The Beginning

This information about the origins of the Avatar was provided by Dave Wilson on February 4, 2003:

Early in 1976 I took a recumbent bicycle, made to my sketches by Fred Willkie in Berkeley, CA, to my design class, and gave students an assignment to improve the design. (I also made substantial improvements myself.) One student, Lee Laiterman, decided to make a recumbent bike that had front-wheel drive and rear-wheel steering. MIT's News Office invited the press in 1976 to see a demonstration of him riding it. However, when the day came Lee found that he couldn't in fact ride it, so the News Office asked me to ride my now-modified recumbent . To my surprise, it received major coverage in all media.

One immediate result was that I was asked by the president of a company to design and make a young-person's recumbent. I did the drawings and went to a local frame-builder with them. He was quite discouraging about the proposed bike. He or someone else suggested that I go to Richie Forrestall at The Bicycle Depot, a small store in Wilmington MA. I biked up there in early 1977 on my Wilson-Willkie recumbent. Richie loved my design(s), and asked if he could talk to his partner Harald Maciejewski, who ran another Bicycle Depot store in a neighboring town. He was also enthusiastic, and the two of them wanted to start a company to make my machine(s).

They called their company Fomac, from the beginnings of their two names. We drew up a memorandum of understanding and signed it on April 7, 1977. After much experimentation they and I finished the junior recumbent and shipped it down the company president, who died almost immediately after it arrived. (He was about 92 and had heart trouble, so we didn't take the blame.) His son, who succeeded him, was not interested in the recumbent. So we licked our wounds and decided on an adult recumbent. Richie started with my designs and added his own variations. They chose the name Avatar, as one rising from the ashes. The third prototype was produced by February 1978, and was reported on in Bicycling. Early orders were taken.Dick Ryan, a local friend, came along later to help assemble the "production" bikes in the basement of one of their houses.

The later (and some earlier) history is recited in our book "Human-Powered Vehicles " (Abbott and Wilson).

This message was sent in by Lee Laiterman on October 24, 2004:

I recently came across the web site of the Ryan Owners Club and read the "Beginning" article by David Wilson. In it he says:

"One student, Lee Laiterman, decided to make a recumbent bike that had front-wheel drive and rear-wheel steering. MIT's News Office invited the press in 1976 to see a demonstration of him riding it. However, when the day came Lee found that he couldn't in fact ride it, so the News Office asked me to ride my now-modified recumbent."

My name is Lee Laiterman. I was that student and my recollection of the events of that day are a little different. I had built the bicycle as part of my bachelor's thesis to study the instability of rear wheel steering vehicles. My goal had been to find out if such a design could be made stable, and if not, to minimize its instability. It's true that my recumbent was difficult to ride, but in point of fact I could ride it and had become reasonably proficient by the time of the press demonstration. I lived in Boston, and on that day I rode it to campus in Cambridge and then back home after the demonstration; a distance of about one and a half miles each way.

During the demonstration I rode around the circular lawn in front of the Earth Sciences building. After a couple of laps around, I decided to end with a dramatic flourish. By braking hard with the front wheel and steering sharply it was easy to cause the rear end to pivot around the front wheel, resulting in a 180 degree skidding turn to stop. At least that was the plan, but as I initiated the maneuver I found myself being thrown off and had to "drop" the bike to keep from being catapulted. I suppose David Wilson interpreted that as meaning I couldn't ride the thing.

Well, that's how I remember it and I'm sticking to my story. I would appreciate it if you would either change your web site or include my response.


Lee Laiterman

At Paul Bruneau's request, Mr. Laiterman kindly provided some more detail as to how it was that he came to be involved in recumbent bicycle design as an undergraduate at MIT:


Professor Wilson was my thesis advisor. I majored in Mechanical Engineering at MIT and we were required to do a thesis project for our Bachelor's degree.

I was already interested in bicycle design; seeing David riding around campus on his recumbent got me thinking about that as well, and so I came up with the rear-wheel-steering-recumbent angle as a topic. If you're interested in ancient history, a copy of my thesis is available online [here]

On page 12 (thumbnails 14&15 on the web site) there is a photograph taken that day at the press event. David is standing in the left foreground and that's me in the center.

At the time (mid 1970's) there was considerable interest in bicycle design among the students and faculty. One student, Gary Klein, who later started Klein Bicycles, was investigating the use of oversized diameter aluminum tubing as a frame material. Professor Shawn Buckley held a workshop on aluminum bicycle frame construction. A number of us built our own frames; I still have mine.

Over the years I kept up with developments in recumbent design, but didn't pursue anything on my own until recently. I have gotten quite interested in tilting recumbent trikes - three wheeled human powered vehicles with two front wheels that steer and lean in turns. I am working on my own design and plan to build a prototype one of these days.

Lee Laiterman
Senior Mechanical Engineer
Lick Observatory
University of California Santa Cruz

Finally, Dave Wilson sent this clarification:

Please pass along my apologies to Lee for misrepresenting him. I hate people with bad memories, and here I am being one of them!

The display by Lee before the press was set for noon on Friday August 20, 1976, and I was initially invited just to show up by Calvin Campbell and Bob DiIorio (sp?) of the MIT news office. It must have been one of them who asked me late to bring my recumbent and to ride it also because they, not Lee, were uncertain about him making a full successful demo. I guess that I interpreted their request to have come from a stated uncertainty by Lee, which I now see was not the case. (I was about to leave with my kids for two weeks' hiking in some distant spot, and didn't stay to get debriefed with Lee subsequently). If you can edit my piece to the following I would greatly appreciate it.

"When the day came the News Office asked me to ride my now-modified recumbent along with Lee on his more-radical bike. To my surprise, the "regular" recumbent received major coverage in all media."

I decided to leave these messages here rather than just correct the original story because I found Dave and Lee's remembrences to be so very interesting. Thanks again Dave and Lee!
-Webmaster Paul

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