Today, human and machine endurance. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
A friend passed along a 1991 issue of a Human-Powered Vehicle
Journal. It was about radical bicycles, about the elusive challenge of making a human-powered
helicopter, and high-speed pedal-driven boats. It dealt with the challenge of driving
every kind of powered vehicle without the help of an engine. And I realized this was
about reclaiming a place for human stamina in our age-old dream of faster, higher, further.
I suspect my interest was jogged by the morning paper; tennis champion Roger Federer had
just endured the longest winning Grand Slam game ever played.
While the very purpose of machines throughout history has been to relieve the need for
human endurance, our delight in our capacities remains alive and well. It keeps drawing
inventors to the interface of technology and human stamina. The organization that
published this journal has wrestled with other organizations
over who should wear the mantle of this cause. But that only reflects the passion driving the pursuit of
One important thread in this endeavor is the Kremer Prize. Just as Lindbergh was driven
to win the Orteig Prize for the man/machine endurance of a solo flight, New York to Paris,
others now compete for Kremer's many human-powered flight prizes.
Henry Kremer, born in Latvia in 1907, emigrated to England after WW-I and was educated in
Switzerland. He became an inventor of wood products. The deHavilland Mosquito was an
amazing WW-II low-altitude light bomber made of wood in the era of aluminum. It was built
from Kremer's special laminated plywoods.
Kremer kept inventing, forming companies, and working with the Royal Air Establishment. But he
also took a strong interest in human fitness; and that led to his prizes. Three have been won
so far; two more are pending. In 1977, Paul McCready won £75,000 when he flew a one-mile
course in his pedal-powered Gossamer Condor. Two years later, he won £100,000 for
flying the English Channel in his Gossamer Albatross. An MIT design group won a third
£20,000 Kremer prize for speed -- flying one mile at 20 miles-an-hour.
Two more prizes hang like high lush fruit upon a tree. One challenge is to fly a 26-mile
marathon in less than an hour. The other is to fly a carefully specified aerial sporting event.
Other prizes pend: The Sikorsky prize will go to the first person who can stay aloft for a minute
in a human-powered helicopter and reach a height of ten feet.
So the lure remains -- human endurance coupled with machines. And it's not frivolous. The effort
constantly demands better efficiency and it creates ideas that carry over into our more familiar
engine-powered world. And, most important, this odd pursuit continues to give our own bodies a
role in our ongoing quest for excellence. It reminds us that, engines or no, our vehicles all
remain wed to our fragile selves.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more about Kremer, see the
Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS)web article about him.
Also of interest is RAeS page detailing the requirements for the sport prize.
An online article by The Foresight Institute gives details about pending prizes in general.
I'm grateful to Roger Kaza for the journal behind this episode: HUMAN POWER: The
Technical Journal of the IUHPVA, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 1991. Images: Kremer courtesy of the Royal
Air Establishment, Daedalus photo by J. Lienhard. Other images courtesy of Wikipedia commons.