Taking Ginger for a spin

Segway: As Dean Kamen's human transport is delivered to customers, society tries to determine the breadth of the vehicle's role.

March 27, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

George Himmelreich glides around the hotel ballroom, executing graceful figure eights and emitting a low whir. He appears to be part Fred Astaire, part contented house cat.

His voice turns mischievous one moment, indulgent the next. A silly grin settles in above his bristled chin.

Hardly de rigueur for the 74-year-old mechanic from Millersburg, Pa. Himmelreich, whose right foot has been rigid as a brick for half a century, tips severely to the side as he walks out of the ballroom, the effort wiping away his grin.

But his voice remains light and satisfied.

"It is addictive," he says.

The "It" Himmelreich refers to is the Segway Human Transporter, the neatest bit of gee-whiz technology $4,950 buys this week in the Washington metropolitan area.

The two-wheeled Segway uses sensors, balance-controlling gyroscopes, a two-horsepower engine and puncture-resistant tires to convey its rider eight inches above sidewalks, grassy areas, gravel and sand. It resembles the push-style lawnmower some kids hide from on sunny Saturday mornings. But, weighing 83 pounds, it turns on a dime - as when Sharon Wade, 59, of Edgewater, steers into a make-believe elevator and spins in place to face the closing doors.

"We may have to get another one, hon," she sings out to her husband and fellow commercial Realtor, Ken Wade.

The couple first learned about the device after seeing it unveiled on ABC's Good Morning America last fall. She logged on to Amazon.com to put down a 10 percent deposit for a gizmo neither would get the chance to try out until this spring.

This past weekend, they joined dozens of other buyers at a Marriott Hotel in downtown Baltimore for lessons on how to use their new purchases, scheduled for home delivery Monday and Tuesday. For a moment, while smoothly navigating cones on the red hotel carpet, Segway's newest customers bring to mind Rosie, the wheeled, robotic maid on the cartoon The Jetsons, minus the starched cap and collar.

Unlike the Wades, Himmelreich had kept his eye on inventor Dean Kamen's transporter for two years, after rumors of a device known by the code name Ginger leaked out in January 2001. Kamen renamed it Segway, a play on the idea that the devices will help people segue, as in make "a smooth transition from one place or idea to another."

Disabled at age 21 by Guillain-BarrM-i Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder, Himmelreich has dreamed about such mobility.

"Because of my walking problem, I take my car to go three blocks," he said, sidling up to his daughter, Melissa Nicholson. "I won't get my car out of the garage now unless I'm going out of town."

Company officials at the New Hampshire-based Segway don't expect riders to forgo using their cars, said marketing associate, Morgan Smith.

But the nickel battery-charged vehicles, dynamically stabilized to respond to the slightest changes in the rider's center of gravity and capable of transporting up to a 250-pound person up a 20-degree incline at its maximum speed of 12.5 mph, may be an alternative for urban commuters who want to spend time outside, Smith said.

"This is not to replace walking. This is to replace short-distance car rides," Smith said.

The company has pitched versions of the Segway to a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service and police departments, for use by letter carriers and foot-patrol officers.

Sidewalk use of the so-called electronic personal assistive mobility devices is protected by legislation in the District of Columbia and 32 states including Maryland. Some states require head gear, others elbow pads.

But safety concerns in some jurisdictions have prompted bans. Months before the first retail Segways began shipping, the city of San Francisco banned their use on sidewalks amid protests from senior and disabled groups who feared being run over.

Joe Tordone, a grandfather of eight from Malvern, Pa., bought one to raffle off at a summer trade show in Orlando. His wife, Irene, a former downhill skier, ran into a wall while practicing on a sample model. She shrugged it off and stepped back on, leaning forward to move and backward to retreat.

"They're still a lot of fun," she said after the Baltimore demonstration. "But I'm not buying one."

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