Mystery invention `It' fires up imaginations

Inventor's latest device draws high praise, $250,000 book advance

January 13, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The first news about "It" broke four days ago on - word of an invention supposedly small enough to fit in a couple of duffel bags and significant enough to change the world.

So secret is It (also known by the code name Ginger), that even the Harvard Business School Press, which just forked over a $250,000 advance for a book about It, claims not to know what it is.

A revolutionary transportation device? A new energy source? An answer to gridlock or pollution or both? Or perhaps just a hoax, or an elaborate marketing ploy.

For now, a few tantalizing details must suffice:

The creator of It, Dean Kamen, is a respected inventor who recently received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

It has been seen and praised by the likes of Apple's Steve Jobs and's Jeff Bezos, and Its investors include high-tech venture capitalist John Doerr and Credit Suisse First Boston. The bank predicts that It will make Kamen richer than Bill Gates and produce the most successful business start-up ever, according to's report.

In a proposal for the book, Jobs is quoted as saying: "If enough people see the machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it. It will just happen."

Whatever It is, the book proposal says, "It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities." The book was proposed by Steve Kemper, a journalist whose work has been published in National Geographic and Smithsonian.

A few other clues: One model of It could cost less than $2,000. It can be assembled with a screwdriver and hex wrenches. And It is something that will sell to the mass market. According to the proposal, it could radically change urban life.

Calls to Kamen's company, DEKA Research and Development Corp., in Manchester, N.H., were not returned yesterday.

And, not that it knows much anyway, Harvard isn't shedding any more light on the subject either. The invention is not scheduled to be unveiled until next year.

For the moment, with only scant details, the mystery has fueled rampant speculation in chat rooms and on talk shows.

"Listen to the clues and it becomes obvious. ... it is a hovercraft," wrote one excited scribe to MSNBC's Web site.

Others guessed a hydrogen-powered car, or a magnetic roadway system that would let cars drive themselves, or a motorized scooter.

"It sounds like it might be something from `The Jetsons,' like a little panel that you stand on and it takes you places," said Katie Couric on the "Today Show."

That may be close. On Dec. 14, Kamen and several co-inventors filed a patent application for a "class of transportation vehicles for carrying an individual over ground," with an accompanying picture of a young girl on a scooter-type contraption.

"The best thing about this is that people's imaginations have been excited," said P.J. Marks, who was first to write about It for, which covers the book industry and other media. "There's a sense that anything you dream up can be invented."

Having read the book proposal and talked to some of the players, Marks said he is certain It is no hoax. He's playing the guessing game, too. "I don't think it is just one thing," he said. "I think it's a concept - maybe natural energy combined with transportation. I think that's a pretty good guess."

But in other offices, where cutting edge transportation is a matter of daily business, It was getting barely a nod.

"This must be another one of those times I have my head in the sand," said Bob Erwin of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "I haven't heard of it."

And Dan Johnson, an editor at the Futurist magazine, said, "It's not really a big deal here." He'd seen the recent patent drawing. "If that's what it is, I'm not sure it would be widely popular. You wouldn't use it in the rain, and it's an inconvenience for anyone over 25."

Were it not for Kamen's past achievements, it is unlikely It would have received so much attention.

An eccentric 49-year-old from New Hampshire, he is a college dropout with scores of patents to his credit, including a string of well-received medical inventions. He created the first portable insulin pump and the first portable dialysis machine.

More recently, he patented a self-propelled wheelchair that can climb stairs and which uses gyroscopes and microprocessors to keep its balance. "It's something you don't believe until you see it," wrote a columnist reviewing the chair for the technology publication InfoWorld.

The code name for that invention was Fred. So with Ginger now on the way, some speculate a similar innovation.

"It suggests something that's moving forward gracefully," Marks said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.