12 May 2018

Judge Stewart Knows

"I know it when I see it."

We've all heard that declaration.  Perhaps we've even used it ourselves.  The person uttering it is usually trying to categorize something according to a category that lacks clearly-defined parameters.

It may be Judge Potter Stewart who immortalized it.  In Jacobellis vs Ohio, the US Supreme Court reversed the state's conviction of a theatre manager who showed Louis Malle's Film Les Amants (The Lovers).  A court in the Buckeye state ruled that Nico Jacobellis violated Ohio's anti-obscenity law by screening a film it had deemed "pornographic."

Stewart, in concurring with the Supreme Court's majority ruling, said that the First Amendment protected all obscenity but "hard-core pornography."  When asked to define it, he admitted he couldn't, and could say only, "I know it when I see it."

He might well have given the same answer to this question:

What's the difference between a motor-assisted bicycle and a motorcycle?  

Until about World War II, most people would have had trouble telling the difference.  Up to that time, most motorcycles looked like bicycles with motors attached to them--and, in many cases, were effectively just that.  

I was reminded of that when someone sent me an article about Vintage Electric's new Scrambler S electric bicycle. 

It also reminded me of some bikes I saw during my childhood.  There were machines like the Schwinn Phantom that had fake "tanks"--usually, with battery-powered headlights built into them--between the top tube and the twin cantilevers. A few years later, Schwinn would introduce their "Krate" line and Raleigh its "Chopper", which consciously emulated the low-slung motorcycles that became popular during the 1960's and 1970s.

Those bikes didn't have motors.  But if they had, what would have differentiated them from 1970s "mini bikes"?

Judge Stewart would have had the answer.


  1. At least over here in UK there are supposed to be speed restrictions and twist and go systems are not allowed.

  2. Coline--How well are they enforced?

  3. I think I'd call that Scrambler an electric moped.

  4. Alan--That sounds about right. Thank you for stopping by!