Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World

Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World

by Steve Kemper

"It's going to change the world."-Dean Kamen

They came from across the country and from the lab down the hall. Some left behind lucrative jobs, some moved their families. Each hand-picked engineer was drawn by the same irresistible lure: the chance to work with a brilliant, eccentric inventor on a secret project. Dean Kamen was already a millionaire


"It's going to change the world."-Dean Kamen

They came from across the country and from the lab down the hall. Some left behind lucrative jobs, some moved their families. Each hand-picked engineer was drawn by the same irresistible lure: the chance to work with a brilliant, eccentric inventor on a secret project. Dean Kamen was already a millionaire with an impressive list of medical inventions to his name, but none of them had excited him like his newest world-changer. Extraordinary things were happening inside his New Hampshire laboratory, things no one could find out about-at least not yet.

This is the unforgettable story of "Ginger," officially named the Segway Human Transporter: a self-balancing, electric-powered people mover that Kamen called "magic sneakers." With the pacing and excitement of a suspense novel, Code Name Ginger documents the birth of a marvelous new technology and the feats of its remarkable inventor, his team of engineers, and the financiers who pursued them.

Steve Kemper was the only journalist granted complete access to the Ginger project as the machine was designed, prototyped, and readied for manufacture. He takes us inside a world of ingenious engineering, in which improbable ideas become real: wheelchairs climb stairs, scooters balance on two wheels, polluted water is made clean. He reveals Kamen as few have seen him: in the heat of invention, racing against time, caught between his idealistic beliefs and his obsession to make Ginger a commercial success. He chronicles the wheeling and dealing of high-rolling investors and New Economy kingpins from John Doerr to Steve Jobs. And he delivers vital business lessons about leadership, entrepreneurship, marketing, and innovation while recounting a technological adventure that will be studied and argued about for decades.

For anyone who has ever wondered what it was like inside Thomas Edison's lab or the Wright Brothers' garage, here is the twenty-first century equivalent. Step inside Dean Kamen's laboratory and discover the thrills and risks of invention. The Segway's story, like the machine itself, is appreciated best by climbing aboard and taking a ride.

About the Author:
Steve Kemper is a journalist whose work has appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other magazines. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
It's an unusual occurrence for us to feature a business book in the Discover program, but Steve Kemper's riveting account of a modern-day invention offers a perfect segue between the history of an idea and great storytelling. It also provides irrefutable evidence to the contrary for those who think that tales of eccentric inventors can only be found in the pages of dusty history books.

Code Name Ginger is the enthralling story of Dean Kamen, a New Hampshire–based scientist who is equal parts Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and P. T. Barnum. Kamen came to the attention of the general public when he was caught up in a maelstrom of publicity surrounding his top-secret invention. Known by the code name "Ginger" or the acronym IT, Kamen's work-in-progress was touted by technology gurus as the most seminal achievement since the introduction of the internal combustion engine. In fact, Kamen was developing a self-balancing, battery-powered human transporter with a long-range plan to change the future of urban transportation.

Kemper's chronicle of the frantic and exhausting process of research and development that led to the introduction of Kamen's invention -- officially dubbed the Segway -- continually draws the reader ever deeper into this extraordinary story. And his engrossing book reveals Kamen as a 21st-century visionary who is remarkable as much for his paranoia and his ambition as he is for the sheer brilliance of his creation. (Fall 2003 Selection)

The New York Times
Kemper used his access well to write a fascinating account of the messy process of invention and bringing an innovative product to the marketplace...
Hippo Press
Kemper's book is a fast-paced, complex & fascinating look at the development of the Segway...
Harvard Business Review
a well-written, sharply observed narrative with a reassuring message for corporate managers.
The Washington Post
Code Name Ginger examines the snarls and knots of translating a working drawing into a working prototype, the dreams of success (projections of 31 million units in 10 to 15 years), strategies relating to financing and marketing (including secret meetings involving investors and would-be investors such as venture capitalist John Doerr, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and founder Jeff Bezos), deals made, deals unraveled, noses out of joint, noses stoically straightened -- all of it skillfully and compellingly written. — Merritt Ierley
...delivers the exciting behind-the-scenes story of bringing a dream to the marketplace.
June 2003
Wall Street Journal
... early chapters of 'Code Name Ginger are rich with stories about Mr. Kamen's zany brilliance and showmanship.
June 17, 2003
Popular Science
... [Steve] Kemper is at his best ...
July 2003
Fortune Magazine
To his credit, Kemper retains a sense of balance, portraying Kamen as a fascinating yet flawed idealist ..
July 7, 2003
San Jose Mercury News
... he documents it well in an intense, highly readable book.
June 22, 2003
New York Observer
What really makes the book's engine rev is the outsized personality of Dean Kamen, and the clash of ..
June 16, 2003
Boston Globe
...the book's portrayal of the passionate, eccentric subculture of engineering is fascinating...
June 15, 2003
Publishers Weekly
When, in 1999, journalist Kemper started following the efforts of Dean Kamen to invent a new type of transportation device, he could hardly have known the story would turn out to be at once enormous and tiny. Kamen, inventor of the Uber-hyped Segway (a two-wheeled scooter with an impressive self-balancing system), was already wealthy from earlier inventions (e.g., portable dialysis machines, drug-infusion pumps) when he set his boutique engineering firm to work on the Segway (or "Ginger"). Shrouded in secrecy from the beginning, the project quickly took on a messianic quality, with Kamen proclaiming Ginger would be the primary mode of transportation in a decade. The combination of a cool, mysterious new toy with the timing of the late years of the Internet gold rush created a venture capital feeding frenzy, with figures like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos clamoring to be a part of project Ginger. Kemper's rigorously fair-minded book, which gives all due credit to Kamen and his team, also records Ginger's endless delays, brought about by what he casts as a mixture of Kamen's egomaniacal hubris and his company's inability to think in practical terms (the project was shockingly far along before anyone considered what state regulators might think of the new vehicles that would soon vie for space on sidewalks). The last act is well known. Kemper's book proposal gets leaked and a media circus swirls around the secret world-changing project, only to collapse in a welter of "That's it?" disappointment. The result is a book that is eye-opening and heartbreaking. (June 15) Forecast: is the only current seller of Segways, and with a price tag of $4,950, they aren't selling like hotcakes. Still, that doesn't mean readers won't be interested in a book about the project's failure. This is HBS Press's lead title this season, and if the house promotes it to the right audience-early adopters and forward-thinking business readers-it might see decent sales. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Harvard Business Review Press
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Fifteen

West Coast Ambush
December 2000

Evidently, he's always late, said Aileen Lee, John Doerr's associate. It was almost 8:30 A.M., half an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, and everyone in the locked and guarded ballroom was still waiting for Steve Jobs. The December 8 meeting at the Hyatt Regency near the San Francisco airport had been Doerr's idea. He wanted Dean to brainstorm about Ginger with him and some friends, including Jobs and Jeff Bezos. The three billionaires could spare only a couple of hours, so Doerr's request required a long trip for a short meeting.

Brian Toohey didn't mind. Barely settled in as Ginger's new vice president of regulatory affairs, he was still dazzled by Dean's roster of acquaintances and it was worth some inconvenience to meet these West Coast business icons. Tim Adams and Mike Ferry felt a bit more jaded and exasperated. Traveling to and from San Francisco chopped two days out of a schedule with no fat in it. Tim and Mike also suspected, as did Dean, that Doerr was setting them up for an ambush on his home turf. But all of them also realized that people who invest $38 million sometimes need their hands held, so Tim, Mike, and Brian had each put together a PowerPoint presentation for what Tim called "another dog and pony show."

In addition to Jobs and Bezos, their audience would include Bob Tuttle, Dean's top lieutenant; Michael Schmertzler, representing the $38 million investment of Credit Suisse First Boston; Bill Sahlman, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Harvard Business School and the yenta who had introduced Dean to Doerr and other investors; and Vern Loucks, a minor investor in Ginger as well as a board member. Schmertzler had changed his mind about not coming, probably because of his evergreen suspicions of Doerr.

Brian, keyed up, got to the ballroom early to check the audiovisual equipment. By the time the others arrived, he had filled the screen with a giant photo of Dean, wearing jeans and sitting on an iBOT, smiling widely as he shook President Clinton's hand in the Oval Office.

The smile was missing as Dean pushed a tall hotel luggage carrier into the ballroom. The carrier held a couple of large black duffels, oddly protuberant, and some taped-up cardboard boxes, including an old Apple computer box. Dean instructed the security guard to lock the ballroom doors and not to let anyone enter without permission from someone inside. When the doors were locked, he opened the duffels and the boxes, removed a couple of chassis and control shafts, and assembled two D1 Gingers using a screwdriver and hex wrenches. He finished in ten minutes, turned one on, and began tearing around the ballroom, looking happier with every revolution. Jeff Bezos arrived. Dean zipped up to him, stopping sharply at his shoe tips. Bezos didn't flinch.

"See how much I trust you?" said Bezos.

"Is that good judgment?" said Dean.

Bezos claimed the other Ginger, and his laugh soon gusted through the ballroom. Doerr entered wearing casual clothes and old sneakers. Dean surrendered his Ginger to him. Everyone was having too much fun to mind Jobs's tardiness.

Dean didn't mind either, for other reasons. He had flown his jet to San Francisco yesterday, carrying the Gingers. A limo hired by Doerr had whisked him and the machines to Jobs's house, where the two of them spent the afternoon. Jobs did most of the talking. Ranting, really, about Ginger's design. So Dean more or less knew what Jobs was going to say today and wasn't in a great hurry to have the Ginger guys hear it.

The others were so intent on Ginger that they didn't notice Jobs walk in. He was dressed even more casually than Dean, in sneakers, a black turtleneck, and Levi's in which a white pocket poked out of a big front hole. There was a hole in his wallet pocket, too. Within a couple of minutes, after some quick introductions, everyone settled around the big square table, Jobs at one corner, flanked by Dean and Doerr.

"Good morning to everyone," said Tim, smiling at the front of the table.

"Before we start, we'd like to ask you to hold your questions until after each presentation."

"Yeah, right!" snorted Bezos, followed by that honking laugh.

"Otherwise we might as well not be here," said Jobs.

"How long is your presentation?" asked Doerr.

"Each pitch is about ten minutes."

"I can't do that," said Jobs. "I'm not built that way. So if you want me to leave, I will, but I can't just sit here."

Tim studied Jobs for a moment, then turned to the screen and put up a spec sheet about Metro and Pro. "As you can see--" began Tim.

"Let's talk about the bigger question," interrupted Jobs. "Why two machines?"

"Because I see a big problem here," said Jobs. "I was thinking about it all night. I couldn't sleep after Dean came over." There were notes scribbled on the palm of his hand. He explained his experience with the iMac, how there were four models now but he had launched with just one color to give his designers, salespeople, and the public an absolute focus. He had waited seven months to introduce the other models. Bezos and Doerr nodded as he spoke.

"You're sure your market is upscale consumers for transportation?" said Jobs.

"Yes, but we know that's a risk for us," said Tim, "because we could be perceived as a toy or a fad."

If they charged a few thousand dollars for the Metro and it was a hit, said Jobs, they could come out with the Pro later and charge double for industrial and military uses.

Tim's eyebrows shot up approvingly. He looked at Dean, whose face was a mask, so he turned elsewhere. "Mike?" he said, looking at Mike Ferry for a marketing opinion.

"It's a good point," said Mike, giving his usual noncommittal response.

"What does everyone think about the design?" asked Doerr, switching subjects.

"What do you think?" said Jobs to Tim. It was a challenge, not a question.

"I think it's coming along," said Tim, "though we expect--"

"I think it sucks!" said Jobs.

His vehemence made Tim pause. "Why?" he asked, a bit stiffly.

"It just does."

"In what sense?" said Tim, getting his feet back under him. "Give me a clue."

"Its shape is not innovative, it's not elegant, it doesn't feel anthropomorphic," said Jobs, ticking off three of his design mantras. "You have this incredibly innovative machine but it looks very traditional."

The last word delivered like a stab. Doug Field and Scott Waters would have felt the wound; they admired Apple's design sense. Dean's intuition not to bring Doug had been right. "There are design firms out there that could come up with things we've never thought of," Jobs continued, "things that would make you shit in your pants."

There wasn't much to say to that, so after a pause Tim began again: "Well, let's keep going, because we don't have much time today to--"

"We do have time," said Doerr curtly, changing his own ground rules. "We want to get Steve's and Jeff's ideas."

"The problem at this point is lead time in our schedule," said Tim. Jobs snapped his head from Doerr on one side to Dean on the other, as if he'd been slapped. "That's backwards," he said, his voice rising. "Screw the lead times. You don't have a great product yet! I know burn rates are important, but you'll only get one shot at this, and if you blow it, it's over." Agitated, he turned to Bezos. "Jeff, what do you think?"

"I think we'd do a disservice to the machine if we didn't give a great design firm a chance," said Bezos in a calm, soft voice, trying to lower the volume. "I think Steve is right -- that as he so elegantly put it, they could do things that would make us shit in our pants." Jobs grunted.

After another pause, Tim moved on to the issue of service, determined to move ahead despite the punches coming at him. Within two sentences, Jobs was on him again. Tim put up his next slide, about the new plant, but again Jobs came at him with a flurry of half-insolent questions. Where are you building a plant? Why are you building a plant? Why are you manufacturing the machine yourselves?

Partly, explained Tim, because giving our code to someone else would be a great risk. Not a good reason, in Jobs's view, because the code could easily be reverse-engineered. No it couldn't, said Tim. Could, said Jobs. He added that Tim should be spending money and management time on other things, especially since there was no way he could convince any world-class manufacturing and procurement people to move to New Hampshire, for God's sake, his tone implying that only slow-witted rubes could bear such a place. Dean lifted an eyebrow.

"We have an adequate staff", said Tim defensively, but it sounded as weak as the adjective. Tim had lost control of the meeting. That was probably Doerr's plan all along. Dean sat silently, offering no help or defense as Jobs rampaged through Tim's presentation.

Brian Toohey spoke next, on the regulatory obstacles Ginger would face and how he intended to overcome them. Brian was a big, burly man who knew how to boom his voice, which may explain why he got two minutes into his spiel before Jobs began interrupting. Doerr suggested that instead of going through each slide, everyone should "take a study hall and read the deck" that Brian had handed out, then ask questions. Bezos had already read it, so he started chatting quietly (for him) with Dean.

"Jeff, have you read the entire deck?" said Doerr in a schoolmaster's voice.

"Yes, John, I have," said Bezos, amused.

When the study hall ended, Bezos held up Brian's handout. "I think this plan is dead on arrival," he said. "The U.S.A. is too hostile." The "car guys" were going to lobby against Ginger and they were going to win.

"No they're not," said Brian, smiling.

Bezos suggested starting slow, using one city or country as an experimental station. Once Ginger's benefits were clear, the company would have a wedge to pound into U.S. regulations. The perfect place to begin, thought Bezos, was Singapore. "You only have to convince one guy, the philosopher king, and then you have four million people to test it."

Vern Loucks, who had been quietly watching the fireworks up to this point, said, "You mean Gob Click Tong. He's not a king, he's the prime minister. I can get us in to see him if we want to do that," he added.

Michael Schmertzler hadn't said much. Now he asked when they should instigate a strategic leak to arouse interest in the product.

But Jobs was still shaking his head at Bezos's suggestion. Because of the Internet, he said, slow was no longer possible. People would learn about Ginger in a flash of bits and bytes, and would want one now. So a small launch in a foreign place was foolish, because if the machine was unavailable in the United States, the company would blow its chance for $100 million of free publicity in its biggest market. Plus, Singapore was a nest of pirates, and the company would end up spending a fortune fighting them. If the company wanted a slow, controlled launch, better to start on a handful of U.S. college campuses.

"If you show this to Hennessy," Jobs said to Doerr, referring to John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford University and a world-class engineer, "he'll shit in his pants." Evidently Hennessy did that more readily than Jobs did. "And if you offer to give him a hundred of them if he'll run a safety study and a usage study, that's a done deal in ten minutes," continued Jobs. "You do that at ten colleges and maybe at Disney, so people can see them but not buy them."

But he warned that even this sort of slow launch was filled with dangers. If one stupid kid at Stanford hurt himself using a Ginger and then announced online that the machine sucked, the company was sunk, because there was no way to control that or counter it if people couldn't ride one for themselves. With a big fast launch, on the other hand, a few malcontents wouldn't be heard above the general hoopla. "I understand the appeal of a slow burn," he concluded, "but personally I'm a big-bang guy." For the first time that day he smiled. "The risk with a fast burn," he continued, "is that it exposes you to your enemies. You're going to need a lot of money to fight thieves."

"We have a few things they can't get," said Dean. "Specialty components with only one source."

"They'll figure out a way around that," said Jobs.

"I've spent nine years looking," said Dean, "and I don't think so."

"I think the emphasis of this conversation is wrong," said Bezos. "You have a product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it. The question is, are people going to be allowed to use it?"

Jobs said he lived seven minutes from a grocery and wasn't sure he would use Ginger to get there. Bezos agreed. Schmertzler wondered if it might be wiser to start with commercial sales. Bezos liked the idea -- it was safer and could give the business a solid foundation for growth.

By then it was 10:30. Bezos and Jobs had to leave. As they stood, Dean rose too. He had been almost silent, listening to Jobs like everyone else. Now he thanked Jobs and Bezos for coming. "This is the most energetic discussion we've ever had," he said, "and like all good energetic discussions it leaves you with more questions than answers, and leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew." He paused. "And that's good."

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