The Great Inventor
Lots of people talk and dream about changing the world. But inventor Dean Kamen is actually doing it.
His latest creation, a personal transportation vehicle called the Segway, may be the most revolutionary leap since the automobile.
And, as Correspondent Dan Rather reported last fall, this new-age Thomas Edison has another invention coming out soon - and it may prove even more important for millions of people, and for generations to come.
Kamen, 52, is a multi-millionaire, college dropout engineer, inventor and visionary who loves to work.
"I'm somebody who is absorbed by work. And some people, I think, misunderstand that, and think that's a problem, or I don't get a chance to have fun," says Kamen.
"To me, life is a blur of my activities, I mean it's only a job if you'd rather be doing something else."
Kamen lives in a magnificent home in the hills of New Hampshire, which includes his fleet of helicopters and antique cars parked in his household hanger - a home he shares with the machines he so worships.
He believes in machines, and their ability to solve the world's problems.
While still in his twenties, he designed and built some medical marvels and made millions from those inventions - including the auto-syringe, which gives a patient an exact dose of medicine at exactly the right time, and a portable, self-serve kidney dialysis machine.
From his company headquarters in Manchester, he then developed a new machine called the IBOT, a device which he says "allows a disabled person, a person who cannot walk to basically do all the ordinary things that you take for granted that they can't do, even in a wheelchair, like go up a curb."
Using a complex array of gyroscopes, computers and a battery-powered motor, the IBOT can jump curbs and climb and descend stairs.
The key to the IBOT is its use of sophisticated gyroscopes - high-tech versions of the kind most kids play with. When the gyroscopes are tied in with computers, the vehicle becomes self-balancing, the way a toddler learns to balance himself on his feet. It can stand up on its wheels, elevating the user to eye-level with the rest of the world.
It's expected to be available at an estimated cost of $25,000 per unit. But it was its self-balancing technology that led Kamen to his next invention: the Segway human transporter
Formerly known in the media as "It," Segways have been featured on TV shows like "Frasier," and have appeared in motor races, where the Michelin company, which makes the tires, uses it in the pit areas.
It is not yet available for sale to consumers, but police in some major cities, and postal workers as well, have been experimenting with it.
"I don't want you to think that I'm naive enough to think we can start at the end position of putting Segways in all the big and polluted and congested cities of the world," says Kamen. "We're a little, tiny business. We need to figure out how to sustain ourselves."
But it's not a tiny business. In fact, a streamlined assembly plant in Bedford, N.H., is poised to turn out as many as 3,000 Segways a day.
Like the self-balancing IBOT wheelchair, the Segway uses computer-linked gyroscopes and an electric motor to glide the rider across the ground. It can go about 12 miles an hour, depending on the computer setting. Lean forward and you go forward. Lean back and you go back.
"Today, 3.2 billion people live in cities. More than half the human population lives in cities. If we could give them an attractive, productive alternative to using great big vehicles to get around at speeds of seven or eight miles an hour, which is the average speed of a taxicab in the 20 largest cities on the planet," says Kamen.
"It would by itself be a huge, huge solution to the congestion and pollution and energy-demand problems the world is facing today."
But will those congested cities embrace the Segway, and allow its use on sidewalks?
In Boston, where both the Police Department and postal workers have been experimenting with Segways, transportation commissioner Andrea D'Amato says that while she admires the technology, she can't see the Segway coexisting with pedestrians.
"Our streets are narrow, and our sidewalks are narrower," she says. "So, we would be a very difficult city in which to have these types of vehicles on our sidewalks."
In Philadelphia, streets commissioner William Johnson, an engineer, is also wary of allowing Segways on sidewalks: "It makes a big difference if you've got one or two devices on a sidewalk or 10,000 on a sidewalk where you've got a lot of pedestrians, lots of opportunity for conflict. Our concern would be safety."
"I would never want to make the claim that this device cannot or in fact will not eventually be involved in accidents," says Kamen. "So the question becomes: When does good judgment say how safe is safe?"
Apparently, it's safe enough for Atlanta, where the city's so-called ambassadors have been using Segways to help direct tourists, and police have been using them to patrol Hartsfield Airport.
City Planning Director Tom Wayandt sees the Segway as a way for Atlanta's mostly suburban population to get to mass transit stations without using their cars.
"We could triple the distance that people are willing to come, willing to travel, to get to transit," says Wayandt. "It makes the option of using transit much more real for this community, and gives us an alternative to the single-passenger automobile for work trips, for pleasure trips, for trips to the ballgame. It won't eliminate cars, but it gives us an option we've never really considered before at all."
But in San Francisco, no one is rolling out the welcome wagon for the Segway. In fact, pedestrian rights advocate Michael Smith and his supporters fear the Segway will become the SUV of sidewalks.
"Segway is a well-funded company. They have supposedly spent $100 million on development. They've also spent a great deal of money lobbying almost every state in the United States now to pass legislation allowing these devices," says Smith.
"If you're blind or deaf, you don't know these things are coming. And so all of a sudden you get hit by something, and you don't know what's going on."
But Kamen says, "I think there is a lot of opportunity to improve the lives of a lot of people that have been substantially impeded by people not being willing to take appropriate chances in changing the way we all live."
In Chicago, at the Museum of Science and Industry, director David Mosena, a former Transit Authority chief, tries to put opposition to the Segway in a historical perspective.
"When those pieces of technology [invented 100 years ago] came on line, there were all kinds of questions about, 'Well, how do we integrate those into the horse-and-buggy era?' And if you listened to those who were only driven by the horse-and-buggy thinking, you probably would have said, 'Forget about it,'" says Mosena.
"But if you take a minute, and you think and you look at the positive aspects and you test it out, I'm not saying it's perfect, I don't know how it will work, but I would love to see it tried."
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