What is the greatest thing since sliced bread?





W HAT ASTONISHING INVENTION WILL BE THE BIGGEST THING SINCE THE WORLD WIDE WEB? GIVE UP? Could change the architecture of cities? Will revolutionize the way we live by replacing “products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous, and often frustrating, especially for people in cities”? GIVE UP?

The guessing game is sweeping the worlds of business and science since word came that big-name investors are lining up to fund a new device, code-named Ginger. It is the brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen. And it was supposed to stay a big secret. But last week news broke that the Harvard Business School Press is paying $250,000 for a book about Ginger. Neither Kamen nor journalist Steve Kemper, whose breathless book proposal was quoted on the media Web site, would fess up.

Some immediately smelled a hoax. But that seemed unlikely given both Ka-men ‘s brilliant track record as an inventor and the reported support of backers such as venture capitalist John Doerr, high-tech guru Steve Jobs, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. But what could it be? A personal jetpack or a souped-up scooter that can hurtle you anywhere?

Hot air

 One hint to Ginger’s identity comes from Kemper’s 1994 magazine profile of Kamen. His “secret project,” Kemper wrote in Smithsonian magazine, uses the principles of a hot-air engine, invented in 1816 by a Scottish minister named Robert Stirling. Such an engine might power a large energy plant or a portable generator. But Stirling enthusiasts—who have for years tried to apply his engine to cars and energy production—were skeptical. “A king’s ransom has been paid in trying to make Stirling engines economically viable. It never worked,” said physicist Scott Backhaus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A better guess might be that Kamen is working on a futuristic transportation device that builds on the many patents he already holds. As a boy, he dreamed of owning a magic carpet. Now he designs helicopters and flies one to his oflice in a converted textile mill in Manchester, N.H. There, last month, Kamen, 49, was mum on Ginger but showed U.S. News another new invention. It’s a wheelchair that can climb stairs, balancing itself by using computers and gyroscopes—sort of like a magic carpet on wheels. A clue? Kamen holds one 1999 patent that applies similar technology to a stair-climbing, all-terrain, Razor-like scooter. Could he may -be even make a wheelchair fly? “Science is about why,” says Kamen. “Engine -ering is about why not.” He places himself squarely in the camp of the engine-ers..                                                                            -----with Katherine Hobson



January 22, 2001. (Pg. 45) 

450 W. 33rd Street, 11th floor

New York, N. Y. 10001


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