Thursday, December 21, 2006

From Mars...

Okay, as history has it, Edison perfected the first incandescent electric light bulb sometime in 1879, improving on earlier light bulb designs that had been around for 50 years. Some twenty-one years later, Edison, having earlier sold his soul to Old Nick a la Robert Johnson in exchange for eternal notoriety, came up with the first alkaline storage battery, the precursor to today’s expensive, nonrechargeable landfill landmines.

In 1896, Louis Jackson (like Edison, possessed of a particular intellectual fecundity), founder of the Acme Electric Lamp Company, applied for and received a patent for his Portable Lamp, a dry cell battery powered light. Perhaps in reaction to the frenetic (if ephemeral) clamor for bikes that mysteriously took root in the 1890s, Jackson’s light came equipped with a bracket for mounting it to a bicycle. Jackson’s creation eventually found its way into the willing hands of the Eveready company, which began mass-producing (and improving) the lamps shortly thereafter.

Flash forward a century to the bike lights available to us today. Let’s take a little look at one example of more than a hundred years of bike light evolution and see what the captains of commodity have cooked up for us in the form of the Blackburn Mars 3.0 tail light.

Mars. As in Roman God of War. Son of Jupiter and Juno. Eager deflowerer of vestal Ilia. Father to those fratricidal, lupine-teat sucking twins, Romulus and Remus. Arguably the most revered deity in the Roman pantheon. A real Renaissance ma—...uh...god. You get the picture: this eponymous light has got to kick some heavy ass; maybe it can even blind those who would dare gaze upon it, the way a glimpse of the Gorgons or a sideways glance at Sodom and Gomorra could turn one to stone or salt. (Of course, the myopic marketing mavins at Blackburn likely had in mind only a planetary allusion.)

So, how does it work? In two words: good enough. It has several blinky modes powered by two AAA batteries, orange lights pointing out from either side, a decent clip for mounting it on saddlebag loops, and a nice, soft on/off button that is pretty easy to locate and operate with one hand and no eyes. So yeah, it functions fine. Now on to the negatives.

One immediate downside is the price, especially given that the Mars doesn’t seem to be any brighter than lights costing half as much. Okay, it has the side-mounted caution lights, but really, by the time a driver notices these, he's already tallying up the cost of a punctured car grill and trying to remember whether he sent a greeting card to his legal counsel last Christmas. And additional bulbs (seven LEDs!) mean shorter battery life, my second complaint with the Mars.

But the third complaint really takes the cake. It’s one of those things that only the most misanthropic of designers—one who can’t possibly ride at night—could have brainstormed. The aforementioned energy-eating propensity of this light means that battery changes are a frequent phenomenon. Recognizing this, the innovative folks at Blackburn decided to dispense with the overly complicated slot found on competitors' models whereby the edge of a dime or a knife blade or a thumbnail is used to sort of gaston apart the two halves of the light. Instead, they put their best minds together and came up with a really progressive method for securing/removing the Mars 3.0 tail light cover: three tiny Phillips head screws.

Three tiny, fully detachable Phillips head screws.

Three tiny, black (the color of night, the color of asphalt, the color of the devil's heart), fully detachable Phillips head screws.

Now, if you were a designer employed by Blackburn, and you suffered the sudden epiphany that a cyclist might need to replace spent batteries at night (that dark portion of the day when lights are actually used), somewhere out on a lampless road, well, it should occur to you that a return trip to the drawing board is warranted before you unleash Mars on an unwary cycling public.

Perhaps a better name would have been Achilles...

BIAOA* Rating: Not likely

(*=Buy It All Over Again)

1 comment:

the buKit said...


I've a Mars as well. I dug the futuristic non-freddy design, but however couldn't agree with you more on the battery change issue.

It's strange when you think about how much money and r&d went into the thing and they overlooked such a seemingly glaring issue.

Makes you wonder, was the prototype ever mounted to a bike other than in the design office?