Gingering up Dean Kamen's Segway

Who remembers Ginger? Or the Segway, for that matter? Based on the amount of excitement - measured in column centimetres - created when the world first got wind of Dean Kamen's human transporter in January 2001, no one should have forgotten.

Code Name Ginger by Steve Kemper (Doubleday, $37.95)

Who remembers Ginger? Or the Segway, for that matter?

Based on the amount of excitement – measured in column centimetres – created when the world first got wind of Dean Kamen’s human transporter in January 2001, no one should have forgotten. But in the hyped-to-death age in which we live, the fuss soon died away.

Code Name Ginger, which will be published in the middle of the month, chronicles the development of Kamen’s machine up to January 9, 2001. That’s the date Inside.com broke the story that Kamen was cooking up some extraordinary device which had various high-tech wizards drooling.

Since August 1999, the book’s author, journalist Steve Kemper, had had unfettered access to the engineers, designers, managers and financial backers working to bring Ginger to life. And to Kamen, of course. Kemper had his own key to the Ginger project headquarters and to Kamen’s nearby home. He frequently dined with Kamen and members of the development team. He allowed Kamen to fly him by helicopter and private jet to Ginger-related meetings all over the US. He gained an insider’s appreciation of what makes Kamen tick – his engineering genius, and engineer’s urge to control every last project detail – and the effect he had on the development team’s ability to function.

Mostly, Kamen’s impact was positive. It was his brainwave, after all, on which Ginger was based. It sprang from technology he developed for his iBot (code-named Fred during development; Fred and Ginger were so-named for their ability to balance and turn on two wheels, like pirouetting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), a wheelchair that uses gyroscopes, sensors and microprocessors to give it the eye-catching ability to climb stairs. Even before the iBot had been commercialised, Kamen could see the potential for the technology in a two-wheeled device for the able-bodied. Such a contrivance would change the world, Kamen told anyone who would listen, unclogging choked city centres and ending the production of choking car pollution.

Actually, Kamen wasn’t prepared to tell just anyone about his invention. But if you were a banker or venture capitalist or movie director (he tried to get Steven Spielberg to cast Ginger in Minority Report), he would willingly deliver a persuasive spiel. By that means he extracted $US90 million from the likes of Credit Suisse First Boston, Xerox boss Paul Allaire and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the California venture capitalist.

During the fundraising phase, Kamen shows himself to be much more – and less – than an engineer. He’s intent on not giving away more of the business than he has to. He also shows himself to be adept at playing off one group of would-be investors against another (it develops into an East Coast-West Coast tussle). And he displays his susceptibility to the ravings of tech high-flyers like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Jobs’ response to Ginger alternates from wanting to be the project’s biggest investor to a declaration late in the design phase that “it sucks”; that it looks too “traditional” (it looks faintly like a handmower). Bezos chimes in that Ginger shouldn’t be launched “until [Jobs] shits his pants”. With John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins, they persuade Kamen to dump the person he put in charge of getting Ginger into production, and the head of Ginger marketing.

While Kamen criss-crosses the country from one meeting to the next in his private plane, Ginger’s engineers are being made to penny-pinch. Kamen’s unwillingness to match the money dot-coms were throwing at software engineers meant Ginger was chronically short of programmers. Nor was he prepared to lure new hires by disclosing details of the project before they agreed to join it. Yet he would say that Ginger’s software was his Coke formula. “When this machine comes out Honda or GM can buy one and figure out everything – except the software.” Having assembled a talented team, he insisted on taking charge of details they thought were their responsibility. In the sourcing of components, for example, Kamen practised the same brinkmanship with suppliers that he did with his financial backers -- going way beyond the endurance of the Ginger team managers.

Kemper’s sometimes overly detailed account comes to an abrupt end when Inside.com spills the beans on Ginger. Kemper insists that he wasn’t responsible for the leak, but that it sprang from a jilted editor or publisher to whom he’d pitched his story. Once the project is out in the open – although all that’s known is that Ginger is some kind of revolutionary transportation device – the money men insist that the authorised book is off, and Kamen agrees.

It’s almost a relief to be spared the agonising that was still be to gone through before Ginger’s eventual launch. And it’s almost a surprise to find you can buy one through Amazon.com ($US5000, and a one to two week delivery wait). Despite the sensation of being Gingered-out at the end of it all, there are questions I’m keen to know answers to. Who dreamed up the eventual product name, Segway? (The transliteration of segue doesn’t sound like a Kamen idea. Flywheel was the intended name up to the point where Kemper was shown the door, by which time more than $US50,000 had been spent on name consultant fees.) Why did the developers opt for nickel metal hydride batteries instead of a fuel cell, when the batteries will carry you only 20km or so and take four hours to charge? How many have sold? (The New York Times reports nothing like the number – 40,000 a month – that the company’s factory can produce.) And when will I be able to buy one for $1000?

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