While passing through the Gare du Nord in Paris on Sunday, returning home from a conference at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, I came upon this mobile phone charging station, an apparatus that represents a fascinating intersection and modulation of old communications media or technologies – the bicycle and the telephone (and the railway). Resembling nothing so much as a sculpture by Richard Artschwager, there is an obvious irony in the use of a stationary exercise bicycle to power a mobile phone, resulting in a virtual mobility, but it also makes explicit the central principle of the bicycle as a machine, which is that it is dependent upon human labour. With the stationary bicycle this principle is made explicit, and while this particular machine is presumably intended to encourage users and passers-by to think about environmental politics and the importance of healthy living, it has a darker history.

Its precursors include the dystopian science fiction film, Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), in the opening scene of which the protagonists must use a bicycle to generate electricity for their cramped apartment in a future in which over-population, global warming and scarcity of food has plunged society into chaos.


Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson in Soylent Green

A more recent real-world iteration is the ‘Pedal Vision’ system introduced in an Arizona prison in 2010 which requires inmates to generate electricity by riding a stationary bike in order to be to allowed to watch TV.


The Pedal Vision device

This disciplinary technology is a way of encouraging prisoners to exercise, and is also a way of making them accustomed to repetitive manual labour, but of course this device belongs to a penal tradition of hard labour in which exhausting, pointless work is a form of punishment. The pedal vision machine is thus a modern derivation of sadistic devices installed in Victorian prisons such as the treadmill or the crank.  ‘The crank’ was a handle attached to a paddle inside a drum filled with sand. The crank pushed the paddle through the sand and was attached to a counter, and prisoners had to complete a certain number of revolutions – up to 10,000 per day – to earn their meals. Prison officers could tighten the screw on the crank making it harder to turn (hence the slang term for prison guards: screws).


The Crank

There are various conclusions we might draw from this about the disciplinary nature of contemporary exercise cultures, but at the very least it suggests that utopian concepts of the bicycle as an emancipatory device rest on a selective historical account of the development of the machine.