Pando

The Return of Dean Kamen

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on October 25, 2012

From The News Desk

Dean Kamen is a 21st century Buckaroo Bonzai who has invented all sorts of fantastical devices — from the heart stent to a wheelchair that can climb stairs to the Segway scooter. To say he’s brilliant is perhaps understating things. After all, his name is on hundreds of patents. But he’s also, what’s the word? Oh, yes. Eccentric. A “60 Minutes” segment once showed him commuting to work from his private island piloting one of his own helicopters and blasting the soundtrack of “Star Wars” loud enough to drown out the copter’s rotors.

I hadn’t thought of him in years — until today, in fact – when I came across an article about him boasting of a new (actually old) invention, a portable Stirling engine. If Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corp. of Manchester NH, can get it to work, it could transform impoverished areas in developing nations that are off the power grid, because it can burn shit — and other detritus in large supply — and convert it into electricity. Residents could charge batteries for flashlights to read at night (a significant challenge in parts of Bangladesh, for instance) and juice mobile phones so that people in out-of-the-way places could be in touch with the rest of the country and with one another. Suddenly the walls that prevent information from flowing from one region to another would dissolve. Kamen's Stirling engine could be world changing.

I had waited 11 years for this news. You see, I have an odd connection to Kamen. I was the reporter who unraveled the mystery of the Segway scooter, and knew he was working on a Stirling then. At the time the scooter was referred to as “Ginger” or “IT,” which may have stood for “Individual Transport.” Solving it got me on the “Today Show” with Katie Couric, and interviewed in hundreds of newspapers, Web outlets, and on TV news and radio segments. I know it may seem hard to believe that a scooter most often thought of as geek transport (it’s hard not to look like a total dweeb on one of these things) caused this much of a fuss. But it did.

For me, it started when I read a book proposal by veteran science writer Steve Kemper, who had signed a $250,000 deal with Harvard Business Press to profile Dean Kamen and an invention called “IT.” The proposal, which had been leaked to the media when Kemper’s agent sought foreign rights, omitted many key details, like what exactly Kamen’s invention was, which just added to the buzz.

In one memorable scene involving Silicon Valley celebrities, Dean Kamen wheeled a luggage carrier with a couple of black duffel bags and some cardboard boxes into a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency and told the guard to lock up behind him. It was December 2000 and Kamen, a former winner of the National Medal of Technology, had flown to San Francisco to meet potential investors. Among them: John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Apple’s Steve Jobs, who was, as Doerr’s assistant complained, “always late.”

Kemper wrote that Kamen “opened the duffels and boxes, removed some components, and used a screwdriver and hex wrenches to assemble two Gingers.” I’ll fill in the rest. Within 10 minutes, Kamen had both up and running. He turned one on and began to ride around the room. Bezos grabbed the other and as he tooled around, he couldn’t help but honk-laugh. Kamen offered his to Doerr, who took it for a spin.

They were having so much fun, they didn’t notice Steve Jobs in classic black turtleneck and blue jeans walk in. He berated Kamen for his plan to introduce two models of the mysterious device when it would be better to start with one, and for the design, which “sucks.” The shape was “not innovative,” Jobs said. “It’s not elegant. It doesn’t feel anthropomorphic. You have this incredibly innovative machine but it looks very traditional. There are design firms out there that could come up with things we’ve never thought of, things that would make you shit in your pants.”

I wasn’t the only one whose interest was piqued by the proposal. Within a month, Ginger became a kind of latter-day gearhead folk religion, prompting scads of wild speculation. Interest was so keen in the days after the “IT” story broke that “Kamen” and “Ginger” were among the most-requested search terms. At ITquestion.com, Ginger fanatics speculated that “IT” was a “personal hovercraft,” a “backpack helicopter,” or a Star Trek-like transporter. Others believed it could even be bigger than the Internet. (I know, I know, but it was a long time ago.) There was intense media coverage, too. Lots of speculation, but no one knew for sure what it was.

Not long before, I had published a book on corporate espionage -- you can read an excerpt from The New York Times magazine -- so I was fairly adept at digging up publicly available information. So I pulled up several patents and trademarks that Kamen and Deka filed in the US and in Europe that indicated to me that he was working on a scooter designed to mimic how upright human beings maintain their balance. Kamen dubbed the effect “dynamic stabilization,” a term DEKA trademarked. I noticed that several Kamen inventions seemed to iterate from prior inventions, so I hypothesized that Ginger’s inspiration came from his mechanical miracle-on-wheels called the IBOT, a wheelchair that could traverse almost any terrain, and even climb stairs. That project had been code-named “Fred,” as in Fred Astaire. I figured this new device would have been named for his famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers.

Sure enough, in Europe Deka filed a “personal mobility vehicles and methods” patent, which included a drawing (widely distributed) of a woman balanced on an odd-looking vehicle with two wheels-like the rear wheels on a toy wagon-with perhaps a third, smaller wheel in the front to avoid tipping. Over the wheels was a platform with a long, slender fork that ended in T-shaped handlebars. Making use of Kamen’s patented two-wheel balancing device, such a vehicle would handle effortlessly. DEKA also applied for a WIPO patent for a “balancing vehicle with camber and toe-in,” a rough equivalent to the scooter’s presumed suspension system. By combining these with Kamen’s “dynamic stabilization” and other IBOT patents, you could easily get a scooter.

According to the book proposal, a Ford Motor Company veteran was asked to head Ginger’s design team, and the project’s CEO had run Chrysler’s South American and European operations. A glance at the jobs DEKA sought to fill through its website indicated the company was looking for several engineers with a background in automobiles, software development, and consumer electronics. One job listing was for an electrical engineer who could “design power converters, inverters and motor drives in the 500 to 5,000 watt range,” more than enough power at the top of the range to drive a 200-pound man in a scooter, golf cart or even a larger Ginger “chariot.”

This was, in my mind, just the beginning, and where I would end up being wrong -- for a while, at least.

While Kamen was working on his new age scooter, he was also simultaneously attempting to improve on a special type of engine, and I was convinced the two projects were connected. In January 1999, Kamen was listed as an inventor on a patent application for a “cantilevered crankshaft Stirling cycle machine,” and he subsequently filed for a number of other improvements as well. Invented in 1816 by the Rev. Robert Stirling of Scotland, the original engine was a cost-effective alternative to the new steam engine. A Stirling is an “external” combustion engine that relies on the heating of a gas (such as helium) that expands and powers pistons. But Stirling engines have proved expensive to develop, especially in a size small enough to be of practical use.

If Kamen solved this problem, he could, as Kemper’s proposal asserted, become richer than Bill Gates. “The engine that Kamen patented is really a mobile power plant,” Brent Van Arsdale, the owner of American Stirling, a Wichita, Kan., company that makes rudimentary Stirlings for hobbyists, told me after I showed it to him. “It would be a good power source for his IBOT wheelchair, or in any other type of vehicle he might want to design.”

I cross-referenced these patents with Deka’s domain registrations and permits he had applied for in his hometown. DEKA had created a new company called ACROS to handle Ginger, and according to a trademark filing, ACROS’s goal was to create a product line that featured “motorized, self-propelled, wheeled personal mobility aids, namely wheelchairs, scooters, carts and chariots.” And on Nov. 30, 2000, ACROS registered stirlingelectric.com. Five weeks later Kamen registered stirlingscooter.com, -.net and -.org, as well as mystirlingscooter.com. Kamen had also applied for several permits to install gargantuan propane tanks on his property in New Hampshire -- propane is one way to extract large amounts of hydrogen -- which made me think he was experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells.

Armed with this information and more I penned a cover story for [Inside]. The art department created our own version of what we thought Ginger would look like and colored it in iMac tangerine as a wink to Steve Jobs. (Compare ours above to today's Segway and you'll see they're damn similar, wouldn't you say?) It was also the last issue [Inside] ever published; shortly after, the magazine was sold and shut down. Nevertheless I found myself up very early one morning, sitting across from Katie Couric. I told her Kamen’s invention was a hydrogen-powered scooter that ran on a Stirling engine and explained that the real innovation was the engine, since it could be used to power stoves in developing countries and provide almost inexhaustible power.

Needless to say, Kamen was irate that I had outed his invention, and I heard he wanted to sue but had no legal grounds. He stopped cooperating with Kemper, who ended up writing his book anyway. His agent yelled at me over the phone. I don't know why he was mad at me. He was the one who leaked the proposal.

Eight months after I published my story, Kamen appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno to unveil his not-so-secret invention and gave Time magazine the exclusive story. I ended being right about the scooter, but was disappointed it ran on electricity. I suspected that Kamen simply couldn’t get his Stirling to work.

Like many entrepreneurs, Kamen had financial challenges. Not only had he mortgaged his home three times between 1997 and 1999, the last time for $4.5 million to cover Christmas bonuses for employees (according to Kemper’s proposal), Kamen’s business was heavily leveraged, too. According to public records, all five of the properties he owned in Manchester, N.H., including the ones he ran DEKA out of, were mortgaged into the millions, debt which he had spread over three separate banks, with the terms of his agreements getting more and restrictive. Many of the tenants to whom Kamen rented space, including his own company, DEKA, were required to pay rent directly to the bank.

In my story, I wrote: “If Kamen can’t begin to manufacture ACROS scooters and Stirlings in mass quantities, if the delays keep mounting, he might not be able to beat his variously giant and well-heeled competitors to market.” I warned that "instead of becoming the next Bill Gates or Henry Ford, Kamen might find himself ending up like another great American inventor, Preston Tucker, who in the 1940s built the Tucker, a car too far ahead of its time. The car was a commercial dud. On the other hand, its creator was immortalized in a Francis Ford Coppola film."

At any rate, I believed that Kamen had run out of time and rushed Ginger — now called Segway — into production. Now here he is more than a decade later, asking the telecommunications industry to fund his latest invention, which he described to "SmartPlanet" as “your refrigerator running backward.” It can burn cow dung and convert it into electricity, which could be a boon for developing nations, bringing portable power to places that are off the power grid, and enhancing it for those who are.

Kamen has apparently given up trying to retrofit the Segway with a Stirling engine, though. I checked to see who now owned the domains stirlingscooter.com and mystirlingscooter.com.

They were available, so for old times' sake I registered them.

[Main illustration by Hallie Bateman]