The hype and speculation that preceded the unveiling of Dean Kamen's supposedly world-changing invention on Dec. 3, 2001, was feverish.
"If enough people see the machine," Steve Jobs said, "you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it. It'll just happen." (That quote comes from a leaked book proposal. The leak was first published by a now defunct publication called Inside.com -- setting off months of news reports wondering what the invention code-named "Ginger" or just "IT" could possibly be.)
Among inventor Kamen's own claims for it, as paraphrased by the New York Times: It "could cause cities to be redesigned, help wean the world from oil dependence, compress time and space for pedestrians and raise productivity for corporations and government agencies." Kamen told Time magazine that the machine "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." City centers would ban autos to make room for his "empowered pedestrians." Here's more from that Time magazine article:
With the Segway, Kamen plans to change the world by changing how cities are organized. To Kamen's way of thinking, the problem is the automobile. "Cities need cars like fish need bicycles," he says. Segways, he believes, are ideal for downtown transportation. Unlike cars, they are cheap, clean, efficient, maneuverable. Unlike bicycles, they are designed specifically to be pedestrian friendly. "A bike is too slow and light to mix with trucks in the street but too large and fast to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk," he argues. "Our machine is compatible with the sidewalk. If a Segway hits you, it's like being hit by another pedestrian." By traveling at three or four times walking speed, and thus turning what would have been a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, Kamen contends, Segways will in effect shrink cities to the point where cars "will not only be undesirable, but unnecessary."
Kamen isn't so naive as to underestimate America's long-standing romance with the automobile. ("I love cars too," he says. "Just not when I'm downtown.") And he is well aware that uprooting the vast urban infrastructure that supports cars, from parking garages to bridges and tunnels, won't happen soon. Which is why he has pinned his greatest hopes not on the U.S. but abroad ...
"Most people in the developing world can't afford cars, and if they could, it would be a complete disaster," he says. "If you were building one of the new cities of China, would you do it the way we have? Wouldn't it make more sense to build a mass-transit system around the city and leave the central couple of square miles for pedestrians only?" Pedestrians and people riding Segways, that is.
"There's no question in my mind that we have the right answer," he continues. "I would stake my reputation, my money and my time on the fact that 10 years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get around."
You know it -- if you know it at all -- as the Segway Human Transporter: the funny-looking scooter thing that mall cops sometimes zip around on.
What do you think? Was the Segway simply ahead of its time? Is the promise still there? Tell us in the comments.
On This Day inventions, previously:
• Nov. 18: Push-button touch-tone phones debuted on this day 50 years ago
• Oct. 25: The first home microwaves
• Oct. 18: Crazy toasters you can buy (one cooks eggs and costs $40)
• Sept. 20: 'Cut the rope!' The 1853 sale of the first safe elevators makes high-rises and Manhattan skyline possible
• Sept. 10: Happy birthday to the Swanson's TV dinner