It was a Wednesday afternoon, a week and a half before Christmas, and father and son were scurrying to stay atop a rush of holiday business, including a first-ever order from Egypt, the 42nd country in which Vurtego has found customers.
I had a hard time tracking down Bruce Middleton, who would eventually tell me his theory of “conceptual basins.” Old e-mails and phone numbers didn’t work, and his name was common enough to make identifying the right man tricky. I eventually found him on Facebook, which his daughter had nudged him to join.
His life had seen some ups and downs since his Flybar pogo stick came to market. When we spoke by phone, he told me that he had split with SBI Enterprises. He was now living in a single-room-occupancy hotel on skid row in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Middleton said the company owed him money; SBI’s president told me the parting was amicable.)
“I thought my 15 minutes of pogo fame were all finished,” Middleton replied, dryly, to my first Facebook message.
I said I was interested less in his fame, such as it was, than in the workings of an inventor’s mind. How does a grown man decide that a quiver of giant rubber bands is the key to pogo’s progress?
Middleton, 55, told me that the Flybar was his answer to a question that came to him when he was 16. His girlfriend had lived 15 miles away, on the other side of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. During bike rides to her house, after reaching high speeds, he hated having to brake at lights and squander all that kinetic energy.
Might there be some way to store the energy lost to braking? Could you convert it to potential energy and then release it to propel you back to your original speed? (A form of such “regenerative braking” is now standard in hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.)
For decades, the question remained one of the many intellectual riddles caroming around his brain. Middleton entered MIT at age 16, with dreams of becoming a theoretical physicist. He soon suffered what he termed a “moral crisis” over the detachment of science from real-world problems like global poverty, and dropped out .
He traveled to Venezuela to tend to disabled children at one of Mother Teresa’s outposts. Back in Canada, he worked a series of menial jobs—parks laborer, millworker—and eventually became a stay-at-home dad. In the late 1990s, he began bicycling with his two young daughters to their school and found himself newly curious about regenerative braking.
He considered affixing some kind of steel spring to his bike. But he concluded that a strong enough steel coil would easily weigh as much as an adult rider. Rubber was lighter than steel and, pound for pound, could store as much as 20 times the energy. Still, he’d need more rubber than could be elegantly integrated into a bicycle frame.