Reinventing the Wheel
Here "it" is: the inside story of the secret invention that so many are
buzzing about. Could this thing really change the world?
BY JOHN HEILEMANN
GREGORY HEISLER FOR TIME
Dean's Machine: Will cities allow it to share the sidewalk with pedestrians?
Sunday, Dec. 02, 2001
"Come to me!"
On a quiet Sunday morning in Silicon Valley, I am standing atop a machine
code-named Ginger--a machine that may be the most eagerly awaited and
wildly, if inadvertently, hyped high-tech product since the Apple Macintosh.
Fifty feet away, Ginger's diminutive inventor, Dean Kamen, is offering
instruction on how to use it, which in this case means waving his hands and
barking out orders.
"Just lean forward," Kamen commands, so I do, and instantly I start rolling
across the concrete right at him.
"Now, stop," Kamen says. How? This thing has no brakes. "Just think about
stopping." Staring into the middle distance, I conjure an image of a red
stop sign--and just like that, Ginger and I come to a halt.
"Now think about backing up." Once again, I follow instructions, and soon I
glide in reverse to where I started. With a twist of the wrist, I pirouette
in place, and no matter which way I lean or how hard, Ginger refuses to let
me fall over. What's going on here is all perfectly explicable--the machine
is sensing and reacting to subtle shifts in my balance--but for the moment I
am slack-jawed, baffled. It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously observed that
"any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." By
that standard, Ginger is advanced indeed.
Since last January it has also been the tech world's most-speculated-about
secret. That was when a book proposal about Ginger, a.k.a. "IT," got leaked
to the website Inside.com. Kamen had been working on Ginger for more than a
decade, and although the author (with whom the inventor is no longer
collaborating) never revealed what Ginger was, his precis included
over-the-top assessments from some of Silicon Valley's mightiest kingpins.
As big a deal as the PC, said Steve Jobs; maybe bigger than the Internet,
said John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape, Amazon.com and now
In a heartbeat, hundreds of stories full of fevered theorizing gushed forth
in the press. Ginger was a hydrogen-powered hovercraft. Or a magnetic
antigravity device. Or, closer to the mark, a souped-up scooter. Even the
reprobates at South Park got into the act, spoofing Ginger in a recent
episode--the details of which, sadly, are unprintable in a family magazine.
This week the guessing game comes to an end as Kamen unveils his baby under
its official name: Segway. Given the buildup, some are bound to be
disappointed. ("It won't beam you to Mars or turn lead into gold," shrugs
Kamen. "So sue me.") But there is no denying that the Segway is an
engineering marvel. Developed at a cost of more than $100 million, Kamen's
vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human
body's ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it
also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it
can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents'
worth of electricity.
The commercial ambitions of Kamen and his team are as advanced as their
technical virtuosity. By stealing a slice of the $300 billion-plus
transportation industry, Doerr predicts, the Segway Co. will be the fastest
outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales. To get there, the firm has
erected a 77,000-sq.-ft. factory a few miles from its Manchester, N.H.,
headquarters that will be capable of churning out 40,000 Segways a month by
the end of next year.
Kamen's aspirations are even grander than that. He believes the Segway "will
be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." He imagines them
everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on battlefields and factory floors,
but especially on downtown sidewalks from Seattle to Shanghai. "Cars are
great for going long distances," Kamen says, "but it makes no sense at all
for people in cities to use a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb.
asses around town." In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from
urban centers to make room for millions of "empowered
pedestrians"--empowered, naturally, by Kamen's brainchild.
Kamen's dream of a Segway-saturated world won't come true overnight. In
fact, ordinary folks won't be able to buy the machines for at least a year,
when a consumer model is expected to go on sale for about $3,000. For now,
the first customers to test the Segway will be deep-pocketed institutions
such as the U.S. Postal Service and General Electric, the National Parks
Service and Amazon.com--institutions capable of shelling out about $8,000
apiece for industrial-strength models. And Kamen's dreamworld won't arrive
at all unless he and his team can navigate the array of obstacles that are
sure to be thrown up by competitors and ever cautious regulators.
For the past three months, Kamen has allowed TIME behind the veil of secrecy
as he and his team grappled with the questions that they will
confront--about everything from safety and pricing to the challenges of
launching a product with the country at war and the economy in recession.
Some of their answers were smooth and assured; others less polished. But one
thing was clear. As Kamen sees it, all these issues will quickly fade if the
question most people ask about the Segway is "How do I get one?"
Fred and Ginger
The world of technology has never been short of eccentrics and obsessives,
of rich, brilliant oddballs with strange habits and stranger hobbies. But
even in this crowd, Dean Kamen stands out. The 50-year-old son of a
comic-book artist, he is a college dropout, a self-taught physicist and
mechanical engineer with a handful of honorary doctorates, a
multimillionaire who wears the same outfit for every occasion: blue jeans, a
blue work shirt and a pair of Timberland boots. With the accent of his
native Long Island, he speaks slowly, passionately--and endlessly. "If you
ask Dean the time," Doerr chides, "he'll first explain the theory of general
relativity, then how to build an atomic clock, and then, maybe, he'll tell
you what time it is."
A bachelor, Kamen lives near Manchester in a hexagonally shaped,
32,000-sq.-ft. house he designed. Outside, there's a giant wind turbine to
generate power and a fully lighted baseball diamond; in the basement, a
foundry and a machine shop. Kamen's vehicles include a Hummer, a Porsche and
two helicopters--both of which he helped design and one of which he uses to
commute to work each day. He also owns an island off the coast of
Connecticut. He calls it North Dumpling, and he considers it a sovereign
state. It has a flag, a navy, a currency (one bill has the value of pi) and
a mutual nonaggression pact with the U.S., signed by Kamen and the first
President Bush (as a joke, we think).
But if Kamen's personality is half Willy Wonka, the other half is closer to
Thomas Edison. While he was still struggling in college, Kamen invented the
first drug-infusion pump, which enabled doctors to deliver steady, reliable
doses to patients. In the years that followed, he invented the first
portable insulin pump, the first portable dialysis machine and an array of
heart stents, one of which now resides inside Vice President Dick Cheney.
This string of successes established Kamen's reputation, made him wealthy
and turned DEKA Research--the R.-and-D. lab he founded nearly 20 years ago,
in which he and 200 engineers work along the banks of the Merrimack
River--into a kind of Mecca for medical-device design.
The seeds of Ginger were planted at DEKA by what had previously been Kamen's
best-known project: the IBOT wheelchair. Developed for and funded by Johnson
& Johnson, the IBOT is Kamen's bid to "give the disabled the same kind of
mobility the rest of us take for granted"--a six-wheel machine that goes up
and down curbs, cruises effortlessly through sand or gravel, and even climbs
stairs. More amazing still, the IBOT features something called standing
mode, in which it rises up on its wheels and lifts its occupant to eye level
while maintaining balance with such stability that it can't be knocked over
even by a violent shove. Kamen gets annoyed when the IBOT is called a
wheelchair. It is, he says, "the world's most sophisticated robot."
As Kamen and his team were working on the IBOT, it dawned on them that they
were onto something bigger. "We realized we could build a device using very
similar technology that could impact how everybody gets around," he says.
The IBot was also the source of Ginger's mysterious code name. "Watching the
IBOT, we used to say, 'Look at that light, graceful robot, dancing up the
stairs'--so we started referring to it as Fred Upstairs, after Fred
Astaire," Kamen recalls. "After we built Fred, it was only natural to name
its smaller partner Ginger."
With Ginger, as with the IBOT, Kamen explains, "the big idea is to put a
human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of your
body." On first inspection, balancing on Ginger seems only slightly more
feasible than balancing on a barbell. But what Kamen is talking about is the
way Ginger does the balancing for you. Lean forward, go forward; lean back,
go back; turn by twisting your wrist. The experience is the same going
uphill, downhill or across any kind of terrain--even ice. It is nothing like
riding a bike or a motorcycle. Instead, in the words of Vern Loucks, the
former chairman of Baxter International and a Segway board member, "it's
like skiing without the snow."
Exactly how the Segway achieves this effect isn't easy to explain; Kamen's
first stab at it involves a blizzard of equations. Eventually, though, he
offers this: "When you walk, you're really in what's called a controlled
fall. You off-balance yourself, putting one foot in front of the other and
falling onto them over and over again. In the same way, when you use a
Segway, there's a gyroscope that acts like your inner ear, a computer that
acts like your brain, motors that act like your muscles, wheels that act
like your feet. Suddenly, you feel like you have on a pair of magic
sneakers, and instead of falling forward, you go sailing across the room."
Pulling off this trick requires an unholy amount of computer power. In every
Segway there are 10 microprocessors cranking out three PCs' worth of juice.
Also a cluster of aviation-grade gyros, an accelerometer, a bevy of sensors,
two batteries and software so sophisticated it puts Microsoft to shame. If
Kamen gets irked when the IBOT is called a wheelchair, imagine his pique
when--if--the Segway is called a scooter.
Fish and Bicycles
The possibility that the segway will be viewed as simply a high-end toy, a
jet ski on wheels, is one of Kamen's greatest concerns, especially after
Sept. 11. He wants his machine taken seriously, as a serious solution to
serious problems. That anxiety was one of the reasons he and his team
decided to concentrate at first on major corporations, universities and
government agencies--large, solid, established institutions--rather than
dive straight into the consumer marketplace.
Whether such institutions would embrace Segways, however, was an open
question. Before last January's leak, Kamen had demoed his invention only
when absolutely necessary, or for luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Amazon
CEO Jeff Bezos. After the leak, he became even pickier. He entertained the
Postmaster General, who was keen to put letter carriers on Segways, and the
head of the National Parks Service, who wanted to do the same with park
rangers and police. (Both are among Segway's first customers.) Kamen also
stirred up interest at the Department of Defense, which was intrigued by the
notion of giving Segways to special forces, and at Federal Express. But few
other potential customers were allowed to pass through DEKA's tightly sealed
A few weeks ago, with the launch approaching, Kamen began to let some others
in. The Boston police department sent a clutch of cops to Manchester. The
city of Atlanta sent a contingent of city planners. And Thanksgiving week,
Kamen took his act to California. In one jam-packed day in Silicon Valley,
he revealed the Segway to officials from San Francisco International
Airport, the California department of transportation, the city of Palo Alto,
Stanford University and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers. Especially
gratifying to Kamen was the reaction of Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel
and, unlike so many Silicon Valley boosters, a bone-deep skeptic. Perched
tentatively on the machine, the 65-year-old Grove was rolling slowly along
when Doerr ambled over and pushed him in the chest. When the Segway kept him
from losing his balance, Grove emitted a distinctly un-Grove-like giggle.
"The machine is gorgeous," he said later. "I'm no good at balancing; it
would take me a hundred years to learn to snowboard. This took me less than
I asked Grove what he thought of the Segway as a business. "The consumer
market is always harder," he said. "But when you think about it, the
corporate market is almost unlimited. If the Postal Service and FedEx deploy
this for all their carriers, the company will be busy for the next five
years just keeping up with that demand."
A patient entrepreneur would revel in that assessment. But Kamen is a man
running short on patience. For him, conquering the corporate market is
merely a prelude to the battle to come. "The consumer market is where the
big money is," says Michael Schmertzler, a Credit Suisse First Boston
managing director and, with Doerr, Segway's other major financial backer.
"But this is about more than money for Dean. Pardon the cliche, but he
really does want to change the world."
With the Segway, Kamen plans to change the world by changing how cities are
organized. To Kamen's way of thinking, the problem is the automobile.
"Cities need cars like fish need bicycles," he says. Segways, he believes,
are ideal for downtown transportation. Unlike cars, they are cheap, clean,
efficient, maneuverable. Unlike bicycles, they are designed specifically to
be pedestrian friendly. "A bike is too slow and light to mix with trucks in
the street but too large and fast to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk,"
he argues. "Our machine is compatible with the sidewalk. If a Segway hits
you, it's like being hit by another pedestrian." By traveling at three or
four times walking speed, and thus turning what would have been a 30-minute
walk into a 10-minute ride, Kamen contends, Segways will in effect shrink
cities to the point where cars "will not only be undesirable, but
Kamen isn't so naive as to underestimate America's long-standing romance
with the automobile. ("I love cars too," he says. "Just not when I'm
downtown.") And he is well aware that uprooting the vast urban
infrastructure that supports cars, from parking garages to bridges and
tunnels, won't happen soon. Which is why he has pinned his greatest hopes
not on the U.S. but abroad, especially in the developing world. At a meeting
with Jobs a year ago, the Apple co-founder proclaimed, in typically
hyperbolic fashion, "If enough people see this machine, you won't have to
convince them to architect cities around it; it'll just happen."
Kamen agrees. "Most people in the developing world can't afford cars, and if
they could, it would be a complete disaster," he says. "If you were building
one of the new cities of China, would you do it the way we have? Wouldn't it
make more sense to build a mass-transit system around the city and leave the
central couple of square miles for pedestrians only?" Pedestrians and people
riding Segways, that is.
"There's no question in my mind that we have the right answer," he
continues. "I would stake my reputation, my money and my time on the fact
that 10 years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get
around." Kamen pauses and sighs. "If all we end up with are a few
billion-dollar niche markets, that would be a disappointment. It's not like
our goal was just to put the golf-cart industry out of business."
One of the hardest truths for any technologist to hear is that success or
failure in business is rarely determined by the quality of the technology.
Betamax was better than VHS; the Mac operating system is superior to
Windows. Even in the transportation business, there is the cautionary tale
of Preston Tucker, who in the 1940s designed a "car of the future" packed
with such safety innovations as a padded dashboard, disk brakes and safety
glass--a car so far ahead of its time that only 51 were ever produced. In
fact, the annals of high-tech history contain remarkably few cases in which
the most innovative technology has emerged triumphant in the marketplace.
This is the sort of thing that keeps Kamen up at night. There are countless
others. High on the list are congenitally skittish regulators who will
decide if the Segway is safe and if it will be allowed to roll on sidewalks.
Kamen maintains, with characteristic chutzpah, that Segways are "even safer
than walking." Only slightly less emphatic, and slightly more plausible, was
the verdict of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which began reviewing
the device last May. According to Ron Medford, a senior CPSC official, the
Segway has "safety features that are far more substantial than we normally
see in a consumer product--features closer to those associated with medical
devices." (Medford, it must be said, was so impressed that he is taking a
sabbatical at DEKA, though he remains on the government's payroll.) To make
the machine even safer, it comes equipped with three computerized keys that
set speed and performance limits. The slowest setting, now called training
mode, used to be jokingly referred to around DEKA as CEO mode.
The sidewalk issue is dicier. In order to ensure that Segways are permitted
to move alongside pedestrians, Kamen's regulatory-affairs mavens will have
to keep the machine from being classified either as a motor vehicle or as a
scooter. At the federal level, the deal is done--though, for a while, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration wanted to classify the Segway
as a "powered industrial truck." Technically, final sidewalk authority rests
with state and local governments. Kamen is betting, however, that the
decision will be made not by lawmakers but "de facto, by what becomes
standard practice. If we have police and mail carriers riding on the
sidewalks for a year, how is anyone in government going to say, 'It's O.K.
for us but not O.K. for you'?"
No matter how inherently safe Segways may be, someone, somewhere is going to
kill himself on one. "It's inevitable," says Gary Bridge, Segway's marketing
chief. "I dread that day." Never mind that people die every day on bicycles,
in crosswalks, on skateboards, in cars. The Segway is the newest new thing,
and nothing does more to set hearts afire on the contingency-fee bar. "There
are some very deep pockets around this thing," remarks Andy Grove. "I fear
this could be a litigation lightning rod."
Not to mention a lightning rod for fierce competition. Although Kamen
trashes the automobile at every opportunity and is plotting a future in
which cars are barred from cities, he insists that the Big Three and their
brethren will see the Segway as no threat. "Nobody in America or any
developed nation will buy one of these instead of buying a car," he says.
"People will buy these in addition to owning a car." But a former top auto
executive thinks Kamen is kidding himself--or kidding me. "The car companies
track market share by one one-hundredths of a percentage point," he says.
"They're incredibly sensitive on that front, and this is going to dent
somebody's market share."
Even if the auto barons leave the Segway alone, other players are unlikely
to be so forgiving. When Kamen and his lieutenants draw up lists of probable
rivals, companies in other branches of the transportation industry--firms
that make ATVs, motorcycles, scooters, even snowmobiles--are near the top.
But the lists have been long and varied, including a raft of appliance
makers, engineering companies and, especially, consumer-electronics giants,
such as Sony. Kamen's team is confident it has a long technological lead, as
well as patents on most of its key innovations. "Reverse engineering this
thing won't be easy," says Schmertzler. "This is not a pet rock." Yet if the
Segway is a runaway hit, you can bet that a flood of knock-offs--much less
sophisticated but also much cheaper--will soon wash over the market.
Will the Segway be a runaway hit? A device that reduces the need for
walking, one of the healthiest activities known to man, may strike many
people as the last thing our culture needs. (Kamen scoffs, "Because I give
kids calculators doesn't make them stupider.") And three grand may strike
many others as an awful lot to pay for something they've managed so far to
live happily without. John Doerr, who helped bankroll Compaq in the infant
days of the personal-computer industry, points out that the first PCs cost
$3,000 to $5,000. The analogy is worth pondering. The brave souls who bought
those early PCs were willing to cough up big bucks not simply to own
computers that were small and powerful but also to be part of a kind of
revolutionary vanguard. Will consumers today make the same calculation about
If it's seen as sufficiently cool, they might. But here Segway faces a
double-edged sword. If not for the media frenzy a year ago, Kamen and his
invention would be receiving a good deal less attention. At the same time,
that frenzy ginned up expectations so absurdly extravagant that they will be
hard to live up to. There is a very real possibility that for those whose
only experience of the Segway is on TV or in the press, the reaction to it
may boil down to five lethal words: Is that all it is? And that possibility
is only enhanced by the fact that to many eyes giving the photos only a
cursory glance, a Segway doesn't look like a revolution. It looks...well,
sorta like a scooter.
But looks can be misleading, as anyone who's ridden a Segway can attest.
Just ask Jeff Bezos. On a rainy morning in Seattle recently, Bezos dropped
in at a meeting between Kamen, his team and a pair of Amazon execs. The
meeting was being held in an Amazon "pick and pack" facility--a warehouse in
which employees pick stock from shelves and pack it in boxes for shipment to
customers. Kamen had come to sell Amazon some Segways by demonstrating that
they would, as Bezos put it, "improve our picking productivity."
Like Grove, Bezos is confident that Segway will make a mint selling to the
corporate market; also like Grove, he is less certain about its consumer
prospects. "At Amazon, we didn't know at first, and nobody knew, whether
people would want to buy books online, and the same is true for whether
people will want to ride these," he says. "Walking is a superb mechanism for
getting around--I don't see it being replaced anytime soon. And for long
hauls, driving is darn good too. The question is whether there's a middle
ground, some intermediate zone where these would be better than all the
Just then, Kamen rides up and hands his Segway over to Bezos. As the Amazon
boss races madly around the warehouse, hooting and cackling and flapping his
arms, someone yells out, "Yo, Jeff, what were you saying about the consumer
market?" Whizzing past, Bezos shouts back, "There's definitely at least a
consumer market of one!"
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