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Dean Kamen:
Maintaining Balance

An Encounter with Dean Kamen Related by Jeff Lindsay

Dean Kamen photo
Dean Kamen
During the National Manufacturing Week exhibition in Chicago in March 2002, I met Dean Kamen, CEO of Segway LLC, and one of the most famous inventors of our day. Dean is the inventor of the first intravascular stent proven to reduce arterial blockage, and the first portable dialysis machine, plus other drug delivery devices that have helped many people. He invented the IBOT™ wheelchair, which allows people to safely move up and down ordinary stairs.

The Segway device. Dean's most recent invention is the Segway™ Human Transporter, originally publicized as "Ginger" or simply "It." More than just a powered scooter, this device, which Dean demonstrated before a capacity crowd in the ballroom of the McCormick Center, is a masterpiece of engineering that could transform the way many people live. As one stands on a small platform between two wheels with a large scooter-like handle rising from it, one quickly finds that the machine takes the place of legs and balances itself automatically. Lean forward and it moves forward, tilt back and it moves back. Twist to the side and you spin in a circle, rotating on a single axis.

Numerous sensors and redundant control systems maintain the balance of the system so that it doesn't tip over, even when the rider is doing stunts on one leg. It can swiftly navigate around obstacles, allowing a person to achieve speeds of up to 12 miles per hour while carrying a load. It has been successfully demonstrated for many applications, increasing productivity for postal delivery people, warehouse employees, and security guards, where moving at three times the normal speed means a big gain in productivity. But Dean's vision is broader. As he told the audience, "All we are trying to do is to change the world." And with time, he may succeed.

His vision includes the use of human transporters to replace many automobiles in congested cities and to make life easier and more productive for millions, including the elderly and the handicapped.

Dean has already touched the lives of many young people with his organization known as FIRST - "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" - which has brought the excitement of science education to many in an effort to bring out the inventors of the future. He is something of a hero to many young people, including many of the friends of my 16-year-old son. After Dean's outstanding presentation, a group flocked around him to listen and observe more from the Master. A few cameras were still clicking, and people were seeking autographs. How shameful, I thought - all these people pestering a famous inventor just to get an autograph on their FIRST brochure. Right before Dean signed mine, a twenty-something dreamer resembling John Lennon pulled out a business card and thrust it toward Dean. "I'm an inventor, too!"

The self-proclaimed inventor reached into his pocket and pulled out a device that looked like a miniature umbrella frame having a bad hair day. There was a small cylindrical handle with about 8 long, thin, flexible metal rods protruding from one end. Each rod had a rubber cap at the end. The inventor told Dean that when people were feeling stressed, they could simply use his device to massage acupuncture pressure points. He twisted four of the rods one way, the other four another way, and showed how the ends of the rods could be placed against both sides of his forehead. Dean was gracefully patient with this demonstration. No irritation was shown. He smiled and looked interested - and perhaps he was.

I was waiting for bodyguards to whisk this guy away, or perhaps Dean would flee on his Human Transporter. But Dean remained steady and polite. Then the gizmo-armed inventor bent each wire out separately in a crescent shape to create something of a lotus-blossom effect, rather like a massive wire whisk that had come apart at the end. The gap between the ends of the wire rods was big enough to accommodate a human head, and the inventor placed it on his head so that the rods were in contact with his scalp. He moved the handle up and down to scratch his head, explaining that this was beneficial. Any sufficiently paranoid bodyguard would have been ready for what happened next, but I froze in disbelief. The head-scratching stress-relief gadget was suddenly inverted over Dean's head, and then vibrated up and down into his curly hair to relieve even more stress. I bit my tongue, but Dean stayed calm. With a big smile, he gently took the device off and said, "Wow - is there a motor in there?" "No, it's all just mechanical," the inventor replied, fortunate that I haven't completed my correspondence course on the ninja arts.

Dean was not merely polite, he was even encouraging to the audacious inventor, and agreed to receive more information or something, before turning to the others who were still waiting to ask questions and grovel for autographs.

As the founder of FIRST, Dean has taken a strong public stand to encourage invention among young people. I saw that Dean's stance is more than just posturing. His desire to encourage other would-be inventors and scientists is far more than outward publicity, but extends into his personal encounters with others. He could have blown that inventor off and we all would have understood, but he chose to be kind. In fact, his desire to be supportive was so sincere, that Dean was willing to literally put his own head on the line. I was impressed - and so was my son, who was thrilled that Dad came home with a FIRST brochure autographed by world-famous Dean Kamen, an amazing inventor and one of the most positive famous role models that I've seen in a long time.

Jeff Lindsay, Copyright © 2002


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Created: Dec. 21, 2002

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