The Wizard Of IT

Dean Kamen Pursues Breakthrough Inventions

Dean Kamen is used to coming up with brainstorms that change the world — like his latest invention: a wheelchair that goes up and down stairs. He is also on a mission to teach America's children that scientists and engineers are the superstars of the future. Correspondent Carol Marin reports on this singular inventor.

As long as he can remember, Kamen, 49, has wanted to change the world. "Because that's what the definition of life is. If you're not going to change the world, you know, go to sleep, go hibernate," he says.

Two weeks ago, just the mere rumor of a new Kamen invention set the tech world on fire, ignited the Nasdaq and inspired a full fledged media frenzy. This new invention, dubbed the IT project or Ginger, is, according to some, bigger than the Internet and just short of cold fusion. Kamen will not say what IT is. He makes every effort to avoid pulicity before his inventions are ready.

Web-Exclusive Interviews
Invention At An Early Age: Find out about his first creations.
Scientists As Superheroes: Kamen describes his mission: to inspire young people.

His company, DEKA, short for Dean Kamen, sits in the old factory distict of Manchester, N.H., with 200 engineers working in a kind of scientific utopia, creating things Kamen thinks will make for a better world, such as a scooter that generates electricity.

He says he hates it when somebody identifies a problem that can't be solved. "The trouble is most of the problems left that are worth solving, that are important, have one thing in common," he says. "It's that they're really hard to solve. So we spend our time working on those."

One such challenge was a wheelchair that would go up and down stairs acting like a pair of legs.

A team of engineers and technicians spent a frustrating two years on the project until Kamen made a key observation while getting out of the shower.

"I slipped, and on the wet floor, you know my heel comes out from under me, and I'm about to fall back, so you swing your arms like this....That's angular momentum," he says. "So, instead of my body rotating back, since I'm spinning backward, I rotated my body forward, and I went up against the wall, and didn't fall over."

That little discover brought to mind a fundamental law of physics first observed hundreds of years ago.

"If I asked you to balance a pen on the end of your finger, you'd have trouble doing it," he says. "But if I asked you to balance a four-foot broom on the end of your finger...if I put the heavy weight of the... broom end up there, it'd be easy to balance."

"It would be hard to balance if the heavy weight is at the bottom. So all of a sudden once we're balancing, having the seat come up higher,... the taller you made the person, the more stable they are," he says.

And that thought led to Rev-0. He had been trying to build a machine that acted like a machine. He needed to make a machine that acted like a person.

The early prototypes are stashed in a kind of backroom graveyard at DEKA. Together, they form a time line of innovation, with names like R2D2. The final prototype was called Fred for Fred Astaire as in Fred Upstairs.

Ten years after that slip in the shower, Fred Uptairs was ready to dance. Kamen had renamed it the Ibot, partnered with Johnson & Johnson, and together they invested over $100 million in development. Watching it perform — up and down stairs — over curbs — is to witness technological magic.

"You can generally find that for that complex engineering solution that worked well, nature made a simpler one that works a little better," Kamen says.

But when a man who has spent 14 years in a wheelchair rises to eye level for the first time — in effect, standing up — the Ibot goes beyond practicality.

Kamen has always done things his way. Growing up in Rockville Center on Long Island, he spent time after school and nights in the basement workshop.

"I did very poorly in school," he says. "Because I really assumed everybody else really was learning all of this stuff. And it was just spinning my head."

After reading a bit about Newton in a high school physics book, he went to the library and checked out the scientist's own book, Principia.

"There's not enough time in high school to understand everything you want to understand," Kamen says.

Soon after entering college, Kamen was thrown out. He wasn't showing up anyway and, besides, more interesting things were happening in the family basement. As a teen-ager, Kamen found his inventions turning a profit. The auto-syringe, a breakthrough that enabled drugs to be given without constant monitoring, not only made Kamen a 25-year-old millionaire, but he gained a reputation for innovative thinking.

Whatever he makes, it's enough for a house that might rival Bill Gates'. It is a hexagonal multilevel home he designed himself, leaving room for a 150-year-old steam engine just inside the front door.

Does anyone ever consider him crazy?

"I consider it a high compliment," he says. "If most people think what you're doing is completely norml, it probably is. Why do it? Everybody else is doing that. Do something else."

Within a few feet of the kitchen, Kamen has created, on a much grander scale, the old family basement workshop where he tries to keep up with the latest technology and his own employees on nights and weekends.

"If they get the latest and greatest technology, I'll put one here," he explains. "I'll work at night to try to use it, program it, understand it."

All over the house hang portraits of Albert Einstein, created by his father, a former illustrator for Mad magazine. And clocks — all built by Kamen — are constant reminders that time is of the essence.

And if you have any lingering doubt that Kamen is a kid who never grew up, check out the secret passageways and doors or the working elevator.

And in place of the two-car garage there are the twin helicopter bays. He liked flying helicopters so much that he bought the company and improved the design.

"I always wanted to defy gravity and just to be able to hang in space, to be on a magic carpet. They don't make magic carpets, but that's as close as you can get," he says.

"The difference between very sophisticated technology and magic is a very blurry line," Kamen adds.

Partly because time is so precious and partly because he can, Kamen commutes to work by helicopter with Star Wars blaring through the headphones.

After a four-minute commute, he lands on the DEKA roof. And for the longer trips, there is the Citation Jet. He is one of a few pilots in the country to be certified to fly solo in such a sophisticated jet. In one afternoon, Marin flew across New England, transferred to one of his helicopters and minutes later went to North Dumpling Island, off the coast of New York state. Kamen owns the island.

And what's really important to Kamen? He thinks history will remember him, less for IT, or Ginger, or the Ibot than for First, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. First is Kamen's mission to change how American kids think about engineers and inventors.

"They need to be educated so that they won't be brainwashed. They need to have an opportunity to be able to see and learn things so that they can separate that which is important from that which isn't. That which will help them in later life, and that which won't," he says.

To further its goal, First sponsors an international robot competition. More than 500 teams of high school kids from 44 states and several foreign countries build robots and then compete.

Of course these days kids pay a little bit of attention to science, but a lot more attention to the Super Bowl. "Kids have this perception of the world, the great American lie, about what's really important to us," he says.

"There's a whole lot of...urban kids, kids that don't have two parents, maybe don't even hae one parent, whose real perspective on the world is they believe they're going to dribble their way to stardom," he says. "The average 8- or 9-year-old kid has a better probability of getting rich by winning a state lottery than ever playing professional sports."

When he won the National Medal of Technology last year, he took the opportunity to promote First with the president.

He doesn't concern himself with success. "Life is about the journey. It's about where you're going. It's not where you are," he says.

"If I knew how to sit down and schedule an invention, my projects would come in ahead of schedule and under budget,...and I'd be sitting on a cloud throwing lightning bolts at people. I don't know how invention works," he says. "In most cases, it's sort of the...process...of looking at the same thing everybody else looks at and finally seeing something else."