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Soul of Kamen’s new machine

Jun 23, 20034 mins

The jury’s still out on the commercial acceptance of Segway and will be for years. But read this book and you’ll come away liking the invention a lot more, the inventor a little less.

Ever since all the media hoopla and fanciful speculation erupted early last year around what we now know as the Segway Human Transporter – “that silly scooter” to skeptics – opinions have broken roughly into two camps.

In the first we find those who are fascinated by the technology and think Segway will be big, even if they don’t share inventor Dean Kamen’s conviction that his New Hampshire company is going to change life as we know it by bridging the gap between motorized and pedestrian travel.

In the second camp are those who might be fascinated if only they took the time to learn more and move beyond nearsighted brushoffs about scooters.

That’s my bias, of course, being a charter member of the first group.

Both fans and naysayers will find enlightenment in a new book by Steve Kemper called Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World. The author enjoyed full access to the Segway inner sanctum from where he chronicles an extraordinary development story that features a supporting cast of familiar high-tech characters: Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and venture capitalist John Doerr, whose depiction redefines “won’t take no for an answer.”

Kamen dominates, of course, and the book works best as a personality profile; second-best as a Soul of a New Machine type of project diary.

It’s important to remember that this is a single portrait of a complex man painted by one artist. Moreover, the artist is shown the door by the subject before the work is completed (don’t worry, not a deal killer). Kemper does an admirable job of providing balance to a story that could easily have veered toward hero worship or hatchet job.

We learn that the words eccentric and driven don’t begin to describe Kamen. Nor do arrogant and stubborn.

He talks endlessly about wanting to change the world first and make money second. You come to believe him, at least most of the time, in large part because his remarkable medical inventions – including a wheelchair that climbs stairs – have shown exactly what he can deliver.

A parade of fawning would-be investors makes clear that Kamen could have relinquished control of Segway in exchange for millions of dollars at many junctures. He insists he couldn’t do that and still realize his mission: changing the world. . . . That’s an easier decision when you’re already rich, of course.

But Kamen is a remarkably committed do-gooder – witness his unceasing investment of time, money, prestige and influence into FIRST, the successful program he founded in 1989 to promote an appreciation of science and technology among young people. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the book’s description of his going to comical extremes to transform a photo op with President Clinton into an opportunity to lobby Clinton in behalf of FIRST.

But Kamen’s a cheap bastard, too, and not in the stereotypical skinflint way that makes poking fun at New Hampshire great sport here in Massachusetts. Kamen loves his toys and fancy homes. He’s cheap in ways that clearly endangered Segway’s chances to succeed: skimping on staff and recruitment bonuses when additional engineers were desperately needed, endlessly delaying important decisions rather than committing to unavoidable costs, underpaying his stars.

No one disputes his genius, and the loyalty he inspires in his troops is unwavering. But he’s also an intellectual bully who belittles most non-technical endeavors. (When he tortures a teenage clerk at a mall ice cream stand because she doesn’t know the word conical, you’re hoping she slaps him one.)

The jury’s still out on the commercial acceptance of Segway and will be for years.

But read this book and you’ll come away liking the invention a lot more, the inventor a little less.

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