This is a crazy story reminding us of the madness around the late nineties’ tech bubble, a story that got even the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr and Harvard sucked into. It is a fascinating read about how Segway, the two wheeled personal mobility device, was hyped out of proportion by its inventor’s obsession for keeping it a secret and how the product eventually died under the weight of the expectations it created but couldn’t live upto. Unlike many other tech ideas of that age or even today which are at best optimisation challenges solved using clever algorithms aided by the rise of cheap computing power, this one was one of genuine engineering prowess. Many of us wouldn’t have heard about Dean Kamen, an engineering genius credited with inventions such as the drug infusion pump and the portable dialysis machine, making his millions in the bargain.
““I wouldn’t call Dean an engineer,” he [an engineer who worked for him] said. “I’d call him an explorer of the natural world. He’s amazing in his ability to pull things back to first principles”—those physical relationships between matter and energy, the Newtonian formulas that represent centuries of understanding of the way the world works. “Dean understands that stuff, just, like, in his fiber,…And so he can take that fundamental understanding of how the world works and then take it five levels up.”
…Like that other lover of first principles, Archimedes, Kamen had his eureka moment in the bathtub—or in his case, getting out of the shower. He slipped and windmilled his arms to regain his balance, which made him think about how humans balance ourselves. We instinctively understand how to shift our weight and change our stance; we even, in walking, propel ourself into small, controlled falls forward, each interrupted by the next step. If he could build a machine that could balance like a person does, it could have incredible applications; imagine a wheelchair that can stand up straight on two wheels or even climb stairs. How many lives would that change?”
Thus came the idea for the Segway:
“The seemingly simple idea was fiendishly complicated in practice: Replicating the gyroscopes of our inner ears and the processing power of our brains requires a machine to make ten thousand measurements and calculations every second.
…a load-balancing machine, a sort of coffee table on two wheels. You could set something on it, and the machine would sense the uneven weight and rotate the wheels enough to balance it.
And then, one day, one of the engineers jumped on the coffee table, and away he zoomed.
“It was just so primitive, but beautiful,” Ambrogi remembered. “Your body is the joystick. You lean forward, it goes forward. The more lean you have, the faster it goes. And you lean back and it slows down.” Engineers took turns zipping around the lab on their new toy. “It was a complete revelation,” Ambrogi said, “how it felt like a natural extension of your body.”
…Ginger [the code name for Segway] could solve the problem of city travel. It could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and free our cities from the scourge of the automobile. It could change the world.
‘This is Ginger, people are going to be Gingering to the store, Gingering to work, Gingering to the subway. It’s going to be a verb. It’s going to be a new concept, a new verb, a new world.’”
The story then takes off to reflect the euphoric times of that era when the author of this piece who happens to be the literary agent for a potential book on the invention accidentally leaks the idea creating a massive hype, thanks to the power of the then newly popular internet to take things viral and eventually burning out. We wonder which of today’s buzzing tech ideas are similarly hyped out of proportion and will meet the same fate.
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