In Review :: Homemade Revolution

A hand-cranked and pedal-powered guide to shrinking your home electricity use.

The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors
by Tamara Dean

New Society, 2008, 288 pages, $29.95

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

The thought must occur to anyone who’s ever done time on a stationary bicycle or treadmill: Couldn’t this muscle power be harnessed to, say, turn on a light or blend a post-workout smoothie?

But before we can leverage all that gym-monkey energy, we need to restore a century’s worth of engineering knowledge lost to our reliance on petrochemicals. Transforming our muscle energy into machine power is simple in concept, but not always straightforward in execution. Tamara Dean’s practical how-to guide, The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors, is a welcome resource in an underserved field. Dean details, in clear, step-by-step instructions, how to build human-powered devices for use in the kitchen and garden, and also for generating emergency power.

Pedal-powered electrical generator. Illustration from the book The Human-Powered Home
Pedal-powered electrical generator.
Illustration from The Human-Powered Home

In choosing her projects, Dean focuses on what she considers the most appropriate use of human power: devices that require small amounts of energy. In other words, don’t expect to run your 65-inch plasma screen with furious pedaling. Using human power to generate electricity is inefficient, and Dean prefers machines that harness muscle power directly, such as apple presses, treadle sewing machines, and bike-driven grain mills and nut shellers.

Dean sees a niche where human power can not only save energy but improve the quality of our work. She makes the case that human touch—the turn of a hand-cranked food mill, for example—gives us a direct connection with the task, and in so doing, improves the texture and flavor of the food.

For each project contained in the book, Dean describes materials, costs, and sources. Most, but not all, projects are bicycle-based, since bike parts are easily scavenged and repaired. Dean also details commercially available human-powered machines, such as hand-cranked grain mills, and describes how pedal power can augment these store-bought devices.

The book includes profiles of creative human-power innovators, such as Maya Pedal, a non-governmental organization that assists farmers and small businesses in Guatemala by recycling old bikes into a variety of useful, labor-saving machines. Chapters on the history and principles of harnessing human power introduce the projects and will be useful to those who want to build their own devices. The review of bicycle parts, gearing ratios, and mechanics rounds out the foundational material in the book.

The Human-Powered Home will serve as an excellent resource for nonprofits wanting to assist the poor in developing countries, but its most provocative application may be in the industrialized world. Giving up some of our modern conveniences would make us stronger and healthier. Putting our hands and feet to work again would also force us to slow down and consider the task at hand, and ultimately make us more mindful in an increasingly virtual, text-messaged and Twittered-out 21st century. But the manual and the virtual need not be mutually exclusive. Tamara Dean has written a guidebook that will get us moving again, grinding our corn while we charge our cell phones.

Erik Knutzen wrote this review as part of The New Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Erik is coauthor, with his wife, Kelly Coyne, of The Urban Homestead, published by Process Media. He blogs at .

Interested?   Photo essay of the human-powered home.

Photo of Erik Knutzen
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