a small spark can provide that much power to your puny arm, imagine what it can do to larger muscles.”

Harris went on to explain that he had challenged Waldo to a race, at noon tomorrow, in the town square. “I’d like you to be my second,” he added, making it sound more like a duel than a race.

“I wouldn’t miss it for all the lobsters in Maine,” I assured him.

Harris and I worked late into the night preparing the Galvanic Velocipede. The rear basket seemed solid. The next morning we did some low-speed tests, which seemed promising. Harris would grimace each time the clock-pulse of power would course through his legs but the velocipede was clearly accelerating quicker and moving faster than I had ever seen any machine move.

Just before noon, we, along with most of the town, gathered in the square. Waldo was there, not with a velocipede but rather his horse, Lightning. Lightning, it was generally agreed, was the fastest horse in the state. Waldo’s previous horse, a docile old bay, had perished when it unfortunately twisted its ankle in a groundhog hole. Waldo had been down south on a speaking tour at the time. He returned from Kentucky with Lightning, an all black stallion with a white blaze on his forehead. Lightning was named not only for the jagged white mark, but for his remarkable speed.

Harris and I had spent the latter part of the morning charging a dozen Leyden jars. Six were mounted on the velocipede and six I held in reserve in case the race required a second heat to be decisive. Based on how fast Harris’s machine had gone in our early quarter-speed tests, we doubted a second heat would be required, but we felt it best to be prepared.

A few minutes before noon, I helped Harris onto his machine and strapped his feet to the pedals. The pedal straps were another of Harris’s innovations, ensuring his feet would not fly free of the pedals at high speed. I also carefully strapped the brass spoons to Harris’s skin, much to the amusement of the crowd.

Harris and Waldo were exchanging heated predictions as to the outcome of the race. Harris asserted that a man, plus the mechanical advantage of the wheel, plus the Galvanic power of the Leyden jars, would prove to be double that of even the fastest horse. Waldo countered that at best Harris and his contraption would prove to be equal to half a horse and not, he noted, the half where a horse kept his sense. The crowd roared their appreciation at this quip.

It was at this moment when things went awry. Instead of the measured “One, Two, Three, Go” we had all agreed to, there was a high-pitched whistle. It took a fraction of a second before I identified the source of the whistle, a woodchuck running in terror at a high rate of speed. The woodchuck was being rapidly pursued by Henry, who was wielding a hoe like an axe and yelling something about the woodchuck having eaten his last bean.

At the sight of the woodchuck, Lightning bolted, perhaps recalling his predecessor’s unfortunate rodent-related demise. Waldo could do nothing to calm the frightened beast and was looking rather nervous himself.

Seeing Lightning and Waldo take flight, Harris jammed the lever of the Galvanic Velocipede to its maximal point of engagement and he and the velocipede took off in pursuit.

I have never seen such frantic acceleration. In those few seconds Harris and his machine resembled nothing so much as a meteor streaking across a summer sky. The Galvanic Velocipede flew past Waldo and Lightning as if they were a stone statue in the square instead of a pair of breathing, fleeing creatures.

Just past edge of the town square, the road turns, to run along the west edge of the pond. The road turns. Harris did not. Harris and his machine flew directly into the pond. There was a great flash as the Leyden jars hit the water.

Two seconds later, Lightning, being possessed of horse sense, skidded to a halt at the pond’s edge. Waldo, being possessed of momentum, did not.

Waldo can swim. Harris, strapped to his machine, cannot.

Possessed with a courage I did not know I had, I rushed to the pond’s edge and dove in. At the center of the rapidly expanding ripples indicating Harris’s entry point to his potential watery grave, I took a deep breath and dove under the surface.

The water was murky, but by feel and providence I somehow managed to find and free Harris. I pulled him to the surface with me and dragged him to shore.

I was coughing water out of my lungs and Elizabeth was doing her best to revive Harris. He looked like a beached whale. Waldo, who had dragged himself out of the pond, had the presence of mind to flop Harris on his stomach and use his bulk to force the water from his lungs.

Harris was blue and not breathing. “He’s gone,” Waldo said.

“Wait,” I said, “Elizabeth, go fetch the spare basket.”

She was back in a flash with the second basket that Harris and I had made just the night before. Having learned my lesson, I carefully extracted one of the Leyden jars.

“Flip him on his back, and open his shirt.” Waldo did this quickly.

I took the Leyden jar and touched the contacts to Harris’s bare chest, just above his heart. A spark flew, his body convulsed, his eyes fluttered open and he coughed.

All I remember after that is the crowd cheering and Elizabeth throwing her arms about me. And then I passed out.

I caught a fever and spent several days recuperating. Elizabeth never left my bedside. Waldo called in Boston’s best doctor to supervise both Harris's and my recovery. The doctor was fascinated with the Leyden jars and took one back with him to the city when he left.

Harris recovered a bit quicker than I did and he came to visit me and offer his sincere thanks. True to his word, he gave me a beautiful watch to replace my broken one. He kept saying “I can’t thank you enough.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “I couldn’t very well let my best friend drown, now could I?”

At this Elizabeth gave me one of her sweetest smiles.

“There is one thing you can do,” I said.

“Anything,” Harris said.

“How about if you leave the Galvanic Velocipede at the bottom of the pond?”

“Certainly,” Harris said. “It was a flawed design after all. Under full power, the jolts caused all my muscles to spasm. Including the muscles in my hand. I couldn’t back off the power and believe me, I tried.”

He continued, “I don’t think direct muscle stimulation is the future of transportation. I’m thinking about what you said about an electrical engine. Perhaps something involving magnets…”

“Later,” Elizabeth said, “You men should rest up tonight. Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to start building the world of tomorrow.”
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3 comments:

Unknown said...

Read it, liked everything about it all the way through, even liked the font it showed up in (Trebuchet MS). Your Ray Bradbury/fiction/fact comment was neat, too. Ann Patchett wrote a novel called State of Wonder about the search for live-prolonging drugs in South America. Lots of the science in the book was real, and the tribe that was coming up with this stuff was Lakashi. She said people wrote in and squawked that there was no Lakashi tribe in South America, and she told them, "That's why it's a novel, and I named it after my favorite breakfast cereal."
Anyway, good story, Kent!

Unknown said...

Clever and amusing, and I appreciate the diversion on a lonely isolation day.

zlewej said...

Hey, I think this guy, borrowed a lot from your post from 2012.
https://www.inditramp.com/why-i-dont-buy-expensive-bicycles/