Forward thinker

Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and the iBot, wants to make engineering fun for young people. Siobhan Wagner reports.

Late last year, this magazine suggested that science, engineering and technology would benefit greatly if it could find a Jamie Oliver-style role model. The idea came from David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, who said that similar tactics to those used by the TV chef to promote healthier school dinners could encourage young people into engineering and technology careers.

It was a big task. As The Engineer wrote at the time (13 November 2006): ‘It is fair to say that young, cuddly, photogenic natural communicators are not over-represented in the ranks of our prominent engineers and technologists.’ That was until we caught up with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway personal transporter, at a recent conference in Florida.

The 56-year old inventor’s laid-back style, non-corporate uniform, quick wit and general bonhomie captivates and amuses audiences around the world. Better known in the US, he is a regular fixture on chat shows and news programmes especially when one of his inventions, such as the Segway or the iBot all-terrain wheelchair, hits the market.

Aside from the inventions, Kamen is also trying to change public perceptions of a career in engineering and science. In 1989, he founded the organisation For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) to develop ways to inspire students in engineering and technology fields.

‘There aren’t that many scientists and engineers that kids ever get to see that aren’t the stereotypical, anti-social, frizzy haired, lab-coat sociopaths locked in a basement,’ he told The Engineer. ‘So I said if we’re going to create a cultural institution that works with kids to convince them that these things are accessible and fun, we have to get to the engineering community.’

FIRST works with some of the US’s largest corporations, including Boeing, as well as thousands of volunteer scientists and engineers who are paired with high school robotics teams. While there are only four of these teams in the UK, there are thousands in the US and other countries around the world. Students from Brazil, Canada, The Netherlands, Israel, the US, UK and Mexico compete at FIRST’s annual robotics competition, to build 45kg to 55kg robots that can complete a different task each year.

The idea behind FIRST is to make engineering fun so young people feel they have an exciting career to work towards when they get to university. Ironically, FIRST promotes a somewhat more conventional path than Kamen’s route to success and fame.

Kamen began inventing early. He started off in the basement of his family’s home in a suburb of New York City during his teenage years, where he built control systems for sound-and-light shows. Before long, he was earning contracts for installations in the city’s planetariums, hotels and museums. He had not even graduated from high school before he was asked to automate the New Year’s Eve Times Square ball drop.

Kamen had a habit of putting his own projects before college work, and was asked to leave Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts before he graduated. Kamen was undeterred by this setback. Without studies to get in the way, he had more time to work on his portable infusion pump, later dubbed Auto-Syringe, which he sold to medical devices giant Baxter for an undisclosed sum in the early 1980s.

In 1982, he founded DEKA, a research and development corporation based in New Hampshire, US. After that came a slew of other inventions such as the first insulin pump and a mobile dialysis system.

In the early 1990s, Kamen bought and settled on the island of North Dumpling off the north-east coast of the US. He erected a wind turbine on the island, and in the face of local government objections, signed a non-aggression pact with his friend and then-US president, George Bush senior, and seceded from the US.

While the secession has never been officially recognised, North Dumpling has its own flag, its own anthem, a one-ship navy and a currency with denominations in increments of pi. Kamen also reportedly called on Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, better known as Ben & Jerry, to work as his joint chiefs of ice cream.

Kamen commutes by helicopter from his island to work at DEKA with his team of nearly 200 engineers, technicians and support staff. ‘I would describe myself probably more as a physicist than an engineer,’ he said. ‘My engineers, I think, would agree with that whole-heartedly. They’d probably tell you I’m not much of an engineer. I appreciate the power of engineering. I know enough about each of the disciplines in engineering to be dangerous, but by collecting some of the world’s best people that have expertise in each of those separate disciplines, then sort of acting as an orchestra leader I help take ideas and make them a reality.’

But Kamen still makes time to go down to the workshop and roll up his sleeves, maintaining direct involvement with his inventions from concept to commercialisation. ‘An idea without technical competence and resources is nothing but a dream,’ he said. ‘An idea with resources is something that becomes reality. I am probably more involved at the upfront idea end than ever because I have more really good engineers to deliver the technology at the other end.’

Kamen made his fortune in medical technology but the inventions he is most associated with, such as the Segway and the iBot, have had limited commercial success. DEKA has never released sales figures for the Segway, but a clue was given when most of the 23,500 units sold since 2001 were recalled in 2006 because of a software glitch that caused the device to tip backward suddenly, throwing off the rider.

The Segway, which looks like a high- tech scooter, works with a complex, computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilisation and control system that keeps the device balanced on two horizontally-placed wheels and is controlled by moving body weight. To move forward or backwards, the rider leans slightly forward or backward. To turn left or right, the rider turns the right handlebar forward or backward. The stabilisers make it hard to fall off unless (as demonstrated by the current President Bush) you forget to turn the machine on.

The Segway received considerable hype ahead of its launch, when Steve Jobs and other notable IT visionaries were quoted espousing its society-revolutionising potential.

While the Segway has yet to live up to its hype, Kamen still has high hopes for the product. He puts its disappointing sales down to local laws — the vehicles are, for instance, banned from London’s streets and pavements — rather than a lack of suitable infrastructure.

‘Ironically, the infrastructure is there: it’s called the sidewalk. If the infrastructure wasn’t there you couldn’t implement it,’ he said. ‘What’s not there is the will to accept change. The whole novelty of a Segway was that “Wow, I stand on the same footprint as a pedestrian. I don’t take up any more room than a pedestrian. I can stop. I can spin in place. I can interact like a pedestrian in a pedestrian environment. I don’t need new infrastructure”.’

Kamen believes the way to get Segways in wide use is working with the law. ‘The major impediment would have been the laws, but now our largest single user group are policemen that are way more efficiently staying in touch with their neighbourhoods by not being locked away in a little car that prevents them from hearing or seeing what’s going on,’ he said.

‘As more and more police departments use these and realise they are safe and they are a productivity tool, it’s going to be hard for them to say pedestrians can’t use this.’

After more than 30 years in the inventing business, the lightbulb above Kamen’s head has never switched off. One of his current pet projects involves Stirling engine designs that he hopes one day will generate power while purifying water for developing countries.

In an entirely different technology area, he has recently invented a device powered by compressed air that can launch SWAT teams and firefighters to the roofs of tall buildings.

For Kamen, there is always room in the world for more inventions. ‘After all’, he pointed out, ‘the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.’