One Helluva Ride

The Sydney Morning Herald
One Helluva Ride
By Steve Kemper
September 27, 2003

Dean Kamen doesn't read or watch TV, and he couldn't recognise Barbra Streisand. He just likes to invent - drug pumps, portable dialysis and, now, a radical form of transport.

Will it change the world, as some have predicted? Charles Gibson posed that question to millions of people one December morning in 2001. For a week, the TV show Good Morning America had been promising to reveal the secret invention known to the world by its code name, Ginger. The camera shifted to a spotlit object covered by a white sheet. An unimpressive T-shaped silhouette showed through the shroud. A plinking piano tried to sound portentous.

Gibson's co-host, Diane Sawyer, swerved between sarcasm and hype. The silhouette reminded her of "either a giant asparagus or a vacuum machine". But she also referred to Ginger's creator, Dean Kamen, as "the legendary inventor".

The legend himself stood next to her, looking like he needed an espresso. He hated to get up early. He also looked uncomfortable. Kamen was shorter than Sawyer. His dark, wavy hair rose in a semi-pompadour above a narrow face. He was slender and looked younger than his 50 years. He wore jeans, work boots and a denim shirt.

That might seem informal for the debut of a machine that could change the world, but it was Kamen's uniform, and he wore it whether meeting with his head machinist, a big CEO or the president of the United States.

Kamen had done a design freeze on his wardrobe sometime in the early '70s as a teenager on Long Island. Filling his closet with jeans and blue work shirts was efficient and practical. He liked to think of himself as a down-and-dirty engineer who wouldn't hesitate to grab a greasy wrench or a soldering iron.

Kamen didn't give any more thought to popular culture than he did to fashion. Movies? A waste of two hours. Novels? Why settle for make-believe when you could be pondering Isaac Newton's Principia? Television? You must be kidding. The newest music? No thanks, he'd stick with the oldies. Sporting events? Don't get him started on that one. He claimed he had never bought a newspaper in his life. "My hobby is thinking," he often said.

Consequently, he had escaped the celebrity lint that clutters people's minds. He once met Andy Warhol but didn't know who he was. He went to a fancy dinner and sat between two people he'd never heard of - Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. At a White House conference on health care, he sat next to a woman who talked a lot but made no sense. When she left for a moment, Kamen turned to someone and said: "She's an expert on health care?"

"Well, no, that's Barbra Streisand."

Over the past year, he had been called everything from a genius to a publicity hound. He had become a celebrity engineer, a phrase that sounded self-contradictory, or at least unlikely. To other people, that is. Kamen believed that engineers and scientists deserved to be cultural heroes, as famous as athletes and movie stars.

Now he was on national television, watching a sheet rise from Ginger. Standing naked in the spotlight, the machine looked anticlimactic: two wheels, a platform and a T-bar.

After a pause, Gibson asked what it did. "It's the world's first self-balancing human transporter," said Kamen. Gibson asked why it didn't topple over, as physics seemed to demand. "That's the invention. It does what a human does. It has gyros and sensors that act like your inner ear. It has a computer that does what your brain does for you. It's got motors that do what your muscles do for you. It's got tyres that do what your feet do for you."

Sawyer had been silent, staring at Ginger. "I'm tempted to say: 'That's it?"' she blurted. "But that can't be it."

She didn't understand what she was looking at. A few years earlier, Kamen had told me the machine would transform cities and habits of transportation. It was clean and cheap. It ran on a few cents of battery-powered electricity per day and wouldn't be expensive. And oh, by the way, it was fun. "It's going to change the world," he said, dead serious.

Suburban Long Island, 40 minutes by train from New York City, isn't known as a cradle of invention. Kamen was born there in 1951 and endured its educational system through high school. In seventh grade, his teacher complained to his parents that he must be cheating in maths, because he got the right answers but didn't show any calculations. Kamen explained that he could see the steps, so writing them down was pointless. Nevertheless, he felt stupid throughout much of his schooling.

By the middle of high school, Kamen was playing around with the latest developments in electronics. He made a light box that could be plugged into a stereo so the lights pulsed with the music, and began putting on shows for friends in his parents' basement.

Soon after turning 16 and getting a driver's licence, he took a summer job working for a man who designed slide shows and wanted Kamen to build cabinets for his projectors. It was mindless work, but it offered the excitement of driving into Manhattan, where one of the man's clients was the Museum of Natural History. Kamen had a pass into the museum's restricted underground garage. He quit after a few weeks, bored. But he had a plan. He had noticed that the lighting system in the museum's Hayden Planetarium was old and bulky, so one day he drove into New York and waited to see the museum's chairman. When he was finally admitted, he told the chairman that he wanted to upgrade the museum's lighting system using state-of-the-art transistors and semiconductors. The chairman saw a cocky, scrawny 16-year-old kid. He threw him out.

That provoked Kamen. For the next couple of weeks, he worked day and night in his basement, designing a light show. Then he used his pass to enter the museum and wired his box into the planetarium's light system. Just like that. He found the chairman and gave him the news. "You've done what?" asked the chairman.

Before he could be thrown out, Kamen convinced him to have a look. When Kamen flipped the switch, the rotunda burst into illumination. The chairman looked around slowly, then invited Kamen to his office and asked: "How much would this system cost the museum?"

Kamen was a kid. It seemed to him that his whole future depended on his answer, because he had quit his summer job and risked all his earnings. Working in the basement, he had dreamed about pocketing the immense sum of $US1000. So he swallowed hard and asked for twice that much.

The chairman walked around his desk. On one condition, he said: Kamen had to do the same thing for the other three museums under the chairman's care. Four museums for $US8000. Kamen's gamble had paid off By the time he graduated from high school, he was selling light boxes to local rock bands and building customised audiovisual presentations that synchronised multiple slide projectors.

He started college in Massachusetts, but ignored requirements and disregarded grades. Instead, he sat in on classes that interested him and chatted with professors about physics, engineering and his heroes: Galileo, Archimedes, Newton and Einstein. Besides, he didn't have much time for academic drudgery. He was driving home every weekend to work on his basement business. He was making about $US60,000 a year - good money in the early '70s and exceptional for a college student. He sank it all into the business, moving his mother's washing machine and dryer upstairs to make room in the basement for a lathe, a bandsaw, a milling machine and an oscilloscope.

Soon Kamen was working on another project, a device suggested by his brother, Bart, a medical student at Harvard. In those days, nurses had to constantly monitor intravenous drips to make sure they were working. Bart had encouraged his brother to design something that would free nurses for other duties by automatically delivering precise doses of drugs at precise intervals. If the device was portable, so much the better, because that would liberate people who were otherwise healthy but tethered to hospitals and clinics by IVs.

Kamen bought some inexpensive parts straight off the shelf - timers, counters, motors, batteries, circuit boards. He taught himself how to mill components out of aluminum. When he finished, he had invented the first drug-infusion pump. It was simple, portable and precise. Bart showed it to people at Harvard Medical School, who suggested a few modifications. When the New England Journal of Medicine did a story about the pump, doctors called from all over the world. The National Institutes of Health ordered 100 pumps at $2000 each.

It was Kamen's first big break. His younger brother, Mitch, and Mitch's friends became assemblers. His mother tested the circuit boards and kept the books. His father drew the illustrations for the manual. Kamen named his new company AutoSyringe Inc. He was 20 years old. He and his engineers created infusion pumps for chemotherapy, neonatology and childbirth. Next, they designed the first portable insulin pump, which delivered a precise flow of insulin and thus freed diabetics from the debilitating fluctuations of their disease.

But the drudgery of manufacturing didn't interest Kamen. A decade later, in 1982, he sold the company, reputedly for $US30 million, to Baxter, a large health conglomerate. At 31, he was an unemployed multimillionaire. He bought a pleasant house on several wooded hectares in New Hampshire. When his parents visited, he drove them to the house next door and said: "How do you like your new home?" They moved from Long Island.

He rewarded himself with a small plane and a helicopter, and learned to fly both. He especially loved the helicopter and called it his magic carpet. He decided to buy a magic kingdom to go with it - an island in Long Island Sound called North Dumpling. Its 1.2 hectares were landscaped with flowers, willows, mountain laurel and Japanese black pines. There was a lighthouse and a roomy modern house.

Kamen called himself Lord Dumpling. He drafted a North Dumpling Constitution and appointed friends and family to the cabinet, which included ministers of Brunch and Nepotism. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry's, served as joint Ministers of Ice-Cream, a crucial office considering Kamen's appetite for the confection. "We went off gold and went on the ice-cream standard," he once said. "As long as we keep it below 32 degrees [0C], our currency is rock solid."

Meanwhile, for several years, Kamen and his engineers had been working on another revolutionary medical device. In 1987, Baxter had asked Kamen to improve its kidney dialysis machine. The existing machine was noisy, expensive, heavy and bulky. Its technology hadn't changed much since the 1950s. Technicians had to be trained to operate it and to route tubing through its convoluted system of valves. For all these reasons, the machines were located in hospitals and clinics, forcing patients to travel to them. The cleansing procedure took several hours. Some patients required the treatment two or more times a week. Everything about it was inconvenient and antiquated.

Kamen agreed to improve the machine, but he made a half-hearted show of upgrading the mechanical valving before quickly dropping that line of inquiry. Improvements didn't interest him; transformation did. "Don't solve the solution," he liked to say, "solve the problem."

In the case of the dialysis machine, this took him back to Boyle's Law and Gay-Lussac's Law, now-obscure discoveries from the 17th and 18th centuries about the properties of gases. He explained the physics to his engineers and speculated that these principles could be combined with computer-controlled pneumatics and other modern technologies to create something new for treating dialysis.

It took five years to turn that insight into a product. In 1993, Baxter introduced its HomeChoice dialysis machine. It weighed just 10 kilograms, was affordable, and could fit under an airline seat. Because it used air pressure to regulate flow, it ran so quietly that people could use it while they slept. It was easy to operate, too. The patient popped in a disposable cassette, attached bags of dialysis fluids to some tubes, and pressed the "on" button. Patients were no longer chained to hospitals. The royalties from it became the main source of Kamen's fortune, and funded the freelance inventions by his company DEKA (based on DEan KAmen).

While DEKA was still working on these projects, Kamen was disturbed one day while watching a man struggle to get his wheelchair over a kerb. Later, he saw the man straining to reach over a high counter for an ice-cream cone. We can put people on the moon and travel to the depths of the ocean, Kamen mused, but we can't get a wheelchair over a kerb? "I'll fix it," he decided, certain it would be simple. But it wasn't. He put a couple of engineers on it. It stumped them, too. Two years passed. Kamen was ready to give up.

Archimedes had his eureka moment in the bathtub. Kamen had his as he stepped out of the shower and slipped on some wet tiles. His legs started to hydroplane out from under him, so he instinctively flung back his arms and wheeled them in reverse to recover his balance. Standing there dripping, it hit him: the missing piece was balance. By 1992, his engineers had built a crude prototype, using off-the-shelf parts: amps, two $US10 printer motors and a gyroscopic tilt sensor called an inclinometer (originally developed for gun turrets on battleships), which was, at about $US100, the machine's most expensive part.

It was a sorry-looking contraption, the size and height of a small table. Batteries and bare wires were taped together and held in place by Velcro. Ragged foam cushioned the worst steel edges. Chains formed the drive train. It looked poor and half-naked, but it achieved its purpose as a "proof of concept". It balanced in place, trembling, in a state engineers call "statically stable". If someone pushed it, it regained its original position.

The contraption's jiggly equilibrium tickled the team. You could put a bowl of pretzels on it and move it around the lab. But what about a seated person? Most difficult of all, how could you make such a machine safe for disabled people who couldn't hop off if something went wrong?

For weeks, the team tried different approaches to mobility. Hydraulics, robotics, wheel spokes that collapsed. They even flirted with the idea of a hovercraft. Kamen encouraged them to try their craziest ideas. It was fun, but frustrating. Even the designs that managed to climb a few stairs were unstable. They developed new respect for the complicated mechanics behind the act of walking.

Then one of the engineers had another brainwave: "What if, instead of balancing on the wheels, we balance on the clusters?" In other words, tell the inclinometer to listen to the clusters, not the wheel. That way, the clusters would control the balance. They changed the software to make this possible. They tested it.

The machine climbed right up. The testing engineer was dumbfounded. "It was like setting off a rocket for the first time," he recalled. "That was a major breakthrough. Suddenly, we had a machine that could fall up stairs. It didn't have to know whether it was supposed to go up or down, it just responded to the way you leaned. If you leaned towards the top of the stairs, it would climb. If you leaned towards the bottom, it would go down."

They experimented with the clusters. One day, goofing around, they rotated them in opposite directions, which made the machine dip and jig in a crazy rumba that led someone to remark that it danced like Fred Astaire. "No," said Kamen. "Fred Upstairs." They began calling the project Fred.

Several companies were interested in Fred but they all stalled, until Kamen made a last-ditch call in 1994 to Robert Gussin, senior technology officer at Johnson & Johnson. The two got to know each other when DEKA designed an intravascular stent for Johnson & Johnson. Gussin tried to beg off. "You have to come," said Kamen. "It's the best thing I've ever done." That got Gussin's attention. He saw the wheelchair, thought it looked like an ugly card table on wheels and asked himself: "Why am I here?" Then he realised that the table was standing there, balancing. He couldn't believe it. Kamen showed him the other prototypes, which could climb stairs. Gussin was astonished.

He called his CEO, who baulked. "If you don't do this, you'll be making the biggest mistake of your career," Gussin told him. That did it. He came, watched Fred dance and said: "It's a deal."

Before the deal was done, one of Kamen's engineers had started entertaining himself by standing on its small platform and using the joystick to surf around the lab. At first, no one realised the implications of this larky feat. But then they did, and Kamen's imagination leapt at the possibilities. That's why he had insisted on retaining the rights to all non-medical applications of the technology.

He asked the team to package what they had learned about dynamic stability into a small, low platform with two wheels, something someone could stand on, with a vertical bar connected to a handlebar. They built it and hopped on. When you leaned forwards, it moved ahead. The more you leaned, the faster it went. To stop, you leaned slightly backwards. It was just like walking, but more fun. The team was too busy with Fred to give it much attention. For a while, it was little more than a diversion. It was lighter and slighter than Fred Upstairs. They named it Ginger.

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