By Raheela Rehman and Anne Clarke
Eleanor Sherwen, a Brompton Bicycle Engineer, opened the Institute of Physics East Anglia Branch “Women in Physics seminar series 2018” on 11 April 2018. Travelling through a brief history of bicycles, Eleanor introduced her Brompton story that progressed her career as a woman in STEM. You might ask, how does Formula 1 drive the iconic Brompton electric-bike? The answer is surprising.
It is not the first time that the automobile industry and bicycle market have been related.
The Rover company that produced the household Rover cars, was founded by John Kemp Starley, when he invented the Rover safety bicycle in the 1880s. His revolutionary design, the ubiquitous diamond shape bike frame, was closer to the ground, with both wheels of equal size and steerable front. The bike evolution moved on to the light weight aluminium frame. In the early 20th Century, folding bicycles were used by the military for ease of mobility, with trade-off between speed and portability. The 1960s brought the Moulton, the precursor to the modern folding bike. The British bicycle manufacturer was founded by Dr Alex Moulton CBE, a Cambridge engineering graduate who had designed the rubber cone suspension systems for the Mini motorcar. Moultons are noted for their unconventional frame, and front and rear suspension. More recently, frames were designed with carbon fibre, think the Lotus favoured by the Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman.
Andrew Ritchie MBE, also a Cambridge engineering graduate, firmly sits with the bicycle designer greats, when he invented the Brompton folding bike. It was in the 1970s whilst living in London, Andrew was introduced to Bill Ingram, who at the time was raising funds for the folding Bickerton bicycle. Their conversation inspired Andrew’s own innovative design of a new light weight folding two wheeler. Sat in his bedroom overlooking the Brompton Oratory, the name of the now world famous Brompton was born.
Crowd funding his first prototype from friends and family, Andrew headed to Raleigh to licence his new design. The unfruitful meeting led to Andrew raising funds from shareholders instead and manufacturing the first 400 bikes. Although they all sold, applications for bank loans for further funding were declined, as the banks doubted the business would succeed, heralding a four year quiescent period. However, his bicycle sales garnered traction, especially in the boating community. Here, they had a bike that was compact enough to take on board their boats. Julian Vereker, who had purchased one of the first 400 bicycles, founder of Naim speakers and a boating enthusiast underwrote a bank loan to Brompton. And so, the next leg of the Brompton journey set in motion, further funding and a factory later, full production began.
Today Brompton Bicycle Ltd has three key features:
– two-thirds of all Brompton bikes are sold outside of the UK
– complete in-house design
– own tailored accessories
Eleanor Sherwen’s joined Brompton in 2014 as a Design Engineer. She graduated in Product Design Engineering from Brunel University, trained in Lean Six Sigma at Coopers Lighting Industries, and worked as a Mechanical Device Engineer at Measurement Device Ltd (now a part of Renishaw). Throughout her career, she has worked closely with electronics engineers. Her work at Brompton Bicycle Ltd in Research and Development includes prototyping tools, fast learning and response, CAD, Finite Element Analysis for component stress distribution, cast fatigue testing, as well as material porosity analysis to ensure there is no baseline drift, which left unchecked can lead to component failure.
For the last two exciting years, Eleanor has worked on the first Brompton electric-bike. Battery-powered, the new bike will be launched in July 2018. Her research and development experience in mechanical engineering and design provided a natural movement into programming. Developed with the motorsports giant Williams F1 Engineering, the bespoke battery provides 250W, and can be instantly mounted or removed. Not without its challenges, Eleanor worked on the technology debugging and using sensor feedback. One of the biggest tests has been the human response factor and marrying expectation with output. The smart integrated torque sensor responds to the human feedback mechanism. This provides an optimised end-user experience, including uphill cycling assist.
As an engineer, Eleanor has taken stock of the pure versus applied sciences. The axiom of pure research provides accumulation of knowledge, underpinning the applied. From Eleanor’s personal viewpoint, application of sciences gives context to the wider world. As one part of a solution, her application impacts by way of reduction in human obesity or preventing deaths from improved air quality.
The growing market for the new Brompton electric-bike is for inner city living. Conforming to European law, the new bikes will have a staggering top speed of 25km/h. Traditionally electric-bikes have had higher suburban sales due to the availability of outside storage space. Urban spaces are at a premium, outside secure storage is limited, and therefore city dwellers prefer to store their electric-bike inside their homes. The Brompton electric also provides the ideal solution for those whose journey to work is at the borderline of cycling or driving to work.
Brompton Bicycles is the largest bicycle manufacturer in the UK. It is an entrepreneurial success story, synonymous with quality and manufacturing, and Eleanor Sherwen is a part of that. Pick up your Brompton this summer.
Join Dr Ceri Brenner (STFC Central Laser Facility, Oxford) for the next seminar in the IOP Women in Physics series: Pressing FIRE on the most powerful laser in the world: https://bit.ly/2KbMqG4“