At one point, Steve Roberts had no peers. He was the one and only “technomad.”
It was 1983, a full 10 years before the invention of the World Wide Web, when Roberts, a freelance writer and corporate consultant from Columbus, Ohio, decided to turn his recumbent bike into a mobile office.
“Somewhere along the line I thought, ‘Wait a minute, freelance writing is supposed to be a license to be free, yet I’m chained to my desk,'” Roberts says.
He looked around at the stuff he’d amassed in his house in the ‘burbs and realized he didn’t really want any of it. So he made a list of all his passions—bike touring, computers, technology, adventure—and pondered how he could make a lifestyle around them. Eventually, he decided he’d sell his possessions, live off of what he could mount to his bike, and write to support his dream of travel.
Today there are myriad people who call themselves digital nomads. With a laptop and access to the internet, they can live life unfettered, able to work from pretty much anywhere. Project Untethered estimates that there are currently 10.9 million Americans who fit the description, up from the 7.3 million remote workers pre-pandemic. That figure is one that will likely increase as millions of people continue to realize the flexibility and freedom that remote work can provide.
While people can’t currently travel in quite the same way as before the delta variant showed up and borders were easier to negotiate, working from wherever has become much more normalized in the past 18 months, enabling digital nomadism on a staggering new scale. It’s something the original, trailblazing digital nomad could have only dreamed of.
But while today’s remote workers have heaps of resources to get them started and access to incredible technologies to make their job easier, there wasn’t yet a blueprint for how to be productive when Roberts began his remote-work journey. Staying connected while on the road was infinitely more challenging.
“Back then, you had phones that were wired to walls, computers were very large, and people were just starting to argue over whether it would be possible to work from home,” Roberts recalls.
He bought a TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer from Radio Shack, got a CompuServe account, and outfitted his recumbent bike with a security system pager, a solar charging system, and holsters for his camping gear—and hit the road.
For the first year and a half, he toured over 10,000 miles on his bike, writing articles in his tent and filing the pieces via pay phone. While Roberts didn’t invent the technology, he was the first to use it in such an unorthodox way. As he published stories while wandering, he became something of a celebrity. Tons of newspapers, magazines, and television hosts interviewed him on a near weekly basis. In many of the articles, journalists mused about the implications of these new tools: What could this mean for the future of work? Did people really need to work in an office?
“I think what gave my story legs was that it showed the implications of what this technology could do for people,” Roberts says. “People saw computers being developed but hadn’t been thinking about how this would lead to fundamental lifestyle changes or a difference in the way we interact with other cultures.”
At some point along the way, Roberts decided he’d rather find a way to build the computer into the bike frame. That way he could actually write while riding. By 1986, he’d rigged a keyboard into the handlebars of the second draft of his bike. Granted, it wasn’t the five main rows of keys most would recognize. There were only a handful of buttons, and when Roberts squeezed them in different combinations, it resulted in various letters, as well as keys like backspace, return, space, and caps lock.
But he wasn’t done there. In the early ’90s, he crafted the final iteration of his bike, which he dubbed Behemoth. That bike incorporated all those earlier technologies and more. There was satellite-data communications for email and international phone calls, a printer, a small refrigerator, and a mouse on his helmet so he could control the Mac environment by nodding. All told, the bicycle was 580 pounds and had 105 speeds. It took more than three years and $1.2 million (funded by more than 150 sponsors) to build with a team of 45 people.
“It was a lot of tech from end to end,” Roberts says. Today, Behemoth lives in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, (along with a personal computer he built in 1974—one of the first).
In the years that followed, Roberts shifted his focus from bicycles to watercraft; today, he lives on a boat off the shore of Washington State. He’s not traveling nearly as much as he used to but says he’s still a digital nomad.
“The tools are so pervasive now, I don’t know how else I would live or what else I’d call myself,” Robert says. “We’re all doing that now, but some happen to be moving, and others don’t.”
Roberts said he often wonders what Behemoth would look like today. Unlike before, when he had to build every detail of his remote work setup from scratch—even down to sending files—today these tools are ubiquitous, just part of the world we live in. Now to experience the same freedom Roberts had several decades ago, you don’t need much more than a computer, a mobile phone, and some solar chargers.