Human-powered Electricity Generation

Gallery opened 21 Apr 2024

Updated 19 May 2024

British SOE Hand Generator added here
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One man pedalling on a bicycle generator can produce about 100 Watts for a sustained period. There is a Wikipedia. page on Human Power.

When radio began to be used in warfare, with the first attempted use of wireless telegraphy taking place during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, (with limited success) there arose a need for electricity generation in the field. Electricity was also needed for field X-ray work, which remarkably began in 1899, and possibly earlier, as described here:

"Manual power, windmills, water-motors, hot-air motors, and gas and oil engines, have all been applied to the driving of dynamos..."

"A fairly useful apparatus for dynamo-driving has been contrived by adapting a bicycle, and so making use of pedal power, and it is interesting to note that electricity for charging accumulators for Roentgen-ray work in the Sudan campaign was generated by means of an apparatus of this kind, a tandem bicycle being so converted as to drive the dynamo by means of a belt from the hind wheel.
(See the illustrated paper by Surgeon-Major Battersby in the Archives of the Roentgen Ray for February, 1899.)

Source: Medical Electricity p59. Fifth Edition, By H. Lewis Jones. Pub H K Lewis 1906.

It is intriguing to note that this early account describes the use of tandem. Clearly it was work for two men.


Left: Tandem bicycle generator: 1915

This shows two German soldiers on a tandem pedal generator, around the time of the First World War.

Even on close inspection it's hard to see how the drive system works, because there seem to be two chains running between the pedals.

The two men are carrying sheathed bayonets and gas-mask containers, and have no steel helmets, which makes me think it's sometime after 1915. The first effective use of gas on the battlefield was on 22 April 1915 at 5 pm.

Left: Tandem bicycle generator: 1916

This German radio squad looks like later in the First World War, because the original Stahlschutzhelm, or 'steel protective helmet', was not widely introduced into German Army service until early 1916.

The tandem generator looks to be the same model as in the picture above.

The puzzling thing here is that two soldiers are apparently pedalling busily away, while only six feet behind them are another two men with what looks very much like an improvised motor-generator. Perhaps it's not working, or out of fuel.

Left: Tandem bicycle generator: 1918?

This British soldier is trying out a captured German tandem-generator.

It can be seen more clearly in this picture that there are definitely two chains joining the pedals. One joins two equal chainwheels on the pedal shafts, but the other clearly has a big step-up ratio; they can't both be connected or the pedals would not move. The explanation must be that the two pedal shafts are joined together via the pair of equal-size chain wheels, so that the power from both men goes through the big front chainwheel. This drives a sprocket that runs freely on the rear pedal shaft, but is connected to the rear chainwheel, which drives a sprocket on the generator. Thus there are two stages of step-up, cleverly built into a compact space. Coaxial shafts were used on quint racing bikes in 1898, so nothing very new in the technology.

Many thanks to Bill Todd and Keith Angus, who suggested this explanation.

Left: British one-man bicycle generator: 19??

This one-man bicycle generator is of unknown date, but apparently the components suggest it is British. Certainly 'Dunlop' is written on the saddle.

The design is quite different from the German versions above, and unquestionably has two stages of step-up before the output shaft. The diameter of the output pulley (presumably there was one) is unknown.

Left: British pedal generator Admiralty Pattern 323A: 194?

There is no support for the operator's arms, unlike the bicycle generators.

You may be wondering what the Admiralty wanted with pedal-operated generators. The answer is they were carried ashore by landing parties together with an Aldis signalling lamp, for visual communication back to the ship. Since this was line-of-sight communication it was relatively secure against interception.

Left: British SOE pedal generator: 194?

The Special Operations Executive was a British cloak and dagger organisation set up in July 1940. It dealt in espionage and resistance in occupied Europe. This pedal generator was intended for recharging radio batteries.

Now why use batteries, I hear you cry? Why not just plug your suitcase transmitter into the mains? Because the German forces would sneakily switch off the power to one area at a time. If the clandestine transmission suddenly stopped, that located the transmitter to that area.

Other methods of charging batteries in the field included the "beach chair" pedal generator, bicycle generators, wind generators, and even portable steam-driven generators. (made by Stuart) It seems unlikely the steam engine was used for clandestine operations.

Source of info for last paragraph: Wireless World for Sept 1975, p442

Apologies for dire image quality but the Museum Staff have so far failed to find a better version.

Left: One-Man bicycle generator: 1957

This shows a pedal generator with chain and generator shrouded. I wonder if it really was "...far more efficient than any other available equipment". It seems highly unlikely unless Redifon came up with some miracle technical advance that has since been forgotten.

This machine was presumably intended for militiary field use. It's not clear why the Post Office would need them.

It is also a good example of why you shouldn't use too many type fonts on one advert. I count at least eight, and possibly nine.
Dear me.

Source: Post Office Engineering Journal for Jan 1957


You can get much power out of your legs rather than your arms, but there are some times when you are near the front with bullets flying, and keeping your head down is a really good idea. Hence the development of hand generators that could be operated while crouching down in a foxhole.

Left: USA hand generator: 194?

A group of US soldiers power a radio set with a GN-45 hand-crank generator during WW2. At top right a man is using a battery-powered walkie-talkie.

The GN-45 generator had a combined dynamo that generated 6 Volts DC for valve filaments, and 500 Volts DC for anode supplies, with separate windings and commutators. (B+ supply) It was mounted on three legs, with one longer leg incorporating a seat. There was an earlier GN-44 generator.

There is much more info here.

Looks very much like a posed photgraph.

Left: British SOE hand generator: 194?

British hand generator for clamping to a table.


Apologies for dire image quality but the Museum Staff have so far failed to find a better version. I think the text is just about readable.

Left: British Mk810A hand or pedal generator: 19??

This is a more recent generator that was in use in East Africa. It was called the Mk810A generator also known as 'Generating set AC 45W 110V, hand or pedal driven, No1 Mk1' The pedals can be unscrewed and replaced with handles. (The two vertical black cylinders)

There is a voltmeter mounted on the top of the generator unit.

There is much more information here.

Left: British Mk810A hand or pedal generator: 1950

This particular machine sold for 217.60 inclusive of premium, at auction. Not much...

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