Writer rolls out Segway's story

Machine's history focus of book, talk at Johns Hopkins

November 21, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Andrew Conn, a 68-year-old Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineer, is bucking wildly down the dim corridor of Latrobe Hall, struggling to maintain control of the high-tech Segway scooter beneath him.

It doesn't take long for Steve Kemper, the Segway's owner and author of a new book on the device, to assess Conn's speed and trajectory and conclude a disaster is in the making. "Stop, stop, stop!" he orders.

Too late. Conn ricochets off the plaster, knocking loose a small hunk of wall.

Conn, and the scooter, are both unhurt. But it's just another awkward moment in the life of the little device that was supposed to change the world.

Envisioned by inventor Dean Kamen as a solution for everything from traffic jams to global warming, the Segway Human Transporter has so far made more headlines for its troubles than its triumphs in the months after its splashy 2001 unveiling on TV's Good Morning America.

President Bush vaulted off one during his vacation last summer. A more embarrassing moment, though, came in September, when the government ordered all the battery-powered scooters recalled to fix a potentially dangerous software flaw. Kamen had boasted he would sell as many as 100,000 Segways in the first year, but only 6,000 of the $4,500 machines came back to the factory.

"I don't know if it's going to change the world or not," Kemper told Conn and his class of undergraduate engineers yesterday during a visit to the school. "But I do know Dean's a lot smarter than anybody I've ever met in my entire life. And he thinks it will."

Few know Segway's story better than Kemper, a 51-year-old journalist who spent 18 months following Kamen and his team as they struggled to bring the device to life. The result is Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World.

Published earlier this year by Harvard Business School Press, the book earned the West Hartford, Conn., resident a hefty $250,000 advance - and an unexpected walk-on role in the Segway story.

Kemper initially envisioned the book as a chronicle of how an idea moves from conception to finished product. He also hoped to give readers an insight into the mind of Kamen, a charismatic, brilliant, eccentric man often compared to innovators like Edison and Ford. While he thinks his book succeeds on both accounts, he admits that things didn't turn out quite like he planned. Today, for example, Kamen no longer speaks to Kemper. But more on that later.

Marketing genius

The idea for the book was Kamen's. In January 1999, the inventor phoned Kemper, who had profiled him for Smithsonian, and invited him to visit his New Hampshire research and development company, DEKA. Kamen didn't say why he wanted him to visit, but Kemper already knew enough about the guy from his Smithsonian encounter to have an inkling that it must be something good.

"My hobby is thinking," Kamen had told him. He would discover that Kamen also was a marketing genius, who frequently made preposterous predictions that just as frequently came true.

Kamen had become a millionaire before the age of 30. His secret: devising new technologies and leasing them to bigger companies for a royalty. He invented the first drug-infusion pump and the first portable dialysis machine. His thick patents portfolio includes everything from helicopter designs to computerized heating and cooling systems.

In the early 1990s, Kamen witnessed something at a shopping mall that would eventually lead to the Segway's splashy debut years later: a man in a wheelchair struggling to reach over a counter for an ice cream cone.

Soon Kamen and his engineers were hard at work on a machine code-named "Fred," after dancer Fred Astaire. It was a wheelchair that could climb stairs and balance on two wheels thanks to an ingenious series of computerized gyroscopes.

After an engineer realized it could also be fun to ride, it led to a scooter, code-named, appropriately enough, "Ginger" - for Ginger Rogers.

It was prototypes of Fred and Ginger that Kemper saw during his visit in January 1999. Kamen boasted he would sell millions of the battery-powered scooters. Clean and cheap, they would transform transportation habits. "It's going to change the world," he told Kemper.

Kemper says Ginger hardly wowed him when he first saw it. But then he climbed aboard. "The machine seemed to read my mind and respond like a powerful muscle," he writes. Soon he was gliding gracefully around the room and pirouetting like a figure skater. "I couldn't stop grinning and didn't want to get off."

Mystery machine

Kamen wanted Kemper to chronicle Ginger's evolution. There was only one wrinkle: Kemper couldn't tell anyone what he was working on - including potential publishers. It made for a difficult pitch. "My agent thought I was nuts," he says.

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