Prologue: First Impressions
“WILL IT CHANGE THE WORLD, as some have predicted?” Charles Gibson posed that question to millions of people on the morning of December 3, 2001. For a week, Good Morning America had been promising to reveal the secret invention known to the world by its code name, Ginger, or by the mysterious acronym, IT.
Ginger, said Gibson, had been “the topic of a global guessing game.” Reporters and pundits, incited by hyperbolic praise of Ginger from Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and superstar venture-capitalist John Doerr, had written feverish stories in a dozen languages after word of the secret project had leaked out 10 months earlier. Internet forums devoted to the mystery had buzzed with hundreds of thousands of messages. Enthusiasts debated every possibility and investigated every clue. On the search engine Lycos, Ginger broke into the Top 10 most popular subjects, neck-and-neck with Britney Spears.
Internet sleuths discovered the patents for Ginger almost immediately, but the public was hungry for a technological miracle and preferred fantasy. People transformed Ginger into a device for time travel, teleportation, or magnetic levitation. They imagined a hovercraft, a jet-pack, and an Inertial Thruster (based on the acronym, IT). A writer in Thailand foresaw “a flying super tuk-tuk.” After the terror of September 11, 2001, a rumor started that Ginger had been covertly deployed in Afghanistan to defeat Osama bin Laden. All this loony speculation had convinced some commentators that Ginger was a hoax, and had inspired comics to spoof it in the media and on the web.
Good Morning America’s camera shifted to a spot-lit object covered by a white sheet. An unimpressive T-shaped silhouette showed through the shroud. A plinking piano tried to sound portentous. The scene evoked Geraldo Rivera more than Thomas Edison.
Gibson’s co-host, Diane Sawyer, swerved between sarcasm and hype. The silhouette reminded her of “either a giant asparagus or a vacuum machine.” But she also referred to Ginger’s creator, Dean Kamen, as “the legendary inventor.”
The legend himself stood next to her, looking like he needed an espresso. He hated to get up early. He also looked uncomfortable, or maybe just embarrassed by the stagy build-up, which, with characteristic bluntness, he later termed “cheesy.”
At five-foot-six, Dean was several inches shorter than Sawyer. His dark wavy hair rose in a semi-pompadour above a narrow face. He was slender (the tag on his Levis said Waist 30, Inseam 28), and looked younger than his 50 years. He wore jeans, work boots, and a denim shirt. That might seem informal for the debut of a machine that could possibly change the world, but it was Dean’s uniform, and he wore it whether meeting with his head machinist, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the President of the United States. (When the weather turned cold he added an army surplus jacket whose pockets clanked with small tools that set off alarms in airports and at the White House.)
Dean had done a design freeze on his wardrobe sometime in the early 1970s as a teenager on Long Island. Filling his closet with jeans and blue work shirts was efficient and practical. He liked to think of himself as a down-and-dirty engineer who wouldn’t hesitate to grab a greasy wrench or a soldering iron. He liked working with tools and knew how to run all the huge machines in the shop at DEKA, his engineering research-and-development firm in New Hampshire. That was the kind of engineer he liked to hire, too—someone who liked to make things and get dirty whenever necessary. A visitor couldn’t tell the difference between DEKA’s engineers and machinists. Dean liked that. But the truth was that he didn’t often get his hands dirty at DEKA anymore. He was too busy putting out fires and trying to raise money.
He didn’t give any more thought to popular culture than he did to fashion. Movies? A waste of two hours. Novels? Why settle for make-believe when you could be immersed in Newton’s Principia or machining a spur gear. Television? You must be kidding. The newest music? No thanks, he’d stick with the oldies. Sporting events? Don’t get him started on that one. He claimed that he had never bought a newspaper in his life. “My hobby is thinking,” he often said.
Consequently he had escaped the celebrity lint that clutters most people’s minds. He once met Andy Warhol but didn’t know who he was. He went to a fancy dinner and sat between two people he’d never heard of, Warren Beatty and Shirley Maclaine. At a White House conference on healthcare he sat next to a woman who talked a lot but made no sense. When she left for a moment, Dean turned to someone and said, “She’s an expert on healthcare?” “Well, no, that’s Barbra Streisand.” A former professional basketball player once inquired about renting Dean’s island off the Connecticut coast. Dean had never heard of him and kept referring to him as Jabbo. It was Kareem Abdul-Jabar. “Dean, you’re a failure at popular culture,” Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com once said to him. “You fill your head with useless things like the laws of thermodynamics.”
Over the past year, during which the media had catapulted him from respectable obscurity into the national spotlight, he had been called everything from a genius to a publicity hound. He had become a celebrity engineer, a phrase that sounded self-contradictory, or at least unlikely. To other people, that is. Dean believed that engineers and scientists deserved to be cultural heroes, as famous as athletes and movie stars. He had sometimes courted fame himself, but he hadn’t expected the abrupt and alarming way it had swept him up in January 2001.
Dean had made millions by inventing new technologies and leasing them to bigger companies for a royalty, but Ginger excited him so much that he had decided to keep it for himself. He started a new company to handle the invention’s development, marketing, and manufacture. Though he knew almost nothing about these things, he brimmed with self-confidence. To raise money for his vision, he had seduced some of the most prominent leaders of corporate America, defied the conventions of venture capitalism, and mustered the gall to spurn Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, yet he ended up with $90 million of funding and 80 percent of the new company. “I did it the way I usually do,” he had told the Ginger team. “I figure out what I think is fair, and then make sure everyone compromises and does it my way.”
A year and a half later, here he was, standing next to Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America and watching the sheet lift off of Ginger. Standing naked in the spotlight, the machine looked anticlimactic: two wheels, a platform, and a T-bar.
After a pause, Gibson asked what it did. “It’s the world’s first self-balancing human transporter,” said Dean, his Long Island accent still evident after nearly 20 years in New Hampshire. Gibson asked why it didn’t topple over, as physics seemed to demand. “That’s the invention,” said Dean. “It does what a human does. It has gyros and sensors that act like your inner ear. It has a computer that does what your brain does for you. It’s got motors that do what your muscles do for you. It’s got tires that do what your feet do for you.”
Sawyer had been silent, staring at Ginger. “I’m tempted to say, ‘That’s it?’” she blurted. “But that can’t be it.”
She didn’t understand what she was looking at. She couldn’t see the 90 percent of Ginger below the surface, and didn’t know about the intense, ragged process that had moved this invention from idea to marketplace. She couldn’t see the flashes of discovery, the setbacks, the impassioned engineers, the high-flying investors, the multi-million-dollar misjudgments, the intrigues that ousted some of the project’s original leaders, the triumphs large and small.
That 90 percent is the subject of this book. I was with the engineers as the machine took shape, and I shadowed Dean as he scrambled to put together the financing. I stayed in Dean’s house, discussed the project with him over late-night dinners, flew with him in his jet as he stitched together plans for a new international industry. I watched him outmaneuver and outsmart everyone, and sometimes sabotage himself or his team. I was there when he inspired his engineers and when he infuriated them. But by the time the world saw Ginger on Good Morning America, I had been exiled. That’s a small part of the story, too.
IN EARLY 1999, Dean called and asked me to come up to DEKA in Manchester, New Hampshire. He wanted to show me a secret project, the biggest thing he had ever done, and to make me a proposal. Who doesn’t love a mystery? Besides, Dean’s pull can be as irresistible as the moon’s. I went to New Hampshire.
We had known each other since 1994, when I wrote a story about him for Smithsonian magazine. His mix of inventive genius and brazen salesmanship had fascinated me. Enormously talented, with ambition to match, he had already invented many revolutionary medical devices, including the first drug infusion pump and the first portable dialysis machine. He held dozens of patents in areas ranging from helicopter design to computerized heating and cooling systems. He seemed destined to burst into wider public view.
When we first met, he had recently started FIRST, a robotic competition that teamed corporate engineers with high school students to inspire kids to consider careers in science and engineering. That year I watched 43 teams compete in a New Hampshire high school gym. It was fun and small. “In a couple of years we’ll be holding the national championship at Epcot Center in Disney World,” he said.
I smiled at this bravado, but a few years later FIRST was ensconced at Epcot, where it grew into the center’s biggest event. By 2002, more than 20,000 kids on 600 teams were competing in 17 regionals leading up to the championship, and Dean had wangled expensive sponsorships from dozens of Fortune 500 companies. (In 2003, 800 teams are competing in 23 regionals.) His penchant for outrageous overstatement was matched by accomplishment.
So I went to New Hampshire on a winter day in February 1999 to listen to Dean’s pitch. We sat in his corner office in one of the old mill buildings he had renovated. Like most great salesmen, Dean is a gifted raconteur, and that day he built suspense like a master. He began to narrate—no, perform—the events and insights that had led to the secret projects he called “Fred” and “Ginger.”
He took me to see Fred first, using a key-card to enter a secured testing facility called Easy Street. Fred (today called the iBOT) was a super-duper wheelchair that could roll through gravel and sand, go up curbs, and even climb stairs. Most amazingly, it could rise up on its back wheels and roll along in balance. That’s what always made the disabled test drivers cry, the simple dignity they reclaimed by “standing up” and looking people in the eye. Dean called Fred the world’s most sophisticated robot. Like most things at DEKA, it had originated in his brain. Fred was extraordinary, and Dean’s belief that it would change the lives of thousands of disabled people seemed plausible. He was developing the wheelchair for Johnson & Johnson, the project’s funder.
But what he really wanted to show me was Ginger, which used similar technology for a very different end. In his analogy, Ginger would be General Motors; Fred was merely the ambulances and police cars that GM occasionally made.
Before taking me to see Ginger, he bombarded me with facts and statistics about cars and pollution and energy consumption, about clogged cities and traffic jams and the burgeoning population of the Third World. All of these, he said, would be dramatically affected by Ginger. He described the invention as “a personal transportation system” that didn’t use fuel, took up no more space than a pedestrian, and weighed just 50 pounds. Like Fred, it could go up hills, down stairs, and through mud, gravel, and sand. Even if Ginger flopped among the general public, which he couldn’t imagine, he would still sell millions of them—for starters, to the country’s two million delivery people, not to mention all the golfers and infantrymen, whose numbers he cited.
More importantly, the machine would transform cities and habits of transportation. It was clean and cheap. It ran on a few cents of battery-powered electricity and wouldn't be expensive. And oh, by the way, it was fun.
“It’s going to change the world,” he said, dead serious.
We walked to an adjacent mill building and climbed to the fourth floor. A sign on the locked door said Ginger Project. Dean key-carded us in. We passed a conference room into a lab whose tables were crowded with tools, gauges, and oscilloscopes, and continued into a long narrow room. Blinds covered the windows to thwart prying eyes. A small fleet of brightly colored electric bikes and scooters stood against one wall. The wave of the future, said Dean sardonically, and pointed to one that was Lee Iaccoca’s great new thing. Ginger, said Dean, would make them all obsolete. He walked to where a small machine leaned against another wall.
Ginger. Like Diane Sawyer nearly three years later, I couldn’t believe it. That’s the world-shaker? After Dean’s build-up it made a drab first impression. A thin metal platform was flanked by two toy wheels. A metal T-bar rose vertically from the platform. Compared to the sleek candy-colored scooters, Ginger looked as plain and stern as a schoolmarm among fashion models.
Dean flipped a couple of switches, stepped onto the platform, and leaned forward. Ginger darted off. When he leaned backwards, the machine reversed. He pirouetted Ginger in place like a spinning figure-skater; the turning radius was zero. Ginger zipped around the room like a hummingbird, and as quietly. Once animated, this schoolmarm was beautiful.
I itched to ride it. Dean instructed me to trust the machine to balance, and showed me the thumb switch for turning. I stepped on and tentatively leaned forward. Ginger scooted ahead. The machine felt alive. Within moments I was comfortable enough to go faster by leaning harder. Ginger had seemed mysterious when Dean was on it, but riding it myself felt natural as well as exhilarating, like gliding over a sheen of surf on a skim board. The machine seemed to read my mind and respond like a powerful muscle. I couldn’t stop grinning and didn’t want to get off.
Dean hustled alongside, talking without pause. “It’s your personal magical carpet,” he said. He expected Ginger to become a common verb—let’s ginger to work, ginger to the store, ginger in the woods. The machine would be to cars as the personal computer had been to the mainframe. Ginger danced so lightly that after a rainstorm it didn’t leave tread marks on freshly raked dirt. A military guy who had seen the machine said it wouldn’t even trigger land mines. Old people and those with crippling infirmities would love Ginger for restoring their mobility. A couple of high-powered outsiders had told Dean that the impact of Ginger on the 21st century would be as big as the car and the TV had been on the 20th. “Who’s going to want to walk?” he said with typical hyperbole.
He talked about how one technology inspires others, and about how people, even engineers and technologists, can be blind to new applications for familiar technologies. Western Union, whose telegraph wires crossed the country, had turned down the chance to buy Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone. “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” Western Union’s president had asked, thereby becoming infamous for making one of the 19th century’s worst business blunders.
People might dismiss Ginger the same way, but Dean didn’t think so. “I may be wrong,” he said, “but I know I’m not.” He was paranoid—his word—that his secret would leak out. He worried that a behemoth such as Sony or Honda might get wind of it, put 200 engineers on it, and shove him aside. “I hope you don’t talk in your sleep,” he said.
He had been concentrating on Fred for several years, but Ginger’s day was coming. For the first time, he wasn’t going to turn his invention over to a bigger client. He planned to form and run a new company, separate from DEKA, that would design, refine, finance, and manufacture Ginger, with himself as principal owner. To compensate for his inexperience, he had hired a senior executive away from Chrysler to become Ginger’s CEO and president. He had also appointed a lead engineer and told him to start putting together a development team. Ginger was about to bloom.
Dean considered the invention so important that he thought its progress should be documented in a book. That’s why he had invited me up. There was one catch: since the project was secret, I would have to work on spec and hope to interest a publisher somewhere down the road. In return, I would have complete access to Dean and the project. He sold me.
I began spending at least two days a week with him and the Ginger team. As I watched Dean deal with engineers, marketers, investors, and suppliers, my appreciation of him grew. So did the uncomfortable thought that he wasn’t going to like the book taking shape in my notes. He was accustomed to control and unambiguous admiration, and expected a statue with no bird shit on it, despite the pigeons everywhere.
Neither of us anticipated how the story would unfold. Even in the months after Dean kicked me out of the project, it was apparent in our phone conversations that a part of him never stopped wanting this chronicle about the invention that he believes will change the world. But in the end, a bigger part of him wanted control.
This is Ginger’s story, though not as he would tell it.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.