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segway segway sputnik
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

January 10, 2001: Word leaks to website Inside.com that ingenue inventor Michael Kamen has created a mysterious...thing. "It's bigger than the Internet!" hints one venture capitalist in the know. "Cities will be built around it!" gushes Apple's iGeek, Steve Jobs. Resolute hackers peruse the files of the U.S. Patent Office. Drawings of personal hovercars pop up, and suddenly it looks like all those Sputnik-era promises for the future are about to come true. Amazon.com offers to sell "it," whatever "it" is...and in so doing, the "thing" becomes not just an "it" but the "IT." Chatroom pundits, newsmagazines and slinky online columnists all ask the question of the year: What is IT?

December 2, 2001: Months later, in Waukegan, a lanky youth with the future in his eyes keeps the question alive*: What is IT?

December 3, 2001: Practitioner of Tantric Marketing Michael Kamen finally lets go with the money shot. "IT" is a two-wheeled personal transporter. Or, more conventionally, a scooter. Kamen shrugs, as if to say, "What did you expect?" Diane Sawyer giggles. The nation yawns. Who's Katie interviewing?


Wow. I haven't been this underwhelmed since...last month, when Apple's Next Big Thing was unveiled and turned out to be...an MP3 player. Because if I can't carry around my CD collection in a jacket pocket, well, what good is it? Besides, ripping my CDs into MP3s suddenly drives my CD player into obsolescence...to say nothing of the CDs themselves.

Kamen's scooter offers to do for your legs what iPod does for your CD collection. In his vision, cars will be banished from urban areas in favor of a new infrastructure for Segway-riding "empowered pedestrians."

Empowered pedestrians? I see the studio audience for Oprah striding resolutely into the streets after a visit by "Dr. Phil."

Sorry, Mikey. As soon as someone steps onto your little miracle mobile, they're not a pedestrian anymore. They're an evolved skate-rat.

"But it makes no sense at all for people to use a 4,000 lb. piece of metal to haul their 150 lb. asses around town," argues Kamen.

The facts:

The Segway is meant to replace cars and other, larger vehicles for travelling within cities. The Segway is also meant to provide an alternative to walking, bicycling, or other "short range" human-powered transport. The Segway's top speed is 3-4 times average walking speed...equal to around 9-12 mph.

Let's see. In a world full of Segway riders, air pollution would be down. That's great. However, take away what exercise those riders may have gotten from walking, and suddenly those "150 lb. asses" are a little chunkier. Now imagine those same chunky asses whizzing around at 9-12 mph. Picture the last time you were on a busy sidewalk in Manhattan. Better still, picture the most recent time you went Christmas shopping at a mall. Add 15 lbs. to everyone, and make them three times faster.

"If a Segway hits you," says Kamen, "it's like being hit by another pedestrian." But a wee burr in my brain reminds me, "Ye cannae change th' laws o' physics!"Forgive my math: two 165 lb. objects traveling at 12 mph collide with a force equal to a trip to the emergency room, right? Note: the Segway does not have brakes. It stops when you think about stopping. I give it two months, tops, before Kamen's whizzing his Segway into litigation.

Kamen admits that it'll be tough getting Americans out of their cars and onto a smooth-gliding Segway. So he's starting small, infiltrating those vocations where walking is a tedious reality, such as mail carriers and warehousing companies such as FedEx and Amazon.com. The plan is to introduce Segway into the corporate infrastructure -- much like the desktop PC -- and let it gradually work its way into other areas of life. Sounds like a plan. I can already see the entertainment potential of a tip-proof horseless-chariot.

I see a big comeback for jousting.

*(It later was determined that he was just singing along with Faith No More on his car stereo.)


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

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mike julianelle
12.4.01 @ 10:21a

Only a paragraph or so in, but any article that references Faith no More, AND uses it as the TITLE!!! gets my vote! Nice work Russ.

By the way, two things I;ve heard that Epic, the song, is about are: 1) masturbating; 2) ice cream.

adam kraemer
12.4.01 @ 10:55a

You will never understand "it" 'cause it happens too fast.

russ carr
12.17.01 @ 12:37a

A fair cop it's not ice cream, then.

matt morin
12.17.01 @ 2:05a

Yeah well, unless you were a resident of the Bastille, revolutions do not happen overnight. I could venture to say that in hindsight, the first Mac was "revolutionary." It did change the way that computers worked and the way we worked with computers.

So while we'll probably look back and think the original Segway was lame and overhyped, we certainly can't judge how "revolutionary" it is until later.

And better than the Faith No More reference was the Sigue Sigue Sputnik one.

russ carr
12.17.01 @ 2:39a

Thanks for noticing, Matt. Wasn't sure who'd remember S3.

As a Mac loyalist, far be it from me to disparage my favorite piece of consumer technology, but given Apple's always-tenuous market share, the future isn't necessarily promising for Segway, Inc. Arguably, Jobs stole the GUI which would become the Mac OS from Xerox...and then Gates stole it from Apple. Microsoft is now the essence of corporate monolithy, while once-proud Xerox is a shell of its heady 80s hey-days.

The real catch is this: Apple (to continue the comparison) took something very foreign and complex (computing) and made it friendly and intuitive. It was a major paradigm shift. Perhaps my nearsightedness borders on myopia, but I can't envision such a profound impact from a self-balancing scootermobile...

tracey kelley
12.17.01 @ 9:31a

Ahhh, but don't all inventors face this? Those who believe "it" is necessary, and those that don't.

Kamen is at least credible in that he:
1) has invented many other necessary things before this
2) is not afraid to have a vision of a better world and his ability to make it so(although it's true he wants to challenge Gates as King of the World)
3)he's not afraid to be laughed at, because most innovators are put in that position at one point or another.

Which takes a lot of guts...or blind faith.

Do I think it's an expensive scooter? A more quiet moped? Oh sure. But there's really nothing wrong with that if someone else finds it effective. Picture an 80-year-old woman zipping around Palm Springs: she's too old to drive (safely) and her grocery is 3.5 mile hard walk - but on this thing, she's still free. She can zip off to the store, have lunch with a friend and keep Fluffy in a basket at her feet the whole time.

There's something to be said for that.

adam kraemer
12.17.01 @ 10:36a

Does one need to have both hands available to use the thing?

mike julianelle
12.17.01 @ 11:02a

The implication of Adam's query makes me nervous.

adam kraemer
12.17.01 @ 11:19a

Well, I don't know why you're thinking of that when you're thinking of me, but I was talking in terms of someone going shopping on the thing. Can you hold a grocery bag and still steer, for example.

tracey kelley
12.17.01 @ 1:13p

Yes - it apparently has an additional 75lb payload capacity alloted for cargo that can be placed at your feet, on the wheel casing or in a backpack.

adam kraemer
12.17.01 @ 1:16p

So you do need both hands?

matt morin
12.17.01 @ 2:17p

Russ, but think of this: The self-balancing gyroscopes could be the start of amazing things. Think of a motorcycle you couldn't crash, or entire buildings that could sway the opposite direction during an earthquake to offset the shaking.

russ carr
12.17.01 @ 2:41p

An additional 75 lb. payload capacity on top of what maximum human payload?

This is starting to get close to the question about the unladen swallow...

tracey kelley
12.17.01 @ 3:44p

250 lb. human/75 lb. cargo.

I don't think it requires both hands to operate, since it has body sensors to determine whether you go forward or backward... but I doubt you could steer, talk on the cell and sip a latte at the same time.

michelle von euw
12.17.01 @ 3:52p

Tracey, most drivers can't do all three of those things at the same time, but that doesn't stop a whole lot of them from trying.

tracey kelley
12.18.01 @ 9:13a

Yeah, I know. I drive pretty well with my knee - don't see how I could do that on the Segway.

I do not talk on the cell while driving, though. That's just insane.

roger striffler
12.19.01 @ 10:36a

Adam - it supposedly requires no hands at all - the grips are there to help you maintain balance. kamen demoed it with no hands, but it's probably unrealistic to think most people, especially the elderly, will be able to drive it without at least one hand on the bars.

I think tracey has a point in that it can be amazingly helpful to some groups of people - the elderly, handicapped, postal delivery workers, meter maids...they've even talked about using them in hospitals.

Personally, I want to race someone on one.

tracey kelley
12.19.01 @ 3:38p

Bring it on! zoom zoom zoom

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 3:43p

Doesn't the Segway™ strike you as something you'd see Wile E. Coyote strapping rockets to, five minutes before riding (with complete stability) off the edge of a cliff?

But he'd land upright on the canyon floor.

russ carr
9.27.10 @ 4:17p

Going WAY back, but it feels right to post this here. I am not making this up.

Owner of Segway company dies in apparent Segway accident.

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