A Monomaniac Inventor Hogs His One-Man Scooter

Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World, by Steve Kemper. Harvard Business School Press, 319 pages, $27.95.

Remember Ginger? No, not the Tina Louise character on Gilligan’s Island . Ginger was the code word for an invention that was going to deliver the world from pestilence and poverty, cure the common cold, do our kids’ homework and give us the winning edge in the war on terrorism. Ginger was, in fact, anything we wanted it to be, because we simply no idea what it-or rather IT, Ginger’s other nickname-was. And we couldn’t wait to find out.

Two years ago, stirred up by a frenzy of media hype, chat rooms buzzed and water coolers sloshed with a whirlwind of idle speculation about Ginger: What in creation could brilliant inventor Dean Kamen and his engineers be cooking up in Mr. Kamen’s labs? When Ginger turned out to be a motor scooter-a very sophisticated motor scooter-the world collectively shrugged its shoulders. After the epic tease, the unveiling felt like coitus interruptus .

Segway, as Mr. Kamen’s invention came to be known, has underwhelmed. The world’s first self-balancing, electric-powered personal-transportation device, it’s for sale from Amazon or the Segway Web site for $4,950. The possibility that it may be a flop hasn’t kept Steve Kemper from taking a hard look at Segway’s tortured origins. A freelance journalist, Mr. Kemper followed Mr. Kamen around like some new-economy Boswell, dutifully recording every round of financing and every engineering triumph. He amassed over 5,000 pages of notes for the book-and seems to have left precious little on the cutting-room floor. That’s a mixed blessing for neophytes who think a gyro is just a sandwich. But stick with this book and you’re going to learn a few things about the science of transportation. You’re also going to learn how not to manage a company. As Mr. Kemper tells it, Dean Kamen is the dark side of Peter Drucker.

What holds this sometimes demanding book together (despite the long passages about, say, fitting the gyro assembly into the chassis) is the strong magnetic field that is Mr. Kamen, the kind of guy you’re tempted to call a genius. As a teen, he was a horrible student (Mr. Kamen told Mr. Kemper that he used to purposefully score 57’s on high-school tests because getting 90’s and 100’s was too easy), but his febrile mind was hot-wired for science. Using Isaac Newton’s Principia as his bible, Mr. Kamen plunged headlong into complex circuitry, creating a state-of-the-art light system for the Hayden Planetarium at age 16.

What young Mr. Kamen envisioned for himself was a life of scientific progress tied to noble causes. An idealist with an unshakable stubborn streak, Mr. Kamen truly believed that making the world a better place was his calling. Years before Ginger, Mr. Kamen had made his reputation by inventing revolutionary medical equipment: the first drug-infusion IV pump, the first portable insulin pump for diabetes patients and the first lightweight dialysis machine for home use.

Mr. Kamen triumphed by making bold, intuitive leaps. Where others saw pitfalls, he sensed opportunity. “Dean approached new projects the same way, as if he were heading into wide-open territory,” Mr. Kemper writes. “Nothing was too wild to consider. The best ideas always seemed impossible at first, or at least improbable.” Mr. Kamen called this trial-and-error process “frog-kissing,” and he demanded it from everyone that worked for him.

Thanks to the millions he earned from his world-changing inventions, Mr. Kamen was free to pursue good works, no matter how whimsical. For years, he and the engineers at his Manchester, N.H., R&D company, DEKA, tried to fashion a wheelchair that would climb stairs and jump over curbs. That got Mr. Kamen thinking about the science of dynamic balance and a device that would never lose its equilibrium, regardless of speed or terrain.

Code Name Ginger traces this notion all the way to fruition, when Mr. Kamen unveiled Segway for millions of viewers on Good Morning America on Dec. 3, 2001. The terrain, over that three-year development period, was anything but smooth: He nearly crashed his own company, burned through millions of other’s people’s money and alienated some of the dot-com era’s biggest icons.

A classic monomaniac, Mr. Kamen wanted access to big-time venture capital and the brightest engineers, but he didn’t want to give anything up in return. He refused to offer stock options or large salaries to his executives, and insisted they travel coach class, while he himself tooled around in his private jets. His attitude toward outside investors verged on contempt. When heavyweights like Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr and Credit Suisse First Boston’s Michael Schmertzler-men who raised the capital for Amazon, Compaq and Netscape, among others-offered Mr. Kamen tens of millions in R&D money for Ginger, Mr. Kamen gave them crumbs for their investment. Steve Jobs, another enthusiastic investor, took Mr. Kamen to task for design flaws, but Mr. Kamen just shrugged it off. He had a fatal flaw: an inability to cede control when it was advantageous to do so. He wanted to steer the gizmo at all times, even when it was badly off-balance.

He also demanded absolute secrecy on the Ginger project, for fear that the big auto companies would either appropriate it or squash it. When the now-defunct media Web site Inside.com leaked portions of Mr. Kemper’s book proposal in January 2001, thus triggering the massive media orgy over Ginger, Mr. Kamen flipped out, frantically dissembled and ultimately shut out Mr. Kemper. “The investors had given Dean an order: Kill the book. ‘That’s dead,’ said Dean. ‘That’s over.'” A writer’s nightmare, for sure, but Mr. Kemper prevailed, and the chapter describing his efforts to resuscitate his project in the face of Mr. Kamen’s intransigence is an instructive lesson on how to deflect a bully’s strong-arm tactics.

Too frequently, Code Name Ginger reads like a scientific paper; the general reader has no use for much of the technical detail. What really makes the book’s engine rev is the outsized personality of Dean Kamen, and the clash of titans that ensues when innovation rams straight into the bottom line.

Marc Weingarten is at work on a book about the journalism of the 1960’s and 70’s.

A Monomaniac Inventor Hogs His One-Man Scooter