Kamen's Next Big Project

Cheap Clean Water

Selling the Segway is Kamen's priority now.

Segway's marketing chief, Gary Bridge, says the company is targeting the consumer and the military and industrial markets in Europe and Asia, where there are fewer regulatory hurdles than in the U.S. Dan Rather reports.

"We're very, very interested in the consumer market in Europe, because you have a denser population. And you have, as you've seen, bike trails everywhere, sidewalks that connect to bike trails, a tradition of walking, taking bikes on trains, intermodule, so all of the infrastructure is here that we look for," he says.

Kamen isn't completely focused on work. While in London recently, he loved the London taxis so much, he bought two and had them shipped to the airport in Manchester, N.H., where they are parked next to his personal jet. It is big stuff for a kid from the working-class New York suburbs. Is that how he keeps score?

"I work hard so I can work on what I think are important solutions to important problems," he says. "And you want to have a lot of money because it gives you the independence and the leverage and the capability to work on important problems. And if you succeed at solving those problems, oh, by the way, you can make a lot of money."

His latest project has been creating a machine that can produce clean water cheaply.

"In the emerging world, in the under-developed world, a gallon of water is so precious that without it, you're going to die," he says. "In some places, the average amount of time per day spent looking for water that's safe for their kids by women is four hours. And they carry this stuff, which weighs 62 pounds per cubic foot, four or five miles. And if it didn't turn out to be the right stuff, or they put their hands in it and contaminated it, they spend the next day or two burying the babies."

Kamen began experimenting with a Stirling engine. The Stirling engine is named after its designer, Robert Stirling, a 19th Century Scottish minister. Basically, it is non-polluting device that plays heat against cold to create energy. It is a closed box with two chambers, one filled with gas.

When the gas chamber is heated from the outside, with anything from burning wood chips to charcoal, the gas expands, creating pressure. That pressure drives a piston from the hot chamber into the cool chamber. In Kamen's design, that mechanical power achieves two goals: it creates electrical power, 300 continuous watts – enough to run a few electrical devices - and, as a bonus, creates enough heat to distill contaminated water, making it drinkable.

Rather and Kamen tested a prototype using water from the polluted Merrimack River near Kamen's plant. Afterwards, Rather drank some of the water. He was fine.

Kamen dreams of using his device all over the world. Rather asked Kamen if that is a realistic goal. He replies, "Most of the invention that's required to go from the idea to reality, I believe, we've mastered. And we can do this."

"We can do this" could be Kamen's motto. He wants young people to feel as passionately about what is do-able as he does, a curious desire from someone who, by his own admission, was a terrible student. He got bad grades in school.

In school, he says, "I would fixate on something. So, when they'd ask me a question, I wasn't paying attention, because I was thinking about something else. So I'd be accused of daydreaming, which I guess I was doing. But I guess it had a negative connotation. I still daydream. And now, maybe, I like my dreams."

Ironically, Kamen's biggest dream is encouraging kids to stay in school and redirect their goals through an organization called FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

"Look at the role models they see. They see everybody like them as a young adult is either an entertainer or a sports figure," says Kamen. "Who goes out and says, 'While you have a better probability of winning the state lottery than making a nickel in sports, oh, by the way, last year two million exciting technical jobs went unfilled in this country because you weren't there to take that job. And it pays you 10 times as much as flipping burgers, and it's fun, and it's exciting, and you get to create things and build things and help make the world a better place and help make yourself a better living.' Who tells them this?"

Kamen does.

This year, 800 middle and high schools, most in the United States, formed teams and entered the annual first competition. Each team is sent an identical package of parts, containing motors, gears, pulleys and the like. A real-life engineer, volunteering his time, is assigned to each team. They must design and build a working robot that can accomplish a specific task.

For this year, the task was scooping up volleyballs and depositing them in a bin. Teams compete in regional playoffs, and the survivors come each spring to the finals in Disney World, where the festival has all the trappings of a rock concert or sporting event. The prizes include more than $1 million in scholarships.

Rather asked Kamen how he wants to be remembered.

"I would like to know that I left the world a better place than I found it. And no matter how much I take out of it -- as you point out, I have lots of toys -- I'd like to think that no matter how much I take out of it, I put more in. With 10 billion people on this planet, all trying to have food and water and power, and a standard of living, the only way we're going to do that is if most of those people are contributors and not recipients. These people need to become an educated group that can add to the real value of this world."

Part I: Kamen's Big Invention