Back to the Future: Graeme Obree, Ingenuity, & the Case for Airships

If you don’t know who Graeme Obree is, you should. He’s a fascinating and inspiring character. In cycling circles, he’s a maverick and an innovator. He twice set the fabled hour record (how far can an individual cyclist go in a single hour) on bikes of his own design, including parts taken from his washing machine. He was also the individual pursuit world champion on a couple of occasions. Recently, The Flying Scotsman was made about his life, starring Jonny Lee Miller. But this post has less to do with the cycling exploits of a Scot, and more to do with his regular insistence of thinking outside the box and creative innovation. And how that alters the realms of the possible. This is inspiring stuff.

The following video clip celebrates the return of the flying Scotsman, and Obree’s current efforts to break the human-powered land speed record. More than that, it is a wonderfully inspiring little clip about the importance of ingenuity and passion (Obree evidently has plenty of both):

(Video from Humans Invent)

Link to an updated report on Obree’s efforts here.

But that’s not why I’m posting all this (in spite of the links to the bicycle, technology, Obree’s environmental passions, and other themes germane to this blog). Rather, I was especially moved by the following clip and the promise of airships, which hearken back to almost steampunkian vision of the world. But is this also the future? Think peak oil and think climate change. And think, too, about how and why we adopt or dismiss particular innovations (there’s an element of History 2EE3’s recent emphasis on technological systems and the nature of system-stabilizing technologies here) and embrace Obree’s enthusiasm for innovation. Maybe there’s something here. And you can bet I’d definitely be lining up to travel this way…

(Video from Humans Invent)

I especially like Obree’s fascination with “pushing the envelope of possibility.” This is a motivational message I would share with every student I’ve met. There also seems to be a broader renewed interest in precisely this. The X-Prizes, for example, encourage the individual or private pursuit of innovation in intriguing ways. But there’s more than inspiration at work here; there’s also vision, or the capacity to imagine new worlds and the constituent parts required to realize them. These are key themes in my interest in the history of the future—how past societies imagined their technological futures. In Obree, I think we see one such visionary, and one who inspires due in no small part to his devotion to the process.

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