A Segway anniversary

“Segway will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” — Dean Kamen, quoted in Time on December 2, 2001

“If enough people see the machine you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen.” — Steve Jobs, quoted in a book proposal

“I’m quite optimistic about Ginger.” — Jason Kottke, writing on his blog

George W. Bush falls off a Segway in 2003

On December 3, 2001, the scooter code-named Ginger and IT was officially unveiled by creator Dean Kamen under its official name — the Segway Personal Transporter.

The invention had been “the subject of continuous fevered speculation since provocative clues and predictions surfaced in media reports,” Amy Harmon wrote in a 66-paragraph New York Times story ten years ago.

It was a Jan. 9, 2001, Inside.com story that started it all, reporting a book proposal’s prediction that IT “will change the world, and is so extraordinary that it has drawn the attention of technology visionaries Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs and the investment dollars of pre-eminent Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, among others.”

“It’ll be a sort of cross between something out of the Jetsons and a sort of model of the planet Saturn that you stand on and ride,” Dave Hurley predicted months before the Segway was unveiled.

Inside continued digging. A March 6, 2001 press release reported that investigative journalist and Inside contributor Adam Penenberg “has unearthed revealing new information including trademark and patent filings, domain registrations, financial transactions, factory blueprints, and a hitherto unknown company linked to ‘Ginger’ inventor Dean Kamen, among other evidence.”

Penenberg’s lengthy Inside cover story ended with this observation: “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.”

We all know what happened to the Segway: It bombed. (Read “From hype to disaster: Segway’s timeline” and “Segway CEO Jimi Heselden dies in Segway crash.”)

I did an email Q-and-A with Penenberg, who is now an NYU prof:

When you wrote about “IT” for Inside, did you think this could truly be a revolutionary mode of transportation, or did you smell hype?

While I was confident I was right about the invention code named “Ginger” indeed being a scooter, Dean Kamen offered clues that led me to believe “It” would be powered by a small, powerful and efficient mini-Stirling engine. His company had registered domains like stirlingscooter.com, etc., and he had applied for variances to install huge propane tanks on his property–propane is a fairly efficient method for creating large hydrogen.

Adam Penenberg

While a scooter on its own didn’t seem that exciting, the hydrogen-powered Stirling would have been an astounding accomplishment. Taken together, I believe it could have been a transformative invention, and the Stirling-hydrogen power source could have been retrofitted for just about anything. Think about it: an almost unlimited, clean and efficient power source. Alas, I guess Kamen was never able to make it work.

Do you ever see people using them? (I’ve yet to see anyone in Evanston on one. I’ve only seen one person — other than cops — on a Segway in downtown Chicago.)

Yes. I’ve occasionally seen geeky-looking dweebs riding Segways in New York. I’ve even seen cops on Segways. But Segway sightings are a rarity.

What do you think went wrong?

I think Kamen, who was, at the time, mortgaged to the hilt, rushed the Segway into production. And he priced them so high that who would buy it except for those with money to burn? But it is a great feat of engineering, and I wonder why he hasn’t tried to license the technology. I also hope one day he’ll succeed in perfecting the Stirling engine he was working on. Now that would be a game changer.

As for me, I’m still amused that eight months before Kamen unveiled his top-secret invention on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we published a picture we created from patents and my research that was virtually identical. (It’s on my website.) it led to a media frenzy, covered on hundreds of new outlets, and i ended up on the Today Show, interviewed by Katie Couric. And all that over a tricked-out scooter.

Penenberg also tells me he’s never been on a Segway.

Steve Kemper, whose book proposal started the frenzy in January 2001, also answered my questions:

Did you think a decade ago that the Segway could become a revolutionary mode of transportation?

Yes, because a lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am were convinced of it.

Why did it not take off?

I don’t think there’s any one cause or any simple explanation. I suspect it’s a mixture of price, marketing, management, public expectations, and city regulations

When was the last time you were on a Segway? How many have you seen used in the last five years?

I think the last time I was on one was at Harvard Business School a few years ago, because they were using my book as the basis for a case study in a class on entrepreneurialism. It’s wonderful fun to ride one. I see Segways pretty often in malls and airports, and on city streets, ridden by cops or tour groups.

Bob M. Sullivan posted on my Facebook wall:

I covered the launch as msnbc’s tech reporter, and proud to say I was of the very few naysayers. Postal carriers told me, “what if it rains?” I was ridiculed at the time for doubting Dean Kamen. Who is a real genius and has done great things. But not this.

I invited him to elaborate in an email. He sent this:

I actually met Dean Kamen on the Microsoft campus a couple of months before the launch of Segway. I saw him give a talk to programmers; you would have thought you were at a Baptist revival meeting. It was inspirational, really, he was telling programmers they have a chance to use their skills to rescue the world, for good vs. evil, which is something he had really done with the iBot wheelchair. As he described his imaginative process for inventing that, he could bring a tear to the most right-brained engineer. And he thought he was doing that times 100 with “Ginger.” The marketing folks — and a bunch of magazine articles — said we would rearrange cities to accomodate them.

At the time I wrote a column called “Not So Fast,” where I picked apart Internet bubble hype. (Best job ever). I was on a radio show on Segway Day and said I thought it was all silly; it’s a scooter with some really cool technology, but you can’t really drive it either on the sidewalk or on the street, and you can’t use it in the rain. What’s it going to replace? Of course I was criticized for just being jealous that GMA had the exclusive launch….The fact that Segways have been relegated to being a goofy way for tourists to stumble their way around traps like National Mall is the punchline to the joke of the dot-com era. As it turned out, it kind of bookended that time — I know the bubble had burst more than a year earlier, but the failure of Segway meant once and for all we weren’t going to invest or hype our way out of the Nasdaq collapse. Wish we’d learned that lesson then.

I can count on one finger the number of techno-geniousness who are also showmen, and Kamen is the best I’ve ever seen. Including the one we just lost.