A silhouette of a man and an object can be seen on a curtain that's beginning to be pulled back.
What was behind the curtain? Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.
Life

“This Is Going to Change the World”

As the new millennium dawned, a mysterious invention from a charismatic millionaire became a viral sensation—then went down in flames. Ever since, I’ve wondered: Was it all my fault?

In January of 2001, a startup news website broke a huge technology story: A charismatic millionaire was secretly developing an incredible invention, one that would change the world, in his lab in New Hampshire. The news came via a leaked, secret book proposal, which had just sold to the academic publisher Harvard Business School Press for $250,000. Within hours, the story was everywhere.

The proposal quoted Steve Jobs saying the invention would be “as significant as the personal computer.” Jeff Bezos said it was “revolutionary.” But what was surprising about the book deal wasn’t merely the praise the invention and its inventor, Dean Kamen, garnered from tech world luminaries. It wasn’t merely the substantial investment the inventor had received from famed venture capitalist John Doerr, the largest in the firm Kleiner Perkins’ history. What stood out most of all was the detail that Harvard was paying a quarter-million dollars for the book—and it didn’t even know what the invention was. The inventor was paranoid about leaks, and the book’s author withheld that information from the proposal. No one—not even the literary agent who had submitted the proposal to editors, swearing them to secrecy—knew what the invention was. All they knew was the single word of the book’s title: IT.

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The tech bubble was bursting, and all across Silicon Valley, paper fortunes were vanishing. Now here was something different, something that felt new because it was old: a real invention, not just lines of HTML. Soon IT was on Lycos, on NPR, in the New York Times, on late-night talk shows. An IT message board thrown onto the internet by two entrepreneurial brothers received 100,000 hits in its first 24 hours. The explosion of the IT story in the winter and spring of 2001 represented an entirely new kind of media frenzy, the birth of virality as we now know it.

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And then IT, too, popped. In December 2001, a year after the initial leak, the world finally learned what IT was, as Dean Kamen presented his invention on Good Morning America. With great fanfare, an actual curtain raised to reveal a bulky two-wheeled scooter.

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“The Segway,” Kamen announced proudly.

“That’s it?” Diane Sawyer asked. “That can’t be it.”

The Segway did not change the world. It was not bigger than the PC. It ended up a joke, the province of mall cops and G.O.B. Bluth on Arrested Development. The Segway flopped so badly that one of its first boosters still keeps his in the garage, “to remind me,” he said, “of my own fallibility.”

The Segway also reminds me of my fallibility. To this day, thinking about it fills me with dread. That’s because in 2001, I was a young literary agent—and Dean Kamen’s book was my first-ever big deal. The cascading series of miscues that tanked the Segway began with that book proposal, its leak, and the ensuing hype. And I’ve always had a sick sense that the leak was somehow my fault. So I set out to report the story, to wade back into the mess I made when I got in way over my head, and to figure out once and for all the answer to a question that’s eaten at me for 20 years: Did I kill the Segway?

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Listen to another version of this story on Slate’s Decoder Ring:

I still remember the phone call. My boss, Rafe Sagalyn, was sitting behind his desk in the little office in Bethesda, Maryland, where I went to work every day. Rafe was, and still is, a big-deal literary agent, representing scores of Washington journalists and business consultants. Behind him was the wall of books he’d sold over the decades, books whose authors I talked to on the phone all the time: David Maraniss, Jane Mayer, Chris Matthews. One shelf held a rainbow of international editions of Megatrends, the megaselling 1980s business tome by John Naisbitt that was Rafe’s first big hit, the one that, he said, “paid for my house.”

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I sat in a chair on the opposite side of Rafe’s desk, the speakerphone between us. I’d organized this call, a big deal for me. I’d been working my way through grad school as Rafe’s assistant for a few years by then, and he was encouraging me to take the next step, to find authors of my own to represent. It was 1999, and I was 24 years old, freshly married, ambitious as hell. I read every magazine that came into the office, listened to NPR, and combed through the slush pile in search of a book idea I could sell.

That’s why Steve Kemper was on the phone. Steve was a freelance journalist who’d built a modest career writing for newspapers and magazines. He’d long wanted to write a book and had bounced around ideas with a few other agents but not yet sold a proposal. I read a feature he wrote for Smithsonian magazine about the global importance of salt, and thought: That’s a book. Microhistories—books that used some small, important innovation, like longitude or the pencil, to explain the world—were the big new thing in book publishing. An author named Mark Kurlansky had just had a hit with a book about cod, of all things, making the case that this humble fish unlocked a new understanding about the way the oceans and the world economy worked.

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I spent a month working with Steve on a proposal for a book about salt, a substance that had encouraged the growth of civilization and contributed to the rise and fall of empires. Then we learned that a publisher had just made a big deal for a history of salt to be written by … Mark Kurlansky.

Never mind that, Steve said. He had another great story, one no one could scoop him on. It was about an inventor named Dean Kamen, who had made his name by inventing the drug infusion pump and the first portable dialysis machine. He was a millionaire many times over, lived in a mansion in New Hampshire, and had his own private island. Now he had come up with his greatest invention yet.

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Steve had once written a profile of Kamen, and recently Kamen had invited Steve up to the Manchester headquarters of his R&D company, DEKA—for DEan KAmen—telling him, “This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on.”

Now, as Rafe and I listened, Steve told us that the new technology was absolutely revolutionary. “This invention is going to change the world,” he said, his voice crackling over the speaker from his house in Connecticut. He was a mild-mannered guy, generally, but he was fervent about this. “I have complete access to the whole thing. The engineers, the designers, Dean.”

“OK, well, what is the invention?” Rafe asked.

“I can’t tell you,” Steve said.

Rafe looked up at me, eyebrows raised. “Well, how do you expect us to get you a book deal?” he said.

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Dean Kamen hated high school math. The problems were so easy he could do them in his head, so teachers were forever accusing him of cheating. His classmates would brag about getting A’s on tests and he’d say, Any chump can get an A on that test. Watch me—I’ll get exactly a 57. And then he did.

What he loved was building things. While he was still in high school on Long Island, he built audiovisual and lighting systems for rock shows and corporate conferences. A few years out of high school, he made the world’s first drug infusion pump in his parents’ basement, out of parts he bought at RadioShack. That invention changed health care forever, and soon Kamen did what any rich inventor with an anti-authoritarian streak would do: He moved to New Hampshire, where taxes were low and regulation was scant. He bought a mansion and a helicopter and, when he didn’t love the helicopter, the helicopter company. By the 1990s he was rich enough, and well-connected enough, that North Dumpling Island—his island off the coast of New York, which Kamen had declared its own sovereign kingdom—had signed a mutual nonaggression pact with the first George Bush. It even had its own national anthem, sung to the tune of “America the Beautiful”:

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North Dumpling, North Dumpling,

Keep lawyers far from thee!

And MBAs, and bureaucrats,

That we may all be free!

“Dean was a great character,” Steve Kemper said when I reconnected with him this spring. “Dean’s quotable, he’s independent, he’s a little bit crazy.” Kamen wore jeans and work boots everywhere, accessorized with an army jacket whose pockets Kamen filled with tools and screws that always set off metal detectors at, for instance, the White House. He knew everything about science and nothing about anything else; after that dinner at the White House, he asked friends if they knew anything about the people he’d been seated with, who turned out to be Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine.

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With DEKA, Kamen built a wonderland for ambitious engineers in a set of riverside warehouses that Kamen bought for a song. “Dean is the best possible boss you can have,” Steve remembered one engineer telling him, “because he says, do whatever you want, fail, fail, fail over and over, but learn something and then try something else.” To Kamen, experiments that don’t work—“frog-kissing,” he called it—are as important to the work of engineering as the solutions that do work. “If you’re not failing,” Steve said, “you’re not doing the work that Dean wants you to do. He’s expecting spectacular failures, because that means you’re thinking big.”

What made Kamen inspiring to work for, Benge Ambrogi recalled, was his ambition and his brilliance. Ambrogi was an engineer at DEKA for 13 years. “I wouldn’t call Dean an engineer,” he said. “I’d call him an explorer of the natural world. He’s amazing in his ability to pull things back to first principles”—those physical relationships between matter and energy, the Newtonian formulas that represent centuries of understanding of the way the world works. “Dean understands that stuff, just, like, in his fiber,” Ambrogi said. “And so he can take that fundamental understanding of how the world works and then take it five levels up.”

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Dean Kamen sits in an iBot wheelchair in the Oval Office while showing a binder to Bill Clinton.
Dean Kamen shows off the iBot, DEKA’s stair-climbing wheelchair, to President Bill Clinton in the White House in 2000. Executive Office of the President of the United States

Kamen’s bone-deep understanding of first principles meant he was always looking for a more elegant solution. Engineers at the company shared stories of presenting a prototype and having Kamen suddenly blurt out some totally surprising idea that a) was absolutely brilliant and b) would absolutely send the whole team down a yearlong rabbit hole and delay the project. One engineer told me that Kamen liked to say, “Anything worth doing takes at least a decade.”

Like that other lover of first principles, Archimedes, Kamen had his eureka moment in the bathtub—or in his case, getting out of the shower. He slipped and windmilled his arms to regain his balance, which made him think about how humans balance ourselves. We instinctively understand how to shift our weight and change our stance; we even, in walking, propel ourself into small, controlled falls forward, each interrupted by the next step. If he could build a machine that could balance like a person does, it could have incredible applications; imagine a wheelchair that can stand up straight on two wheels or even climb stairs. How many lives would that change?

In the early 1990s, engineers at DEKA, including Ambrogi, started the long, slow work of turning Kamen’s eureka moment into an actual product. The seemingly simple idea was fiendishly complicated in practice: Replicating the gyroscopes of our inner ears and the processing power of our brains requires a machine to make ten thousand measurements and calculations every second.

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After a few years of work, the group had a couple of prototypes: a stair-climbing machine that could, with great effort, make its way up a set of wooden stairs the team had built in the lab. And a load-balancing machine, a sort of coffee table on two wheels. You could set something on it, and the machine would sense the uneven weight and rotate the wheels enough to balance it.

And then, one day, one of the engineers jumped on the coffee table, and away he zoomed.

“It was just so primitive, but beautiful,” Ambrogi remembered. “Your body is the joystick. You lean forward, it goes forward. The more lean you have, the faster it goes. And you lean back and it slows down.” Engineers took turns zipping around the lab on their new toy. “It was a complete revelation,” Ambrogi said, “how it felt like a natural extension of your body.” The stair-climbing wheelchair remained the team’s primary goal, the product they imagined would one day make money. But the engineers loved their toy, and refining that coffee table on wheels became their nights-and-weekends project.

Soon Kamen decided the time had come to take the wheelchair project behind closed doors. He had an inventor’s paranoia that as soon as someone else found out about his best ideas, they would steal them. The project needed a code name, which came from the odd, elegant, dancing motion the wheelchair made when it spun in a circle. “Like Fred Astaire,” someone said, and someone else said, “Fred Upstairs,” and so it became Fred. And that name, in turn, inspired the name of the spinoff doohickey that engineers loved to ride down the halls of DEKA. Who dances with Fred? Ginger, of course.

In 1995, Kamen sold Fred, the wheelchair, to Johnson & Johnson, and turned his attention to Ginger. Ginger became its own secret department at DEKA, its engineers given resources and attention that made them the envy of other employees. This time, though, Kamen didn’t want to sell the idea to some big company and move on. No, Ginger was too important. Ginger could solve the problem of city travel. It could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and free our cities from the scourge of the automobile. It could change the world. Dean Kamen planned to manufacture and sell the product himself.

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DEKA filed patent after patent for Ginger’s technology. Kamen hired procurement experts, software developers, manufacturing engineers, even a small marketing team. Eventually Kamen would lease a 77,000-square-foot factory in Manchester that would, he planned, be able to push out 6,000 Gingers a week. Meanwhile, Ginger’s team worked to transform the janky prototypes, made of plastic wagon wheels and store-bought circuit boards, into a product someone would buy. An industrial designer preached the gospel of elegance and simplicity, pushing the engineers to make things smaller, more efficient, more sleek. The code was written, rewritten, refined. Safety was paramount: Kamen worried that one high-profile breakdown would sink the project, and the engineers at the company used what they’d learned about making FDA-regulated medical devices like the dialysis machine to build something that could survive anything a rider could throw at it. Kamen even hired a lobbyist to begin the process of convincing local and national governments that Ginger was safe enough to ride on the sidewalk—that on a policy level it would be viewed like a better version of walking, not like a bike. After all, said Kamen when he invited Steve Kemper, the journalist, to Manchester in 1999: Once people tried a Ginger, “Who’s gonna want to walk?”

Kamen made Steve sign a nondisclosure agreement, then keycarded him into the Ginger offices on the top floor of the warehouse. “It was not impressive,” Steve remembered. “It was held together with duct tape and there were little jagged edges and little toy wheels on it, like from a wagon.” But when he stepped onto Ginger and rode it, “it was like a magic carpet.”

Everyone I talked to about the Ginger remembered their wondrous first ride. Kamen counted on it. He knew that everyone got this dopey grin once they started zooming around. That was when Kamen knew he had his hooks in you. He used the same technique on Steve that he was already using on potential manufacturing partners, employees he was trying to lure to Manchester, and, most importantly, investors. “And then he’s trotting alongside you, still pitching,” Steve recalled. “ ‘This is Ginger, people are going to be Gingering to the store, Gingering to work, Gingering to the subway. It’s going to be a verb. It’s going to be a new concept, a new verb, a new world.’

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“Basically, I drank the Kool-Aid,” Steve said, chuckling. “He is the most incredible salesperson you’ll ever see in your life. I saw him sell everybody, and he sold me for sure.”

Kamen told Steve that he thought the creation of Ginger was so momentous that someone ought to write a book about it, and offered to pay Steve to do it. Steve said no—but that, as a journalist, he’d write the book if Kamen gave him total access and total creative control. He’d write it on spec, until he could find a publisher.

That’s when he emailed me.

At the end of our phone call with Steve, Rafe and I walked out to pick up lunch at a Cajun sandwich shop we both liked. Steve’s book seemed so exciting, and so impossible. But Rafe thought it was worth pursuing, and he told me he thought I should be the book’s lead agent. I emailed Steve and told him: Keep reporting, and we’ll figure out how to sell this thing. Somehow.

“You just had a real passion for this,” Rafe said when I talked to him this spring. My old boss is still an agent, his one-man shop acquired by ICM. “We were doing it together, but you were taking the lead.” Rafe had high hopes for me at the agency, he told me, and saw me not just as an assistant but as a full-fledged agent in waiting. “The question was, does this person have the sensibility—intellectual and business—to, you know, elevate to being an agent? And I thought you had all those qualities.” He paused. “And, I don’t know, for some reason you took a different path.”

Through 2000, Steve Kemper visited DEKA two days a week, observing the engineers hard at work and attending every major investor meeting with Kamen. Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, everything was falling apart. The dot-com bubble was popping. The Nasdaq reached its highest level in March, and from then on dozens of web companies saw their fortunes plummet. Take Pets.com, which in January aired an expensive Super Bowl ad, in February launched a disappointing IPO, and by November was declaring bankruptcy. In the same magazines and websites that had breathlessly touted these companies as the businesses of the future, commentators suddenly scoffed at the fact that anyone had ever believed in them, said Margaret O’Mara, a historian of Silicon Valley and the author of The Code. “Of course, there’s a lot of rather gleeful, you know, ‘Oh, you guys got too far out over your skis,’ ” she said. “It turns out it’s really hard to sell dog food on the internet.” The employees who’d moved to the Bay on the promise of stock options contributed rumors and gripes to a website called Fucked Company and watched their Potemkin fortunes disappear.

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Kamen had always taken a dim view of the dot-com boom. “He thought it was a ridiculous waste of talent and money, compared to engineering,” Steve said. “You couldn’t see what the invention was, you couldn’t touch it.”

But as the titans of Silicon Valley started looking for new projects to invest in, Kamen, despite his disdain, started turning to them. Why? He needed money. By 2000, DEKA had been working on Ginger for five years, and Kamen was burning through a half-million dollars of his own money each month. R&D is expensive, especially when you make your engineers chase every brilliant idea you have in search of the most elegant solution. With the help of a Harvard Business School professor named William Sahlman and the investment firm Credit Suisse, Kamen had scraped together $30 million or so, but he needed more.

It started with John Doerr, the legendary head of the venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins. Doerr had been an early investor in Amazon, and after Kamen pitched him at a TED conference, he flew his private jet out to Manchester. As soon as he rode Ginger, he got that same dopey grin. The next day he was sending Kamen mash notes over email—“Thanks for the scope of your ambition, which is breathtaking, and inspirational”—and pressing to let him invest more and more in Ginger. In the end, Kleiner Perkins pledged $38 million for about 7.5 percent of the company, and Doerr started calling his rich and famous friends.

And that’s how, in the fall of 2000, Steve—who’d thought he was chronicling a simple engineering story—suddenly found himself in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency near the San Francisco airport, watching a laughing Jeff Bezos ride around on a Ginger and Steve Jobs yell about how if they’d hired real designers, Ginger would look so cool it would make people shit their pants. Then, Steve recalled, they turned on the team of Ginger employees in the room, clearly conveying the feeling that they were rubes whose inexperience and idiocy would sink this world-changing product. It was an ambush, Steve thought, a way for Doerr to persuade Kamen that what his product needed was the Silicon Valley expertise and money that only he could deliver.

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In a very short period of time, Kamen went from mortgaging his house to pay for Ginger to not only having enough—thanks to the Kleiner Perkins investment—but having extremely famous people begging to give him even more millions of dollars. Jobs alone wanted to invest $60 million and couldn’t believe it when Kamen turned him down; Kamen didn’t want to give up that much control. Jobs agreed to take a spot on the board in hopes of convincing Kamen to let him invest in a second round. Doerr predicted that five years after it launched, Ginger would be valued at $5 billion.

But Kamen’s obsession with secrecy was slowing everything down. DEKA couldn’t hire enough engineers because Kamen only wanted people who would come to Manchester on faith. The marketing guys couldn’t conduct market research because they couldn’t tell anyone what the product was. (Kamen belittled his marketing team, calling them “the Three Marketeers,” and then never gave them the resources to do their job.) At this point, nearly everyone wished Kamen would stop being so secretive about Ginger so they could begin to get the project out the door. Twice, one of Kamen’s investors said to Steve Kemper, “I think what we really need is a sexy leak.”

But Kamen wasn’t having it. That inventor’s paranoia again—he was convinced that if Honda or Ford got wind of Ginger, they’d build their own and release it before he could. He was holding on tight. But Ginger was about to be an impossible secret to keep.

When Steve Kemper told Rafe Sagalyn and me about that West Coast ambush, we all agreed it was time to sell the book. Steve had been reporting at DEKA for a year and a half, and he needed to know that he was going to see a return on his time. Suddenly this was no longer a mysterious invention that some reporter insisted was going to be big—it was a product that the biggest names in the business were fighting to throw money at. It was news.

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Steve wrote up the hotel meeting by SFO as a sample chapter, carefully excising details of what the invention was. “When the doors were locked,” the chapter read, Kamen “opened the duffels and the boxes, removed some components, and used a screwdriver and hex wrenches to assemble two Gingers. He finished in ten minutes, turned one on, and [sorry, blacked out].”

The chapter was funny, dishy, and canny. Now it was up to me to persuade publishers to take the risk of buying a book about a secret technology, even though Steve couldn’t tell them what it was—even though he hadn’t even told me what it was. So Steve and I came up with a book proposal. I still have a copy. It’s really good. It includes that juicy sample chapter, but it’s set up by a series of ginned-up emails between me and Steve: me playing the doubting Thomas, and him convincing me, over time, that this invention was real and would indeed change the world.

To: Steve Kemper

From: Dan Kois

December 20, 1999

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been swamped, and besides, I’m not sure what to say to you. This is very frustrating. All this dramatic vagueness. Kamen is just too secretive. You act like he invented the wheel. Does he have investors? What do they say? Or is that off-limits too? Give me something concrete to tell publishers.

=======

To: Dan Kois

From: Steve Kemper

Date: March 25, 2000

Dan—

My turn to apologize. I was gone in January and have been catching up.

No, Kamen didn’t invent the wheel, but people far smarter than I who have seen Ginger believe that people will talk about Kamen the way they once talked about Henry Ford. John Doerr thinks Kamen will do for the 21st century what Ford did for the 20th, and he calls Kamen a combination of Ford and Edison.

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“Smoke and mirrors,” Steve said when we discussed it this spring. “I just had to make it so enticing that instead of an editor saying, ‘Well, this is crazy, I don’t know what I’m buying,’ they’d say, ‘This is crazy, and how do I get in on it?’ ”

By New Year’s 2001, we had the entire package ready to go. Rafe made the list of editors we’d submit the book to, but the submission was going to come from me. “You taking the lead made it even more perfect,” Rafe said, “because you weren’t a known entity to these editors. It was perfectly in theme with what we were doing.”

Not only was I an unknown to all the editors I was sending the proposal to; by this point I didn’t even live in the continental United States. My wife had graduated from law school and gotten a clerkship with a federal judge in Honolulu, so we’d just moved to the ground floor of a little house on top of a mountain, with a view from [gestures left] Diamond Head to [gestures right] Pearl Harbor. For some reason, Rafe let me keep working for him, even though I was five time zones behind the East Coast.

So here I was, an unknown agent, on an island in the middle of the Pacific, preparing to send this book proposal about a mystery invention out to editors I’d never met. At the last minute, Rafe had come up with the title: IT. Like, just the pronoun it. It was so last-minute, we didn’t even tell Steve about it.

The day after New Year’s, at 8 a.m. Hawaii time, I sat down in that little office and prepared myself. I knew what to do. I’d seen Rafe do it dozens of times. I scribbled out a little list of Things to Say to Editors, and I dialed a bunch of 212 numbers. When each editor said, “Sure, I’ll take a look,” I’d email the proposal with a note reminding them how secret it was. Please don’t share, I said.

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At the end of the day, after I’d emailed the last editor, I exhaled, drove downtown, and met my wife at a bar in Ala Moana for Taco Tuesday. All the clerks gossiped about their judges, but I just drank margaritas and smiled about this secret thing I was doing.

That night, while I was asleep, I heard the office phone ringing, and when I got up the next morning I already had messages on my answering machine. Holy shit, I thought. It’s happening. Most of the responses were from the big trade houses—all those 212 numbers—but I’d also sent the proposal to an editor named Hollis Heimbouch at Harvard Business School Press, an academic publisher of leadership books and business case studies.

“I just remember reading it and saying, Wow, this is incredible,” Heimbouch, now the publisher of Harper Business, recalled. “I’m thinking, Wow, I’d love to publish this, and then thinking, Wow, could we ever publish that here?”

The big publishers were interested, but with a caveat. Editors wanted to be able to get out of the deal if, when they learned what IT was, they didn’t think it was cool enough. But Heimbouch wasn’t worried about that, she said. “I didn’t really care that much about what it was, truthfully,” she said. “I just thought, what an amazing opportunity to see that story unfold, the process of innovation.” And so just a few days after sending out the proposal, we sold IT to Hollis Heimbouch and Harvard Business School Press for $250,000.

Two hundred! And fifty! Thousand dollars! I couldn’t believe it. Rafe, of course, was focused on how much we could’ve made if only we could have told people what the invention actually was. But I was over the moon. Just like Rafe always did when he made a big deal, I emailed a bunch of co-agents and foreign rights scouts, the people who help agents make translation deals.

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Steve, too, was thrilled. His hard work was paying off, and he was going to get to tell an incredible story. “That night, I went up to a big banquet at Dean’s house,” he said. “I was very excited, and I told Dean about it, and he was very excited. And then like three days later, it all blew up.”

“It was this funny hinge moment, between the old and the new,” said Kurt Andersen, a founder of Inside.com, the website that broke the IT story. “It was suddenly the future.” The mission of Inside.com, which Andersen founded with Michael Hirschorn, was to report on the media, entertainment, and technology industries with a gimlet eye. “We had this idea of a kind of knowing, smart, fun, journalistic thing,” Andersen told me, “that would cover all these worlds in a way that, it seemed to us, neither the trade magazines or the New York magazines of the world covered with sufficient rigor, closeness, knowledge, knowingness, whatever.” Andersen and Hirschorn hired away reporters and columnists from big outlets—the Wall Street Journal, New York—“because it was the dot-com era, and we could convince people to leave good jobs” for a startup that seemed internet-adjacent, on the promise of stock options.

For the first months of its existence, Inside.com struggled to capture the attention of general readers. And then in the first days of 2001, an Inside.com writer named PJ Mark heard about our book deal and got his hands on the proposal for IT. On Jan. 9, three days after the deal, the site ran with the story, and ran with it big, with a big headline: “What Is IT? Book Proposal Heightens Intrigue About Secret Invention Touted as Bigger Than the Internet or PC.”

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The post broke down the business details of the deal but mostly focused on the proposal’s secrecy. “Though there are no specifics in the proposal as to what the invention is, there are some tantalizing clues,” Mark wrote. “Is IT an energy source? Some sort of environmentally friendly personal transport device? One editor who saw the proposal went as far as to speculate—jokingly (perhaps)—that IT was a type of personal hovering craft.”

For Steve, the news came via a phone call from a reporter at his local paper, the Hartford Courant, asking him questions that could only have come from the book proposal. “How do you know these things?” Steve asked. “Oh,” the reporter replied, “you don’t know that your proposal’s been leaked?” Compounding Steve’s confusion: The reporter kept referring to the invention as “IT,” until Steve, who still didn’t know about our title change, asked, “What is IT?”

It was a perfect scoop for Inside.com, and the perfect story for its moment. As the dot-com bubble was bursting, here was an actual invention, from an inventor, like Thomas Edison or something. “It wasn’t, you know, bits and bytes,” said Andersen. “It was this physical thing.” The story got picked up everywhere: the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, the BBC. On Good Morning America, a tech bigmouth named Bob Metcalfe claimed he’d seen IT, and IT was bigger than the internet. (Kamen, irritated, told Steve he’d never shown Ginger to Bob Metcalfe.) On NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Juan Williams asked a Wired editor, “So you think it might be some kind of anti-gravity device?” It was one of the first genuinely viral stories on the internet, so viral they were talking about it on the news.

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And on the internet, IT was inescapable. Witness this trapped-in-amber artifact of early–21st century virality, the Lycos 50 blog post, a kind of proto–trending topics index of what people were searching for on the Lycos search engine. IT was No. 4 for the week ending Jan. 13, behind only Dragonball, Britney Spears, and Napster. The blogger, Aaron Schatz, wrote:

This week was a textbook example of how the Internet speeds information distribution faster than anyone can figure out what the information is. … At the beginning of the week hardly anyone had heard of IT or Dean Kamen. By week’s end, IT became more popular than the NFL (#6) or Las Vegas (#8), and inventor Kamen outpaced Pamela Anderson (#16) and Eminem (#18).

Inside.com, seeing the splash its scoop made, moved quickly to flood the zone. “It was huge for us,” Andersen said. Inside ran a post with Kamen’s offended response to the leak, then another post parsing Kamen’s response for clues. It ran a post about IT hype, then another post asking if IT was overhyped. And Andersen was ready to use the IT story to build his new startup even bigger. He and Hirschorn wanted to launch a print magazine to soak up the print advertising money that was flowing to anything that even resembled technology. They were friends with John Battelle, the founder of the wildly successful Industry Standard, a print magazine about internet culture. “It was a weekly!” Andersen marveled. “A weekly, and it was bulging with advertising. They literally, I think, didn’t have enough editorial content to put between the ads.” He laughed. “We figured, we know how to do magazines. And they’re barely online, yet they are making a gazillion dollars with a weekly print magazine.”

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A patent application drawing of a woman on a scooter.
One of the patent application images that crashed theitquestion.com’s servers. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office/Newsmakers

Inside Magazine’s debut issue published in February. On the cover: “WHAT ‘IT’ IS.” The author of the story, a freelancer named Adam Penenberg, had combed domain-name registrations and public patent records, and was positive he’d figured out the answer: IT was a hydrogen-powered scooter. “I was on, like, every show for a week,” Penenberg told me. “I was on the Today show with Katie Couric. I don’t know how many hundreds of interviews I must have done that week.”

Dean Kamen hadn’t been careful enough for the new world of the internet. All those patents he filed? His inventor’s paranoia backfired. In an earlier time, a journalist would have had to do a lot more legwork to dig up those patents, but now they were all right there on the patent office’s website.

Penenberg may have basically worked out that Ginger was a scooter, but plenty of people didn’t believe it. Or maybe it was just more fun to speculate like crazy. Some of that speculation happened on sites like Slashdot, where one poster, for example, correctly pegged that the name Ginger was meaningful—but then declared authoritatively that IT was a hoverboard, because the Ginger in question was the heroine of the animated movie Chicken Run, who is convinced she can teach chickens to fly.

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But most of the speculation happened on one IT-specific site run by the brothers James and Greg Bottorff. The Bottorffs already ran websites like Bargainflix.com, a price comparison tool for online DVD sales, and PS2Bargains.com. The sites were successful enough that Greg had quit his job as a pharmaceutical rep to manage them full time, but nothing prepared them for the frenzy that met theitquestion.com.

In its first 24 hours online, theitquestion.com—just a collection of links and a message board for speculation and argument—racked up 100,000 hits. About a week after it launched, a user found some drawings of a person riding a scooter in a DEKA patent application, and the Bottorffs uploaded the images to the site. When Time magazine linked to the images, Greg remembered, the servers crashed in the middle of the night. “I had to race out to where our servers were physically housed,” he said, “and renegotiate our deal.”

Everyone was so hungry for speculation about IT that the Bottorffs started being quoted in the media as experts, Greg recalled. “James and I would laugh about the fact that, you know, he’s sitting in Cincinnati, I’m sitting in my spare bedroom in Raleigh. We have no idea what’s going on. All we did was put a board up and now we’re the world experts on this new invention.”

IT even made it onto South Park. In the Season 5 episode “The Entity,” Mr. Garrison invents a revolutionary new transportation device called IT, which gets over 300 miles to the gallon. “We’re going to have to rethink cities,” marvels Steve Jobs, echoing our book proposal. In classic South Park style, the only wrinkle is that IT is controlled by the rider with four levers shaped like penises: one held in each hand, one in the mouth, and one in the anus, “to keep the driver in place.”

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All of this hubbub felt completely new, a wild confluence of the internet and old media birthing something we’d never had before. A print magazine spun off from a website that had scoured online patent applications. Venerable Time magazine crashing a tiny little fan site because it didn’t bother uploading its own images. TV shows making jokes about things they read online. In the wreckage of Web 1.0, the new internet was stirring.

To Rafe Sagalyn, a seasoned agent who’d been through plenty of deals, the publicity—though unprecedented and poorly timed for a book that wouldn’t come out for years—was a thrill. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, without a doubt,” he said. “I just think we were smiling all the way.” But the gulf between how Rafe remembers the IT feeding frenzy, and how I remember it, is a great clue as to why he has had an enormously successful career as a literary agent and I have not. Because I was miserable.

Every morning I woke up out there on my island, stressed and anxious. I was supposed to be excited, but instead I felt completely in over my head. I didn’t know how the story had leaked, but I was sure it was my fault. I would go to theitquestion.com and click around the message boards and read everyone’s debates about IT. I still didn’t even know what IT was, but reading speculation was a way of avoiding all the emails piled up in my inbox.

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A lot of those emails were from Steve Kemper, who was still trying to report the book, even though Dean Kamen was going crazy because his secret project was now front-page news. The company was in turmoil. One employee told me that there were news crews parked outside and journalists hanging out in diners hoping to overhear a DEKA employee let slip IT secrets. Within weeks, John Doerr, seizing on the mess, had convinced Kamen to get rid of his CEO and head of marketing. It didn’t matter that the poor guy had never even had a chance to test-market Ginger, because Kamen wouldn’t let him show it to anybody. He was gone. On the media side, so was Inside Magazine, which Andersen and Hirschorn sold in April. By October, the website was gone, too.

Steve had tried to salvage his relationship with Kamen, and his access. The day after that first Inside.com post, Steve drove back up to DEKA to explain that he hadn’t leaked anything—at least, not on purpose. He didn’t know how it had happened. He had spent 18 months at DEKA and in some ways become part of the team. On the wall of the Ginger testing room, where all the engineers autographed their notable crashes, there was a big hole labeled, in Sharpie, Steve K.

Those engineers told Steve they were, honestly, glad that Ginger was finally out there. But Kamen was beside himself. The inventor told Steve he still thought the book was important but the investors wanted to kill it. The reporter reminded Kamen that it was his call, not the investors’ call. When Steve walked out of the building, he realized he’d forgotten something and tried to open the door, but his key card no longer worked. He was out.

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The curtain finally came up on the Segway personal transporter in December 2001, just under a year after the proposal leaked—when Kamen, in his jeans and work boots, went on Good Morning America. “It’s sort of like putting on a pair of magic sneakers,” he told Diane Sawyer. “You think forward, you go forward.” Sawyer might have been dubious at first, but she got that same dopey Ginger smile as soon as she got a chance to take the Segway out for a spin.

Steve Kemper watched on his TV in Connecticut. Segway was a name he’d never heard before, the product of a high-priced naming consultant, the very idea of which he’d heard Dean Kamen mock many times. The thing was bigger than he thought it would be, bulkier—not the trim, sporty version he’d ridden, but the heavier edition made in hopes it would be adopted by institutions. I watched on TV at my mother-in-law’s house in Maryland; my wife’s clerkship was over, I’d quit working for Rafe, and we were hunting for an apartment in New York. I had hoped and wished that IT would be something incredible, something bigger and better than the scooter Inside Magazine had predicted. It was not.

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Time magazine put the Segway on the cover and gave seven pages to the invention. In that story, Kamen said the Segway would be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy. Jay Leno rode out on a Segway to do his Tonight Show monologue and then let the night’s guests, Russell Crowe and Sting, ride them too. The next week, the Segway even appeared on the cover of the New Yorker: Osama bin Laden, riding a Segway along a mountain pass in Afghanistan, fleeing coalition forces in style.

Russell Crowe and Jay Leno ride Segways as Dean Kamen watches.
Dean Kamen watches Russell Crowe and Jay Leno ride Segways on Dec. 13, 2001. Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Yet despite this launch to end all launches, the Segway was not a hit. It was, of course, a flop. There are plenty of reasons why. For instance, you couldn’t even buy one until a year after this big reveal, and when you could, it cost $5,000, dooming the Segway to be a plaything for rich people. No one at DEKA had ever been told the price point was too high, because no market research had ever been conducted. Kamen had spent years believing that price didn’t matter—wasn’t it Jeff Bezos who had told him, “You have a product so revolutionary you’ll have no problem selling it”? But now, even as Kamen’s regulatory team cleared the way with specially crafted legislation allowing Segways on sidewalks in dozens of states and cities, no one was purchasing the Segways to ride on those sidewalks. Remember when Kamen leased that factory to make 6,000 Segways every week? A year after launch, Wired reported that the Segway factory was manufacturing not 6,000, not 600, not 60, but 10 Segways a week.

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The company had expected that any softness in consumer sales would be made up for by corporate and institutional partnerships, with organizations like Disney and the U.S. Postal Service. But that never panned out. Even the police department in Segway’s hometown, Manchester, ordered only four, and didn’t use them much. They were fine for parking enforcement, the department told a reporter, but mountain bikes were cheaper and lighter, and they never ran out of juice.

The Segway’s delays, cost, weight, and battery problems all derived primarily from one issue: how beautifully engineered, perhaps overengineered, the Segway was. The Segway was almost absurdly well-made, with custom components and redundancies built into every system to avoid breakdowns and accidents. Segways even had two identical motors, attached to two separate batteries, just in case something failed. William Sahlman, the Harvard professor who helped Dean Kamen find investors and invested himself, told a story that I’m going to quote in full, because it so perfectly explains how the Segway was too well-made for the market to bear:

The Segway had a kickstand. So you would get off, you deploy the kickstand, and it would stand there while you went away. That was all terrific, except that they were concerned the kickstand would deploy while you were riding, and that would be quite unfortunate. So they made the kickstand out of a relatively soft plastic so it would break off. So within the first week of anyone owning one of these devices, the kickstand broke. It just—they would lean on it, and the kickstand broke. So you say, well, that’s not a big problem. It’s a little plastic thing, you screw a new one on. Well, it took a torque-measuring wrench, and a degree in engineering from Caltech, and 45 minutes to replace the kickstand.

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The effect of all this redundancy and extra weight, of course, was to cause the batteries to drain quickly—especially considering how early in the development of rechargable batteries 2002 was. Ideally, you’d be able to swap a drained battery for a fresh one—except, of course, that the Segway’s battery compartment was hermetically sealed to make it waterproof. (William Sahlman: “You needed a torque-measuring wrench and a degree from Caltech and MIT to get the battery out.”)

There was also the dork problem. Riding a Segway felt cool, but it didn’t look cool. Niles Crane looked like a dork, riding one on Frasier. G.O.B. Bluth looked like a dork, riding one on Arrested Development. But no one looked more like a dork riding a Segway than Paul Blart, the hero of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a movie that made $146 million at the box office and cemented, more than any other pop culture product, the gooniness of the Segway.

Nick Bakay, who co-wrote Paul Blart with its star, Kevin James, said that as soon as they saw a mall cop riding a Segway, they basically knew they had a movie. Bakay spoke eloquently about what it is that makes a Segway so uniquely uncool. “There’s something about the motion,” he said. “It is more graceful than threatening.” He laughed. “You know, you put a big man on one of those things and you’re halfway to comedy right there.”

This was never what Kamen was envisioning. Back in 2000, Kamen had met with Steven Spielberg and tried to convince him that what his upcoming sci-fi mystery Minority Report needed, to accurately depict the future, was to put its cops on Segways. Kamen wanted Tom Cruise on a Segway. Instead, he got Paul Blart.

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Kevin James rides a Segway in a scene from Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Paul Blart (Kevin James) cruises the West Orange Pavilion Mall in Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Columbia Pictures

But by 2009, when Paul Blart came out, Kamen was almost ready to leave the Segway behind. The company had gone through nine CEOs, and Kamen was ready to sell. The company was bought by a British millionaire named Jimi Heselden. Heselden, who made his fortune selling a brand-new kind of sandbag to the military, loved Segways and had big plans for the company. All that ended in 2010, when Heselden accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff.

According to an inquest, Heselden backed up to make way for a dog walker on the trail, lost his balance, and spun out of control. When I asked Steve about this story, he sighed, remembering the long hours he spent watching DEKA’s product safety team trying to envision every possible dangerous scenario a rider might put their invention in. “The machine is not totally foolproof,” he said finally, “because fools are so ingenious, as the saying goes.”

The death of the one guy who still loved Segways enough to invest in Segway, killed by his Segway, basically seemed to put a cap on the dark comedy of Ginger. It was too expensive, it looked doofy, it was cursed. End of story.

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But I still think there was one more factor in Segway’s failure. Every once in a while, a product comes to market, and the seas part, and everyone loves it immediately. Most of the time, though, new products are flawed, and the audience doesn’t quite understand them immediately. They wobble, but they get the chance to regain their balance. The Segway, despite its ability to balance itself, never got that opportunity.

The problem, I think, was the impossible dreams everyone had for IT. When IT was a mystery, it was the coolest invention in the world. Once you saw the Segway, it was just a scooter. It could never quite recover from that letdown. And that’s why I can’t stop thinking that the Segway might still have had a chance but for the hype.

For what it’s worth, Sahlman agrees. “There were no possible chances to live up to the hype,” he said. “That’s as much hype as you can get about something, period, full stop. And so everyone wanted a magic carpet.”

The Bottorff brothers, who were so excited about IT that they built a website so popular it sucked bandwidth from their actual moneymaking websites, agree. “All these fantasies that ran through your head, and all these amazing breakthroughs that were going to revolutionize the world, are now in front of you,” James Bottorff said. “But it didn’t eliminate combustion engines. It didn’t do half the things that people were speculating on the board.”

And Kurt Andersen, who put IT on the cover of the first issue of Inside Magazine, agrees. “This ‘IT’S GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD’ nature,” he said, “that’s pretty easy to fall short of.”

Which led Andersen to a question: “What if we hadn’t done what we did?” he asked. “What if it had just been a thing, and it came out, and Dean Kamen did it?”

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If a 26-year-old dumbass hadn’t accidentally leaked the proposal, who knows what would have happened? Because after all this time, I do think the leak had a lot to do with how little I truly understood about book publishing … and how little we all understood about what the internet was about to become.

Leave aside the obvious-in-retrospect foolishness of swearing editors to secrecy, and then sending them the book proposal by email, a medium that absolutely invites immediate dissemination. The real problem was what happened after the sale, when I did what I thought agents were supposed to do: I sent the proposal to book scouts who worked for foreign publishers. But I was playacting. I didn’t really understand the way that ecosystem works—that scouts trade material back and forth, they gossip, they share, and once something enters their world, it’s everywhere. You ask an editor to keep a proposal secret, they’ll do it. You ask a scout? You’re basically telling them, “Please don’t do the thing that is the whole point of your job.”

Adam Penenberg, who wrote the Inside Magazine cover story, told me as much. He got the proposal from a scout, he said, and everyone he knew got it from scouts, too, including the Inside.com reporter PJ Mark, who had once been a scout himself. “You know, listen, you blew it as soon as you tried to secure foreign rights,” he told me. “As soon as you sent that book proposal out, it wasn’t secret anymore.”

Once upon a time, it wouldn’t have mattered if a bunch of book scouts and their friends knew about this book proposal. But all of a sudden sharing leapt the bounds of the real world and went online. The internet was transforming—into the all-encompassing, media-eating, real-world-changing monster we know now—but we were transforming too, collapsing the boundaries between the online and the real so that it would eventually become just about impossible to distinguish between the two.

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When I talked to Steve Kemper this spring, I finally told him the answer to the question that had occupied so much of our attention 20 years ago: Who leaked the proposal? It turned out it was me, in Hawaii, I said. By accident, but I leaked it all the same.

He let me off the hook. “I believed that you guys knew what you were doing,” he said. “And it could have happened to anybody. But I see what you’re saying, Dan. I mean, you were naïve like I was naïve.” He took a deep breath. “That’s what happens to naïve people. They take one in the forehead, you know?”

I stopped trying to be a literary agent not too long after all the Segway stuff happened—for a lot of reasons, but in the back of my mind, there was always my sneaking suspicion that it was my carelessness that ruined everything for Steve. I didn’t want to do that to another author. I eventually moved into journalism—in part, I think, because I so admired what I saw Steve do. Amid the swirl of speculation and hype and wild promises, there was always his sure reporting. Steve did write the book on the Segway. It’s called Reinventing the Wheel. It’s a very, very good portrait of innovation, and of how a promising project can go completely off the rails. Like everything having to do with Segway, it didn’t work out the way everyone thought it would; DEKA’s lawyers managed to hold up publication just long enough that by the time it came out, “the bloom was off the rose,” Rafe recalled. “It got good reviews, but the frenzy was behind us, and I think it probably sold fewer than 25,000 copies.”

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Now, in 2021, Steve just turned in another book, his fourth. This one’s about the last U.S. ambassador to Japan before Pearl Harbor. He told me he thinks it’s his final one. When I asked Steve what lesson he took from the ordeal of the Segway story, he surprised me. “You don’t get many chances at something like I got to do,” he said. “Embed yourself with this kind of group of people, this kind of main character, and tell that story from the inside—it just doesn’t happen. I wish I’d had another opportunity to do something like it again.”

Dean Kamen and DEKA are still up in Manchester. I left about a dozen voicemails for Kamen’s longtime administrator, I sent word through friends, and he never responded. The company’s still working on big projects, like a portable water purifier. It’s still trying to make Fred, the stair-climbing wheelchair, work—dubbed the iBot, it bombed for Johnson & Johnson because it was way too expensive. But the next time you go to the movies, you might see a different DEKA innovation: the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, that miracle device that mixes flavors into your Diet Coke as precisely as Kamen’s first invention, the drug infusion pump, delivered medication at carefully calibrated levels.

And Segways? They’re pretty hard to find these days. A few weeks ago, I walked over to Capital Segway, one of those companies that runs tours of downtown D.C. The clerk—a Segway expert who had a very specific complaint about an inaccuracy in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2—gave me a short lesson, put a helmet on me, and sent me out to Ginger around the National Mall.

I could feel my dopey grin growing as I zipped across the gravel. I understood, finally, why investor after investor lined up to give Dean Kamen money, why people believed they would sell 6,000 Segways a week, why Steve Jobs declared that cities would architect themselves around this device. It felt absolutely remarkable, riding on it: floating 6 inches above the ground, propelled forward by a technology I could never understand in a million years—a technology sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

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When I returned the Segway, I told the guy at the rental place how I’d learned about all the incredible inspiration and innovation and work and skill that had gone into the Segway, all to make something that cost 10 times as much as a scooter and required a lesson from an expert to ride. He said something I cannot stop thinking about. “Yeah,” he said, “a bunch of really smart people got together, but you needed one dumb person in the room to keep things on the level.”

Capital Segway still receives product support from its parent company, but Segway, now owned by the Chinese company Ninebot, is no longer focused on the personal transporters. In fact, it doesn’t make them anymore. Instead, Segway—which declined to comment for this story—now manufactures a significant number of the rental scooters, the Birds and the Limes, that you can see zipping around every American city.

In fact, Segway’s children are everywhere: scooters, electric-boosted skateboards, all the new backbones of the short urban commute. Benge Ambrogi, the longtime DEKA engineer, noted that there’s a picture of a single-wheeled hoverboard, the kind you actually see cool people riding around cities, in one of DEKA’s old Ginger patents. The DEKA guys scoff at these cheaper, flimsier transportation devices. “These hoverboards and stuff, I mean, I wouldn’t get on one,” said Mike Ambrogi, Benge’s brother, who also worked at DEKA for years. “One hundred things could go wrong that could put your face right in the pavement. You see those batteries, they light on fire because they weren’t very well-designed. That would never happen with a Segway battery.”

But of course, astronomically more people own and ride cheap scooters and junky hoverboards than ever owned or used a Segway. Heading back to my office, just walking on my plain old feet, I thought about how the Segway was an elegant work of genius when what the world really needed was a good-enough piece of crap. Maybe, in the end, I didn’t kill the Segway. It might have had a chance, if only I hadn’t been the only dumb guy around.