Dean Kamen Biography (Segway)
Dean Kamen Biography
Dean Kamen is a leading American scientist and inventor whose products include the Segway human transporter (HT) and the iBOT battery-powered wheelchair. His numerous inventions include medical devices and futuristic gizmos that Kamen hopes will revolutionize the way we live and travel. Whenever Kamen introduces a new product, people take notice, and they eagerly anticipate the next one. His newest creation? A nonpolluting, low-power water-purifying system designed for use in underdeveloped countries. Time magazine called it one of the “coolest inventions of 2003.”
A modern-day Edison
Dean Kamen was born in 1951, in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York. His father, Jack, was an illustrator for Weird Science and Mad comic books; his mother, Evelyn, was a teacher. Kamen began tinkering with gadgets when he was fairly young. He claims that when he was five years old he invented a way to make his bed without running from one side to the other.
However, despite the fact that he was obviously bright and very curious, Kamen did not do well in school. His grades in junior high and high school were only average, and Kamen often found himself at odds with his teachers. This is an experience that many creative people seem to go through. For example, Thomas Edison (1847–1931), who developed the electric light bulb and the phonograph, attended school for a grand total of three months. His teachers considered him to be a slow learner. Instead Edison was taught by his mother at home, where he thrived, reading every book he could get his hands on. Like Edison, Kamen was (and still is) an avid reader of science texts.
By the time he was a teenager, Kamen was being paid for his inventions, most of which he built in his parents’ basement. He was hired by local rock bands and museums to design and install light and sound systems. He was even asked to work on automating the giant ball that is lowered in Times Square each year on New Year’s Eve. Before he graduated from high school, Kamen was earning about $60,000 a year, which was more than the salaries of both his parents combined.
“If you start to do things you’ve never done before, you’re probably going to fail at least some of the time. And I say that’s OK.”
After high school Kamen attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, but again he was more interested in inventing than attending classes. It was during his early years at WPI that Kamen developed the first of his many medical breakthroughs. His older brother, Barton, who was in medical school, commented to him that patients who needed round-the-clock medication were forced to come into the hospital for treatment. Kamen decided to fix the problem. He came up with the AutoSyringe, a portable device that could be worn by patients and that administered doses of medication. As a result, patients were able to enjoy some freedom.
In 1976 Kamen left Worcester Polytechnic (without graduating) and founded his own company, called AutoSyringe, to sell his medication device. The medical community embraced the AutoSyringe, and among scientists Kamen soon gained a reputation as a maverick inventor. In 1982 Kamen sold AutoSyringe to Baxter International, an international health-care company. The sale made him a multimillionaire.
A Look at FIRST
Dean Kamen established FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989 because he wanted kids to get excited about science. A science competition seemed like a good idea, but he did not have a run-of-the-mill science fair in mind. Instead, Kamen developed a robotics competition. The first robotics competition took place in a small New Hampshire high school gym and involved only twenty-eight teams. In 2004 there were more than eight hundred teams in the United States and around the world, competing in twenty-three regional events and a championship event held in Atlanta, Georgia. But, what is a robotics competition all about?
It is a lot like a high school athletic event where teams compete in games of skill, except in robotics, the game changes every year. In early January, FIRST releases the rules of the game, which include how the playing field will be set up and what tasks a robot will be expected to perform to win the most points. For example, in 2004 a robot had to collect balls and deliver them to a human player who shot the balls into a goal.
Teams are then given six weeks to design, build, and test their robots. Companies sponsor local high school teams, providing money to help with costs and technical support to help build the actual robot. The company engineers also serve as mentors to the students throughout the experience.
At regional competitions the atmosphere is charged. Teams wear colorful T-shirts and uniforms that they design with their logo; they also cheer and root for their favorite players. Music is played over loudspeakers, and announcers and referees broadcast during the matches. Teamwork is encouraged. As part of the game, teams are paired together during each match. In match thirteen, Team 182 may be partnered with Team 115; in Team 182’s next match they be competing against Team 115.
Winners at the regional level move on to the national competition in Atlanta, where ultimately one winning alliance (composed of three teams) takes the title. On the FIRST Web site, however, Kamen explains that winning is not what matters: “Here, whether your robot wins or not, you come away … with an understanding of what is possible in the world.
Kamen wows the world
After selling AutoSyringe, Kamen moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he launched his new company, DEKA Research & Development. DEKA is a combination of the first two letters of Kamen’s first and last names: DEan KAmen. The DEKA research facility is a vast network of nineteenth-century brick buildings that sprawl along the banks of the Merrimack River. Over two hundred researchers, engineers, and machinists work there and focus both on developing products for other companies and advancing Kamen’s own projects. For example, in 1993 Kamen and company invented a portable kidney dialysis machine called HomeChoice. A kidney dialysis machine is used to purify the blood of someone whose kidneys do not function properly. Usually a patient must go to the hospital on a regular basis to be treated.
Kamen went on to impress the medical world by developing hundreds of inventions. In 1999, however, he wowed the rest of the world when he unveiled the Independence iBOT 3000 Mobility System, a stair-climbing wheelchair. “I just thought the existing wheelchair was a pretty inadequate solution,” Kamen explained to Max Alexander in aSmithsonian interview. The iBOT is a motorized wheelchair that can take on almost any terrain, for example sand, gravel, or grass. It can also climb stairs and curbs, and it raises itself up, balancing on two wheels, so that a user can be level with a standing person. According to Kamen, the stair-climbing capability was great, but for years wheelchair-users had told him they longed to be able to carry on a conversation eye-to-eye.
In 2003 the iBOT was finally approved for sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is a government agency that researches products to make sure they are safe for people to use. The iBOT went into production in late 2003 and was available at a cost of $29,000. People who bought an iBOT were required to go through special training on how to use the system.
The super scooter
If the iBOT caused a media flurry, then Kamen’s next invention, the Segway, created a media blizzard. Kamen had been working on his mystery project for over ten years, and months before it was launched there was a buzz about what it could possibly be. In December 2001, Kamen finally introduced the world to what he called a self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine. Some observers claimed it looked like a super scooter. In a 2001 interview with John
Heilemann, however, Kamen claimed that the Segway would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”The Segway has no brakes, no engine (it is battery-powered, so it needs to be charged), and no steering wheel. It can carry a rider who weighs up to 250 pounds, and cargo up to 75 pounds. And it can travel at speeds up to 17 miles an hour. The amazing thing about the machine is that, like the iBOT, it is totally self-balancing, which means it cannot tip over when a person is riding it. Both inventions rely on a system of gyroscopes, computer chips, and electronic sensors that together pick up tiny shifts in the rider’s movements. Basically, the Segway does what you want it to do. For example, if you step off, the Segway comes to a stop.
Kamen had high hopes for the Segway. He did not see the Segway as a toy scooter; he believed that it could help solve the problem of overpopulated cities. “Cities need cars like fish need bicycles,” Kamen told Heilemann. The inventor envisioned people in cramped urban areas, like San Francisco, California, or Shanghai, China, scooting around on their Segways. As a result, pollution and congested city traffic would be eliminated. Kamen also predicted that the Segway would be used by postal workers, police officers, factory workers, and even soldiers on battlefields.
By 2004 the Segway was not quite as successful as Kamen predicted: only six thousand machines had been sold. Buyers were curious, but not curious enough to pay $4,950 to own one, and problems were cropping up everywhere. The company had to recall, or take back, models because riders were falling off their Segways when the machines’ batteries went low. In addition, laws in several cities, including San Francisco, prevented people from riding Segways on city sidewalks. A major blow came in February of 2004 when Segways were banned from Disney-owned theme parks. It seemed that people were not quite ready for the ride of the future.
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