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Mr. Fix-It: A Mechanic Turns from Trying to Save Muni to Trying to Save the World 

Wednesday, Jun 19 2013
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Mike Cheney sits at the handcrafted drafting table where his abortive coloring book and air traffic controller stamps first took shape. He gazes out his window as the sun dips lazily behind the wooded hills of the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. For any San Franciscan born or made, it's hard to imagine a better view. And, for Cheney, it's hard to imagine a better place. "This ain't a bad way to live," he says. "I am exactly where I want to be right now."

And that's because of the latest item created on that drafting table.

Watching Cheney explain the SailWing to engineers, newspaper photographers, or random folks at the cafe who profess a fondness for sailing is a bit like watching a foreigner asking for directions. If Cheney's conversation partner isn't conversant in mechanical and nautical terms, he does what many people do when confronted with a language barrier — talk louder.

During a recent conversation with an engineer fluent in both tongues, however, the conversation didn't get louder, but faster. Terms the non-mechanically inclined only hear on Car Talk — "solenoids!" "torque converters!" — spun out of a back-and-forth exchange that soon reached the velocity of screwball comedy pitter-patter. And then, a pregnant pause: The engineer exclaimed, "It's an engine!"

And Cheney just melted.

Cheney likes to quip that he's devised an internal combustion engine sans the internal combustion. But, at first glance, it looks exactly like the gargantuan fixed "sail wings" protruding from the AC72 America's Cup yachts flitting about San Francisco Bay. Except instead of being mounted to a boat of questionable seaworthiness, the SailWing Engine will connect to a series of unseen gears which, in turn, "will generate hydraulic power like gangbusters." Taking a break from a highly technical explanation, Cheney adds that "hydraulic power kicks ass."

Imagine a landscape of 100-foot-tall SailWing Engines swinging rhythmically in a horizontal back-and-forth resembling the beauty queen wave. Beneath each, a series of gears force synthetic oil through an ever-shrinking series of portals. This is a "positive displacement pump," and it generates incredible amounts of hydraulic pressure. This, in turn, could be converted into electrical power by turning generators akin to those at a hydraulic dam. Or you could use the hydraulic pressure to pump water and then you could spin generators with that. Possibilities abound; port a series of SailWings to a generator — "or even a dynamo!" — and "you could fire them off like pistons in an engine — boom, boom, boom!"

While the gears whir below ground, what you'll see on terra firma is the SailWing turning perhaps 180 degrees before shutters resembling the slats on venetian blinds open up, "de-winding" the metallic sail. The device will disengage from the gears, allowing the SailWing to spin back to its initial position. The gears will be engaged once again, initiating another "power stroke." Cheney likens the process to an oar powering through the water, then "disengaging" and being returned for another stroke.

The vision of rolling hillsides dotted with hulking, louvered metallic sails oscillating hither and yon in the breeze is an exotic one. But every system mentioned above — and many more that were excluded in the name of expediency — are already employed in cars or even bikes. (There's even a shutter system in the grill of the 2013 Dodge Dart.) Paraphrasing Archimedes, Cheney says that "if you give me a lever large enough, I can lift the world." He pauses. "This is a pretty big lever."

It's a lever that Cheney thinks could deliver untold amounts of truly renewable power on a level windmills can't touch — while not doubling as an open-air abattoir for birds and bats as windmills do. At long last, Mike Cheney feels he can lift the world.


When Mike Cheney was 16 years old, Lincoln High School science teacher Blair Oram's classroom was his refuge; it was a retreat from both a broken home and the persistent lunchtime riots that broke out in the cafeteria. In 1969, Oram selected Cheney as one of just two students from California to attend the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation's 90th anniversary fete for the incandescent light bulb. "Mike had a brain that was always thinking of things to invent," recalls Oram. "I valued him."

It was a life-altering trip: The crème of the nation's high-school students were informed that the world's continued reckless and polluting energy consumption would doom us all, and, perhaps, the tipping point had come and gone ("End of the world shit, dude!"). It would fall on another generation — perhaps one of those 100 students and teachers — to solve this problem.

"I've got too much to do," affirms Cheney. "There isn't enough time in a lifetime to get done what I want to get done." But that 16-year-old is now 61. Immortality is a temporary condition; so if Oracle CEO and yachting billionaire Larry Ellison (whom Cheney refers to, respectfully, as "Mr. Ellison") wants to get involved with the device his America's Cup boats inspired, odds are he won't have to drive too hard a bargain. Dan Ficher, a fellow Muni mechanic and hydraulics maven Cheney has brought in as a partner, notes that "it'd be nice to get a little check. But we have jobs. We're not starving artists." Cheney is blunter. He doesn't give a damn about making any money.

"I have not applied for a foreign patent. I hope they steal it. I hope they build them all over China," he says. Domestically, he reveals, he's already thought of four easy ways to break his patent. "This doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the planet. To the people.

"Maybe it'll take 40 years — but I've started the discussion." He smiles. "The equation is on the blackboard."

And that's how this story ends, dude.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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