The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 17, 1998
August 17, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 42


Student Delivers "Recycling" Message

Pursuits: A unique academic endeavor inspires Greg Downey to repair and give away bikes

Glenn Small
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Two or three days a week, you will find Greg Downey deep inside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., poring over thousands of turn-of-the-century documents to look for clues about the old Western Union bicycle messenger boys.

In the "information age" spawned by the spread of the telegraph in the second half of the 19th century, the telegraph messenger boys were the foot soldiers that made the system work, aided by the bicycle. For more than 40 years, thousands of messengers--simply called "boys" back then because males between 12 and 14 years old were considered ideal for the job--delivered the e-mail of that era.

Since last summer, Greg Downey--a student in the departments of History of Science, Medicine and Technology and of Geography and Environmental Engineering--has redone 22 bicycles.

"They played an important role, but you don't hear much about them," Downey said.

Downey, 31, has made them a focus of his doctoral dissertation on the human geography of cities and the telegraph system, and, along the way, he has developed another bicycle-related pursuit.

He accepts old bikes--and in many cases, parts of bikes--and he coaxes life into these so-called "beaters," reworking them into serviceable transportation.

Then, he gives them away, or sells them for the cost of the parts, normally $20 to $25.

In less than a year, he has cleaned and repaired 22 bicycles, most of which were either moldering in the dark corners of basements and garages or were destined for a landfill grave.

His career in bike repair began innocently enough last summer.

For years, he'd been a cyclist, and his research of the messenger boys further honed his interest in bikes. He wanted to learn something about bicycle repair, and he figured working on old bikes would be a good way to start.

So, armed with a rusting bike left for years outside a friend's home and half of another bike given to him by someone else, he got to work.

"I had basically two halves, and they fit together just perfectly to make one good bike," he recalled recently. "After I was done, I put some fliers around campus. I bet they weren't up for an hour and someone called and wanted the bike."

He was hooked.

Not only did he get satisfaction from working with his hands, and from learning, he could take pride in knowing an unused bike now was put back into service and getting use from a grateful new owner.

"It's just a good idea that he came up with," said Stuart Leslie, a professor in History of Science, Medicine and Technology, who is one of Downey's advisers. "I happen to be very supportive because I commute by bicycle."

Hadee Salmun, a research scientist who works across from Downey in Ames Hall on the Homewood campus, rediscovered her love of bicycling after receiving one of Downey's project bikes a few months ago.

She biked often while working at Oxford University, but upon returning to Hopkins in 1994, she found that Baltimore's bustling traffic kept her off two-wheel transport.

"I chickened out," she said, laughing.

She found out about Downey's work with old bikes, and he said he would find her one with bigger tires and a heavy frame, one she might feel safer riding. He did, and she is biking to campus two or more times a week.

"For some reason, this bike is sturdy enough that I'm learning to feel more comfortable in Baltimore traffic," she said.

Some might wonder why anybody would clutter up his apartment with bikes and bike parts, and spend effort, time and money fixing up old bikes, just to give them away.

Not the people who know Downey.

"He has a highly developed social conscience," said Leslie.

Both Leslie and Salmun have worked with Downey during his three years at Hopkins, and both have come to appreciate him personally, and to respect his academic work. Downey, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, worked for five years as a programmer before earning a master's degree in liberal arts.

He came to Hopkins because he wanted to study both geography and the history of technology, and Hopkins made it work. Downey is a student in both the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (History of Science, Medicine and Technology) and the Whiting School of Engineering (Geography and Environmental Engineering).

"We share him," Leslie said. "We created a special program just for him, essentially. It's worked out well."

"He has an incredible ability to deal with technology in ways that are incredibly sweet," Salmun said. "The breadth of his interests is just amazing to me. I have found that Greg has the capacity to learn something from everything he does."

One moment Downey will tap a few keys on his laptop and quote the number of messenger boys hired by Western Union in 1929--8,000--and the next he'll talk of how he thinks of the bicycle messengers as he bikes through Baltimore's streets. Reminders of them are all around us, he said.

"The company known as ADT--the security company--started out as American District Telegraph," he said. Beginning in 1872, ADT hired messenger boys and then contracted them out to Western Union, kind of a temp service.

"So anytime I see one of those ADT signs or stickers," he said, "I can't help but think of the telegraph messengers."

Same thing with the FTD flower delivery service. It started out as the Florist Telegraph Delivery Association, and it was the messenger boys who delivered the flowers, Downey explained.

Where possible, Downey is taking a scientific look at the messenger service, analyzing, for example, 20 years' worth of financial reports from the Philadelphia branch of ADT. But he's also looking at things like the uniforms the messengers wore, what kind of bikes they used, how the public thought of them and how they were treated.

A bicycle messenger boy normally got recruited to the job by the lure of a uniform and a bicycle. And for working 11 hours a day, six days a week, the proud messenger made $2.50 a week-- before a dollar was deducted to pay for the uniform and bike.

"They really churned through boys," Downey said, citing an example of Western Union's hiring 600 messengers in one year to fill 200 openings.

Leslie is encouraging Downey to turn his dissertation work into a book, and the idea appeals to him. "I think it would make a good story."

For now, he concentrates on researching and repairing.

"I'm using the messengers to look at the broader telegraph system," Downey said. "It's a big topic, and this is one way to get into it. I've been interested in cities. I've been interested in information technology. I've been interested in bicycles, in human-powered machines. So a lot of things are coming together for me on this."