My Segway Ride

The headline on Quartz pretty much summed it up:

“The tortured and ludicrous history of Segway ends with its acquisition by a Chinese imitator”

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(Photo: Ng Han Guan, AP)

It didn’t have to end this way, or did it? For anyone toiling in the tech space before the dot-com bubble burst, one couldn’t have missed the story of IT, a code name for a mysterious invention that would “change the world.” And this was according to the tech movers & shakers for whom it was discreetly demo’d under strict NDA. From Wikipedia:

“Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that it was ‘as big a deal as the PC,’ though later sources quoted him as saying when first introduced to the product that its design ‘sucked.’ John Doerr speculated that it would be more important than the Internet.”

From ABC News:

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs got an early look, as did Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com. Bezos laughed so hard when he saw IT that he fell off his chair, but both men were sworn to secrecy about what IT was. “While [Kamen] has shared it with me, he also asked very strongly to keep it to myself and I’m certainly not going to let that confidence down,” Bezos said.

Basically, an obscure mention in a book proposal about a miraculous invention called simply “IT” led to an unimaginable media frenzy at a time when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram could not be counted on to fuel such a viral buzz. (This very well could have marked the epochal start of the tech media echo chamber.)

I remember commenting to my staff at our weekly meeting that this would be such a fabulous client to represent.  Sure enough, two hours later, Mr. Burson summoned me to his office. He had an assignment with which he’d like my help. The inventor of “Ginger,” as IT also was known, Dean Kamen was in a pickle. He had recently taped an interview with “60 Minutes,” on a different subject — the program he founded for aspiring inventors.

Dean Kamen on his Segway
Dean Kamen on his Segway on Launch Day

Now that “Ginger” had gone mainstream, should he acquiesce to CBS’s request for a follow-up interview? My recommendation was no, since Kamen told me he wasn’t prepared to divulge all the details about this eminently buzzworthy, yet not-ready-for-primetime, invention. He chose to do the interview anyway.

The planning was soon underway to launch the technology. A small group of us, sworn to complete secrecy, flew up to his research facility in New Hampshire. It was there we first saw the two-wheeled gyroscopically-balanced upright, personal transportation device. It was then called “Flywheel.” We were each given a chance to take it for a spin around a small indoor test track, up and down ramps, etc. It took a bit of getting used to, but it indeed was way cool.

Later, the brilliant scientist mesmerized us with his vision for the Segway, and the environmental impact it could have, i.e., electric charging for pennies on the dollar, eliminating auto exhaust for short haul trips, etc. Much work still had to be done, not the least of which was securing local and state regulatory approvals to even drive a Segway on the sidewalk. Kamen explained that the unit’s footprint was no wider than a person standing on two feet.

I soon drafted a comprehensive launch strategy that entailed first building third-party ground-up support from the scientific, civil engineering, environmental, and governmental regulatory communities. This support could be accelerated with select positive media coverage in the influential vertical publications catering to these vital constituencies — from EE Times to Scientific American.

Dean Kamen, on the other hand, wanted to go the direct-to-consumer route with a splashy launch in New York’s Bryant Park and an appearance on “Good Morning America.” It mattered little that each Segway would cost roughly five thousand dollars, and that the regulatory and manufacturing hurdles had yet to be cleared.

At this juncture, I no longer was involved in the day-to-day project. It had migrated to the agency’s lifestyle marketing communications team. A quick and easy phone pitch secured the exclusive GMA segment and the event production group got to work on Bryant Park.

Paul Bart riding a Segway in "Mall Cop"
Paul Bart riding a Segway in “Mall Cop”

In December 2001, Dean Kamen himself drove his invention onto the GMA set, allegedly pissing off co-host Charlie Gibson for making such a ruckus in the ABC studio.

It’s easy to look back and say the inventor should have done this or that. Who knows for sure? I do remember getting intoxicated by the Kool-Aid Dean Kamen and his Segway served us, and am saddened that it failed to live up to the hype that was initially foist upon it and eventually squandered.

I am now keeping a watchful eye on Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Tesla’s Elon Musk.