Carnegie Science Center exhibit explores just what makes bicycles roll

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With its 58-inch front wheel, the Penny-Farthing Columbia Expert may hold the record for the largest wheel on a non-motorized vehicle. The Drombosky Tall Bike pushes the height limit even farther with its adjustable, telescopic frame that can stretch to more than 6 feet tall.

These are just a couple of the 62 models displayed at the Carnegie Science Center's newest exhibit, "BIKES: Science on Two Wheels." Spanning two centuries of innovation and design, the show draws a diverse group of patrons ranging from hard-core cycling enthusiasts to parents sharing memories of their first bike with their children. The exhibit, which runs until Jan. 1, also introduces the underlying scientific principles that have transformed the bicycle into what it is today.

"There's a lot of science that goes into something that's really commonplace -- engineering, materials science, physics and chemistry," said Dennis Bateman, the center's director of exhibits and theaters.

‘BIKES: Science on Two Wheels’
Where: Carnegie Science Center, North Side.

When: Through Jan. 1 (closed Christmas Day). 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: $17.95; children 3-13, $11.95.

Information: 412-237-3400 or

Mr. Bateman, a 1983 Point Park University graduate with a degree in cinematography, has been involved with the Carnegie Science Center since 1989. He and his team of designers and developers completed the exhibit in six months, drawing inspiration from last summer's highly successful show, "GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked the World."

"We had almost settled on motorcycles, but there was some negative connotation surrounding [biker safety] and helmet laws," he said. "Bicycles are more family-friendly."

The 1885 Penny-Farthing Columbia Expert is a venerable contender in the contest for tallest in show. The whorl of spindle-like spokes is surrounded by a barely there rubber tire. Gearless pedals jut out from either side like a pair of ears. Closer inspection of the massive front wheel reveals that the axle does not intersect at the center but instead is affixed several inches off-kilter.

"The uneven rotation would create more forward momentum," Mr. Bateman said.

Directly above the axle rests a stunted pair of handlebars, followed closely by the small leather saddle. Its precarious placement would leave the rider balanced over the sloping metal frame. In stark contrast to its anterior counterpart, the back wheel is no more than a foot in diameter.

The Columbia Expert is the first bicycle that visitors will spot upon entering and is the focal point of the origins portion of the exhibit. Towering, unstable and devoid of brakes, cycles like the Penny-Farthing were somewhat of a hazard for the rider, according to Mr. Bateman.

"Any sudden stops or a bump in the road could send the cyclist hurtling over the handlebars."

If riders do not maintain momentum, they could tip over. The bikes were so dangerous that later models featuring wheels of equal size were often referred to as "safety bicycles," Mr. Bateman said.

The Fiks:Reflective Tall Bike was contributed by Nick Drombosky, a local entrepreneur and cycling enthusiast. He created the neon green vehicle by welding together three mountain bike frames. Mr. Drombosky built his first tall bike -- less than 4 feet high -- from bits and pieces of other bicycles for the MS150, a charity race that runs from spots near Pittsburgh to Conneaut, Ohio, usually the first weekend of June. The bicycle was so popular that fellow racers urged Mr. Drombosky to build a taller one.

"Everyone said I couldn't do it, so of course I had to!" he said.

While the Tall Bike and the Columbia Expert are not ideal for long-distance travel, the foldable Huffy Touriste was designed for just that. Created in the 1980s for city dwellers needing to store their bicycles flat in their cars or studio apartments, some models can be folded compactly enough to fit into a suitcase, according to Mr. Bateman.

The exhibit also features a section on sport bikes for activities ranging from racing to BMX to mountain biking. A unique piece is the Sun Spider AT Beach Bicycle. Along with other aptly named "fat bikes," it features tires that are 3.7 inches or greater in width, inflated to lower pressures. The tires allow mobility over a greater range of surfaces and traverse easily over curbs, wet pavement, sand, gravel and snow.

"They would fare well in Pittsburgh," said Mr. Bateman.

At first glance, the 1898 Wolff Companion looks like a large tricycle. However, it has two pairs of handlebars sharing the central steering column. Nicknamed the "Sociable," the Companion was designed for two passengers. The adjacent seats allowed for conversation between the riders, but the shared front wheel could be problematic, Mr. Bateman said.

The more recognizable linear tandem bicycle also appeared in the late 1800s. Unlike the Companion, linear tandem bikes like the 2006 Schwinn Tango -- on display in the offshoots portion of the show -- are still popular today. Most tandem bicycles accommodate only a pair of riders, but as many as five seats have been incorporated into some models, according to Mr. Bateman.

The exhibition also features several interactive stations that demonstrate the science behind bicycles. Roller ramps explain Isaac Newton's laws of motion and a table contains the materials that have been used for bicycle frames, including aluminum, steel, titanium and carbon fiber. Another interactive station allows patrons to explore the difference between various brake pad materials.

Elizabeth Veltre wrote this as part of a journalism master's program at Point Park University.

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