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11 Ways Kids Used to Soup-Up Their Bikes

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Wikimedia Commons

As gasoline prices and Body Mass Index numbers continue to climb dangerously, more Americans are using bicycles as their primary means of commuting. Those urban utility types of bikes are functional, sure, but they lack the character—the “Hey, look at me!” factor—of the balloon-tired Schwinns and Huffys that kids proudly pedaled back in the days when helmets were strictly for riding motorcycles or playing football. Do you remember decking out your ride with either store-bought or homemade accessories like these?

1. Cards in the Spokes

A baseball card (that’s what doubles were for) or a playing card clipped to the fork with a clothespin or wedged through the spokes made an impressive amount of noise the faster you rode. Add a couple more cards, and your bike sounded less like a roulette wheel and more like a motorcycle, and was usually loud enough to annoy a neighbor or two.

2. V-rroom

A more high-tech way to get that engine roar sound was to get your parents to buy Mattel’s V-rroom. This plastic “motor” attached to your tricycle or bike and was activated via a key ignition on the handlebars. It made a cool engine noise that sounded something like a riding lawnmower, but it also required four “D” batteries to operate—which made it a bit pricey, since they seemed to run down on a weekly basis.

3. Wheelie Bar

Truly cool kids could pop a wheelie anytime, anyplace, using no additional equipment other than some strong forearms. But there was help available for the less-than-cool clique—Wham-O’s Wheelie Bar. It attached to the rear fender of the bike and acted as a sort of training wheel that assisted novice riders in keeping that front tire skyward.

4. and 5. Banana Seat and High-Rise Handlebars

Wikimedia Commons

Huffy manufactured the first “chopper”-style bicycles in 1963, and a few years later, Sears and Schwinn joined the fray with their respective Spyder and StingRay models. But for kids who were handy with tools and whose parents didn’t have deep pockets, any old 24-inch bike could be upgraded to chopper status by purchasing the basics at a bike shop: a banana seat, a set of butterfly (or ape-hanger) handlebars, and a crescent wrench.

6. Schwinn Krates

schwinncruisers.com

In 1968, Schwinn took their StingRay to another realm with the introduction of the Krate drag racer line. The bikes were painted vibrant colors and given quirky names (the red one was the Apple Krate, the green the Pea Picker, etc.) and retailed for a hefty $89.99. Each model was a five-speed stick shift outfitted with a spring suppression front fork, spring suspension in the seat post, aluminum front drum brake and rear caliper brake, racing slick tires, and other luxury gizmos that every suburban 8-year-old needed to quietly pedal around his neighborhood sidewalks. Even though the gear shift lever was somewhat precariously placed (for young males, anyway), it is the item which collectors insist be intact when they search for restored models.

7. Sissy Bar

Dennis Crowley

An extra-tall sissy bar not only made your ride look more hardcore, it also served a practical purpose. It provided a back rest to keep an additional passenger seated securely when “riding double.”

8. Rear Rack

Roberto Cipriano

Speaking of riding double, we used bikes with rear racks for just that purpose. Such models were officially designated “Newsboy Bicycles”—that ledge on the back fender was designed to carry the large canvas saddle bags that door-to-door delivery personnel used to bring us the evening edition. But similar bikes fell into the hands of non-newsies and that rack was used to (very precariously) carry a passenger. Persons of authority warned against riding on the back of a bike, due to the danger of a foot getting caught in the spokes leading to broken bones and other serious injuries. But, being typical kids, most of us ignored the warnings and even transported passengers atop the handlebars just as an extra in-your-face to the naysayers.

9. Generator Headlight

Andria

Certain models of bikes came with a headlight built into the front of the tube (the metal crossbar that runs horizontally from the front fork to the seat post). There was room in the tube for two D-cell batteries, which usually leaked acid and corroded the works when the owners stopped replacing them. The battery-free alternative was a generator light, which was powered by your own legs. The dynamo output was mounted on the rear frame and rolled against the tire, the light getting brighter as your speed increased.

10. License Plates

A popular cereal premium at various times was an “authentic” miniature license plate from one of the 50 states. It was good marketing strategy to push Honeycomb, since there were determined kids who’d convince mom to buy it week after week until they finally got their home state. There was also the option of buying a personalized license plate with your name emblazoned on it …unless your name was "Kara."  (Thanks, Mom.)

11. Horns

Some bicycles had horns built right into the tube and emitted an electronic “beep” sound with the push of a small button. Much like the factory-issued headlight, though, such horns ate through the Duracells at an alarming rate, and eventually they became non-operational. More economical (and also louder and more effective) were the squeeze-bulb trumpets that could be affixed to the handlebars. In those days, pedestrians didn’t have earbuds jammed into their Eustachian tubes, so it was a source of good-natured fun to quietly approach a sidewalk slowpoke from behind and see how much cardiac arrhythmia you could cause with a blast of your horn.

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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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How a Wall of Lava Lamps Makes the Web a Safer Place
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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A secure internet network relies on bits of data that hackers can’t predict: in other words, random numbers. Randomization is an essential part of every encryption service, but spitting out a meaningless stream of digits isn't as easy as it sounds. Computerized random number generators depend on code, which means it's possible for outside forces to anticipate their output. So instead of turning to high-tech algorithms, one digital security service takes a retro approach to the problem.

As YouTube personality Tom Scott reports in a recent video, the San Francisco headquarters of Cloudflare is home to a wall of lava lamps. Those groovy accessories play a crucial role when it comes to protecting web activity. The floating, liquid wax inside each of them dictates the numbers that make up encryption codes. Cloudflare collects this data by filming the lamps from a wall-mounted camera.

Unlike computer programs, lava lamps act in a way that's impossible to predict. They're not the only secure way to generate randomness (tools used by other Cloudflare offices include a "chaotic pendulum" and a radioactive source), but they may be the prettiest to look at.

[h/t Tom Scott]

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How a Rain-Soaked Seattle Bookstore Helped Invent the School Backpack

Cori Mothersbaugh remembers how she used to get her books from one class to another. Starting in grade school in the 1960s and through her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 1972, textbooks would be wrapped in a heavy brown paper bag and piled up in her arms. “My generation, we didn’t put books in anything,” the 66-year-old tells Mental Floss. “We just carried them.”

By the time that finally changed, Mothersbaugh would be close to graduation. But she could take a little solace in the fact that, as an employee at the University’s campus bookstore, she was an eyewitness to a meeting between an outdoor equipment salesman and a store manager that would forever influence how kids toted their school supplies.

A woman wears a white JanSport backpack
JanSport

A leather belt. That’s what kids in the early 1900s often used to cart their school books around, securing the strap around the pile and using the slack as a handle. Sometimes the strap would be made specifically for the purpose. Other times, kids would just use a waist belt, cinching it to create a bottom-heavy contraption that was probably used by more than one child as a bludgeon.

Around the same time, some enterprising outdoor equipment suppliers were making upgrades to the totes and satchels favored by their outdoor enthusiast customers. Taking a cue from the Inuit designs he saw in his Alaskan travels, entrepreneur Lloyd Nelson patented a pack in 1922 that could be worn across the upper back with a frame for added support. In 1938, Gerry Outdoors improved on the concept by adding zippered compartments that made it easier to fetch supplies while rock climbing. In 1967, the Gerry Teardrop Backpack innovated again by using nylon, a far more durable and weather-resistant material than canvas.

None of these products were created with students in mind. Their target audience was the outdoorsman, the roaming amateur explorers who enjoyed hiking, camping, and climbing. The growth of that industry paved the way for JanSport, co-founded by Skip Yowell and Murray and Jan Pletz in 1967. (Jan had the company named after her because she agreed to help sew some of their early products.)

Operating out of a Seattle transmission shop owned by Yowell’s uncle, JanSport quickly gained traction as a supplier that paid attention to the finer details. When Yowell heard that customers wanted a loop to hang an ice axe from, he added one. When they asked for a day pack made especially for dogs, he made them. His dialogue with customers allowed JanSport to react quickly to the needs of the market.

“Skip had this incredible personality,” Winnie Yowell, Skip’s widow, tells Mental Floss. “He made you feel like you were his best friend, that you had known him forever.”

That comradery was on display in 1972, when Yowell paid a visit to the University of Washington’s campus bookstore and spoke with manager Ed Bergan. With the bookstore connected to an athletics shop that sold skiing and other outdoor equipment, Bergan noticed that students would go pick up their textbooks and then head for the JanSport day pack display almost immediately.

“It was like a turnstile,” says Mothersbaugh, who worked for Bergan. “Kids would buy books and then look for something to carry them in.” Unlike some of the sunnier campuses on the west coast, books needed protection from the ever-present Seattle rain; a large number of students also biked around campus and needed a place to store their books so they could keep their hands on the handlebar.

Bergan mentioned this untapped market to Yowell and suggested a key addition: Since the packs were being used for heavy books, having some added support on the bottom would be beneficial. The reinforced bottom could carry the weight and resist water if it was put down on wet pavement.

Yowell, who had made a practice of listening to customers, agreed. He returned to JanSport and began producing day packs that had vinyl (and later leather) bottoms and jam-proof zippers. He sent them along to Bergan, who reported that they were practically flying off the shelves.

“It was a new way to carry things,” Mothersbaugh says. “I think kids would see other kids with one and it caught on. I know we sold a lot of them.”

Bergan was so impressed by the response that he began telling his colleagues at other campus bookstores in the Pacific Northwest about JanSport and its virtually indestructible backpacks, which Yowell would later dub the SuperBreak. A revolution was taking place—but it would be a few more years before it became a national phenomenon.

A 1984 L.L. Bean catalog page featuring the Book Pack
Courtesy of Andy Gilchrist

At the time JanSport’s book pack exploded, the company had a regional footprint. Students on the East Coast in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t yet aware of the alternative use for the bags, and it was often left up to enterprising parents to improvise school sacks for their children. In 1980, syndicated arts and crafts columnists Ed and Stevie Baldwin offered instructions for a DIY backpack by mail order. The bags were made from jeans and recycled waistbands. For anyone willing to take up the task for themselves, the Baldwins sold the pattern for $3.95.

Of course, college students were less likely to have their parents sewing backpacks for them. That’s probably one reason why a Harvard law school enrollee wrote to Ned Kitchel in 1981. Kitchel, who was the head of product development for L.L. Bean's outdoor equipment category from 1976 to 1991, remembers the correspondence well. “The guy had ordered the first nylon day pack we had introduced to the line,” Kitchel tells Mental Floss. “It was intended for hiking. He said he liked it but that his law books poked a hole in the bottom and could we please make one to hold them.”

Kitchel thought that made sense. Not long after, he ran into a seamstress named Marcia Briggs at a Las Vegas trade show. Briggs was co-owner of Caribou Mountaineering and had already toyed with the idea of adopting a day pack for school use. “I asked if they [Caribou] could do anything and she pulled one right off the shelf,” Kitchel says. “With a few alterations, that became the L.L. Bean Book Pack.”

At the time, there was a crucial difference in reach between JanSport and L.L. Bean. JanSport acted as a wholesaler, dealing with retailers. Bean was a catalog business, selling directly to the consumer. (Without the middle man, their packs sold for $25 compared to JanSport’s $30 to $40 models.) They didn’t need to convince store owners a student-oriented pack was a good idea—they just added it to their pages. “The first year [1982], we sold maybe 10,000 of them,” Kitchel says. “The next year, 50,000. Then 100,000. The numbers were astonishing.”

The Bean Book Pack made some crucial additions to the student book-toting experience. Briggs designed a seamless bottom using a continuous piece of fabric, making it much more resistant to having sharp book corners poking at the sides. Compartments were added so supplies like pencils and rulers could be easily retrieved. Later, Kitchel would add reflective stripes to the exterior so kids would be visible in low light. That feature appealed to parents, who browsed the catalog and then ordered Book Packs for their children.

By 1984, newspapers were taking note of the trend spreading everywhere from kindergarten to universities. Across the country, students were lugging packs made specifically for their needs. Packs from JanSport, L.L. Bean, and a handful of other brands like Eastpak and Trager came in an assortment of colors, including pink and camouflage. Licensed packs featuring ALF, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie grew popular with younger backpackers. Promotional giveaways used them as a way to grab attention. (Send in two Chips Ahoy! proof of purchase seals along with $6.95 for a Chips Ahoy! backpack.) If you were carrying books by hand, you were missing a sea change in education. Backpacks had arrived.

A child with a backpack walks down a flight of stairs
woodleywonderworks, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In terms of brand recognition, not a whole lot has changed since backpacks became a staple of school lockers in the ‘80s. Kids, fiercely loyal to brands, still favor JanSport and L.L. Bean, along with other packs made by VF, the parent company currently behind JanSport.

“At least on the east coast, you can’t walk on a campus and not see L.L. Bean backpacks everywhere,” Kitchel says. Of Yowell, who conquered the other coast, Kitchel echoes the sentiments of most everyone who met him prior to his death in 2012. “He’s one of the classiest guys I ever knew.”

Kitchel estimates that L.L. Bean sold $500 million in packs since 1982. JanSport had tallied 25 million SuperBreak packs between 1979 and 2007.

With digital learning tools on the rise, some outlets are predicting a dip in backpack sales as more classes are moving coursework online. Yet 2014 was a record high for backpack sales, with 174 million sold. Students may no longer be weighed down with 30 pounds of paper, but there’s still a need to pad and protect tablets, headphones, and other learning accessories. There’s also the matter of aesthetics: A student’s choice of color, shape, and features in a backpack can help broadcast their personality to a campus full of strangers. That's not likely to go out of style anytime soon.

“I think Skip realized where the future was going to be,” Winnie Yowell says. “The goal was always to be cool and fun, and that was Skip’s thing.”

Additional Sources: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen.

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