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On Biking: MIT author is an ever-ready bunny at age 83

Posted by Your Town  July 12, 2011 08:23 AM

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(Photo courtesy of David Wilson)

Professor Emeritus David Wilson (far left), his wife, Ellen Wilson (middle), and their daughter Susan Wilson, alongside their triple tandem bicycle.

David Gordon Wilson, Professor Emeritus of engineering at M.I.T., has forgotten more about how bicycles work than most of us will ever learn. His book, Bicycling Science, Third Edition, is the go-to guide for all of us bike geeks.

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David is no ivory towered professor who studies bicycling from the safety of the classroom. Although he’s 83 years old, David still rides eight miles from his home in Winchester to his office at M.I.T. several days a week. As bad as this past winter was, David kept right on riding his bike to work. The ever-ready bunny’s got nothing on Professor Wilson.

In addition to being a hard-core commuter, each summer David and his wife and their daughter hit the road on their triple tandem bicycle. David says, in a no-big-deal kind of way: “We often ride 160 miles to Pinkham Notch and do a trip of several hundred miles together in the summer.”

David’s always had a thing for cycling. He grew up in England, where bicycles are just another way to get around: “You could bike everywhere. I never worried about getting hit by a car, and if you pulled over to look at the scenery, people would stop and ask if you needed help.”

Commuting by bike is nothing new for David. When he was 20 years old, he rode from London to Kent to visit a friend: “I used an old, heavy bike. I had such a nice ride that at the end of my visit I decided to ride back home. It felt good to ride 236 miles in a day.”

Although he’s always been interested in cycling, David has not always been an international bicycling expert. That all changed shortly after he began teaching at M.I.T. in 1966, when he decided to offer a prize for the best development in human powered vehicles. An engineering magazine publicized the contest, which was how, David recalls, “I became a guru [in the world of bicycles].”

David’s engineering prowess led him to help design a recumbent bicycle in 1982 that went on to set a world record when it reached a speed of 53mph. He also builds, designs and repairs his own bicycles. Which comes in handy and cuts down on repair costs. No small detail, as David has been hit by a car nine times while biking. David’s quick to add that even though the last two drivers failed to yield at a stop sign, they did apologize profusely.

David’s research extends far beyond the world of bicycling. He designed the centrifugal pump used in the world’s first artificial heart, as well as a human powered snowplow, which he says, “Was great in the wet snow we had this past winter. I beat my neighbors with their gas powered snowblowers.”

David’s creativity with bicycles extends beyond the winter months. He and one of his former students, Michael Shakespear, designed a bicycle lawnmower to serve as a counterweight to the bicycle snowblower:, which he used to cut the grass at the Museum of Science and at M.I.T. With Boston’s recent heat wave, perhaps David can figure out how to make a bicycle powered air-conditioner.


David is retired, though his idea of retirement sounds more like what most of us call full-time work. He still gives invited lectures at M.I.T., and has several students working with him on various projects, including a solar powered cooker for use in rural Africa.

David is pleased with Boston’s bicycling renaissance. Still, he feels that people (motorists and cyclists alike) are not always nice. “That’s why my wife and I started a bicycle role modeling group. [Before he died] State Senator [William L.] Saltonstall donated 60 blue helmets for this project, my wife designed a badge to go on the back of the helmets, and we all took a pledge to obey the laws and be helpful.”

Lawnmowers, heart valves, solar powered ovens: those are pretty impressive. Still, if David can convince more of us to take his pledge to behave, this just may be his greatest achievement of all.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published next spring by Cadence Press.


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