S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership. I got the book proposal
S2: and I said, wow, check this out. It had this incredible new invention that was going to change the world. But the one thing the book
S1: proposal didn’t tell you was what it was. I seem to recall the first thing that really took off was the whole idea of a hoverboard.
S2: It’s a hovercraft. It’s a spaceship. It’s a jetpack.
S3: People are coming up with jet packs and, you know, inertial thrusters and imagination is just going crazy.
S1: This was the biggest story anywhere in the world for that time. It was insane news cameras outside of our buildings and news trucks and reporters trying to interview you.
S3: So when it does come out, you remember on the Good Morning America.
S1: All right. Are we ready? Are you ready? I’m ready. OK, I think it’s time. All right.
S4: I think it was behind the curtain and then it came out was like kind of hokey way, they did it.
S1: There it is. That’s it. That can’t be it.
S5: This is Decoder NG, a show about cracking cultural mysteries, I’m Willa Paskin. In 2001, the first dot com bubble was bursting and all over Silicon Valley, fortunes were blowing away in the wind. Amid this wreckage, a mystery invention called it arrived. Jeff Bezos said it was revolutionary. Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC legacy media and the just birthed Internet. Both breathlessly speculated about what it could possibly be. But the only reason the world knew about it was because of a leaked secret book proposal. And this a book proposal. Getting out was a big problem for the inventor of it. It was a big problem for the author trying to write a book about it. And it was a big problem for the 25 year old literary agent who had sold that book. That literary agent was Dan Kois. He’s now an editor and writer at Slate. Hi, Dan. Hi, Willa. In this episode, you’re going to tell us the story of it. The great viral sensation of the social media Internet.
S6: It kicked off an incredible hype cycle that backfired horribly. And I still feel responsible for that.
S5: The hype turned what might have been this really genuinely great invention into a joke.
S6: Yeah, everyone was completely fired up about it and then it turned out to be a scooter.
S5: So today, undercoating, did Dan kill the Segway?
S6: You remember the Segway, it’s that goofy looking scooter with two big wheels on the bottom and then the handlebar that comes up from the platform in between them, you may recognize the Segway from tour groups riding it around your city or from the movie Paul Blart Mall Cop, where it’s featured prominently as a joke. But that’s not how it started. It started as a revolutionary invention predicted to rack up a billion dollars in sales faster than any products in history. It started as the vision of a genius named Dean Kamen.
S3: Dean was a great
S6: character that Steve Kemper, he’s a journalist who profiled Dean Kamen and ended up reporting on the creation of the Segway for a year and a half.
S3: The quotable he’s independent. He’s a little bit crazy.
S6: Dean was the kind of guy who’d been so bored in high school math that he’d take a test just to see if he could get exactly like a fifty seven. He made a fortune starting when he was just 20, inventing the first drug infusion pump and later the first portable dialysis machine. Dean is antiauthoritarian, whimsical and wealthy after he got rich, he bought a tiny island off the coast of New York named North Dumpling, he declared independence from the United States. Somehow, he got the first George Bush to sign a mutual non-aggression pact. He even wrote a national anthem, North
S1: Tumbling North Dumpling. Keep lawyers far from the and ambitious bureaucrats so we may all be free.
S6: Dean started his own R&D company. Decha, for Dean came and he got scores of incredible engineers to join him way up in Manchester, New Hampshire, promising them total freedom to pursue world changing technology. He was always looking for the most elegant solution to a problem, and his engineers got used to him coming to them with these big, inspiring ideas that they had to figure out how to make. The inspiration for the Segway came to Dean in an unlikely place.
S3: Dean got out of the tub and started to slip and windmill’s his arms backwards the way you do when you’re recovering your balance. And that was his eureka moment.
S6: If you could build a machine that could balance like a person does, that could have incredible applications, imagine a wheelchair that can stand up straight or even climb stairs. How many lives would that change? One of the early proof of concept models for this balancing technology looked sort of like a coffee table on wheels. You could place a load on it and the machine would figure out how to balance all by itself. And then one day, one of the engineers jumped on top of it and he
S2: leaned back and he leaned forward and it moved
S6: Benge Ambrogi as an engineer who worked at Decha for 13
S2: years, your body is the joystick. The more lean you have, the faster it goes and you lean back and it slows down. When we stood on it and drove it, it was it was a complete revelation, like a natural extension of your body.
S6: The engineers real project, the product that was going to sell was the practical stair climbing wheelchair. But this magical little contraption you could stand on and ride around it captured the imagination. It became their nights and weekends project. In the mid 90s, Dean, who had a serious case on mentor’s paranoia, decided to make the whole wheelchair project a secret in order to protect against another company swiping it so it needed a code name. One day, the engineers watched as the wheelchair turned in an elegant circle.
S2: It was beautiful to watch and it was it was like dancing. And so Fred Astaire. And then someone said, Fred upstairs because it’s a snare climbing device. Then the project became Fred
S6: Fred inspired and turn a name for the delightful spin off Dukey, who dances with Fred Ginger. In 1995, Dean sold Fred the wheelchair to Johnson and Johnson and turned his attention to Ginger. Ginger became its own secret department at Decca. This time, Dean 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. Ginger can change the world. Dean plan to manufacture and sell this product himself. Decoder filed patent after patent for Ginger’s technology. Eventually, Dean would lease a 77000 square foot factory in Manchester that would be able to push out 6000 gingers a week in the late 1990s. Dean invited that journalist, Steve Kemper, to the secret top floor offices at Decca, where Ginger was being developed. Dean made Steve sign a non-disclosure agreement, and he told him that what he was about to show him was the most exciting thing he’d ever done.
S3: It was a little lab. You had to be keycard it in and it said Ginger on the door. And it was that’s where he showed me this little thing. And it was not impressive. It was it was held together with duct tape and there were jagged edges and little toyer wheels on it, like from a wagon or something. But then you got on it and it was it was like a magic carpet.
S6: Everyone I talked to about Ginger remembered how wondrous their first ride on it was. Dean counted on that. He knew that everyone got this dopey grin once they started zooming around. That was when Dean knew he had his hooks in you.
S3: And and then he’s trotting alongside you. Still pitching. You know, this is Ginger. And people are going to be gendering to the store, gendering to work, gendering to the subway. It’s going to be a verb. It’s going to be a new concept. A new verb is going to be a new world.
S6: Steve still remembers what Dean said to him when he hopped off. Who’s going to want to walk? Dean told Steve there ought to be a book about the creation of Ginger,
S3: and he wanted to pay me to write the book. And I said, no, I’m a journalist, but I’d be glad to write the book if you give me total access and no control from you and I’ll do it on spec until I can find a publisher. And so he agreed with that. Basically, I drank the Kool-Aid. He is the most incredible salesman salesperson you’ll ever see in your life. And I saw him sell everybody and he sold me for sure.
S6: Now it’s nineteen ninety nine. As Steve is beginning to report the ginger book, he realizes it’s going to be really hard to find that publisher. Typically when you pitch a book to a publisher, you tell them what the book’s about. Steve couldn’t do that. He needed help. So he made a phone call.
S1: I’m Rafe Sagalyn. I’m a literary agent.
S6: A literary agent helps writers sell their books to publishers. Rafe spend an agent in Bethesda, Maryland, since the 1980s. In nineteen ninety nine Rafe was my boss. I was in my mid twenties working my way through grad school as rape’s assistant. But he was also encouraging me to start finding my own authors to represent Steve Kemper. And I had emailed about another book proposal that hadn’t worked out, but we liked each other. So when Steve started to pitch us on this idea, Rafe included me in the process.
S1: I remember the three of us were on the call when something like this, this guy I’m interviewing and spending time with is developing a product that’s going to be the biggest invention since the automobile. It’s going to change the world. I said, OK, sure. Tell us more about that.
S6: I remember this call we were sitting and Rafe little office in Bethesda. We were really skeptical. But Steve, who’s normally a pretty levelheaded guy, he kept assuring us that this invention was the real thing. So, of course, we asked, what is it?
S1: I can’t tell you. I said, what, I can’t tell you what it is all about. Well, how do you expect us to get you a book deal if you can’t tell us what it is?
S6: Steve’s book seemed both enormously exciting and one hundred percent impossible to sell, but Rafe seemed willing to let me run with it. He believed in me. He pushed me to be the book’s lead agent and Rafe and I told Steve Inskeep reporting will figure out how to sell this thing somehow by the turn of the millennium 2000. Decha had been working on Ginge for five years, and Dean 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. Dean Kamen needed cash. Get a few investors willing to pony up 30 million or so, but he needed more. Luckily for him, two thousand was the year the first Internet bubble began to pop.
S5: The Nasdaq had reached its highest point in March of 2000, and then it’s downhill from there.
S6: Margaret O’Mara is a historian and the author of The Code A History of Silicon Valley.
S5: And there, of course, there’s a lot of rather gleeful, you know, oh, you guys got too far out over your skis. You know, you had all these this flashy marketing. You were promising to change the world. And turns out it’s really hard to sell dog food on the Internet.
S6: Dean thought the dotcom world was a joke. He believed in hardware and products you could touch. And now as the dotcom world is crashing, Silicon Valley investors suddenly wanted products you could touch to. It started with John Doar, the legendary head of the venture capital fund, Kleiner Perkins. He’s the guy that famously was an early, early investor in Amazon.com. Dore’s company invested thirty eight million dollars in Ginger before they even cut the check door, started calling his friends Steve Kemper again.
S3: And then, of course, you got Steve Jobs in the CI a.. Bezos came in to see it because he was a friend of doors.
S6: So in the fall of 2000, Steve, who thought he was chronicling a simple engineering story, suddenly found himself in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency near SFO airport, watching Jeff Bezos riding around on a ginger, laughing Steve Jobs yelling about how the design of the ginger was way too ugly. In a very short period of time, Dean came and went from mortgaging his house to pay for R&D to having an extremely famous tech investors begging to give him millions of dollars. Dorje predicted that Segway would be valued at five billion dollars five years after launch. But when would that be? Dean’s obsession with secrecy was slowing everything down. Decha couldn’t hire enough engineers because Dean only wanted people who would come to Manchester on faith. They couldn’t conduct market research because they couldn’t tell anyone what the product was. At this point, nearly everyone wished Dean would stop being so secretive about Ginger so they could begin to get the project out the door twice. One of Dean’s investors said to Steve Kemper,
S3: I think what we really need is a sexy leak.
S6: But Dean wasn’t having it. That inventor’s paranoia. Again, he was convinced that if Honda or Ford got wind of ginger, they build their own and release it before he could. He was holding on tight, but it was about to be an impossible secret to keep. By this point, it was December 2000, Steve had been reporting at Decha for a year and a half and he was ready to try and sell the book. He wrote up that West Coast meeting with Dean and Steve Jobs. And Jeff Bezos is a sample chapter, carefully leaving out details of what the invention actually was. And now it was up to Rafe and me to convince 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 wouldn’t even tell us what it was. So we came up with a book proposal. I still have it. It’s really good. The first half is a ginned up series of emails that Steve and I drafted with me playing the Doubting Thomas, him convincing me over time that this invention was real and would indeed change the world. The second half of the proposal is that sample chapter, that juicy West Coast ambush with all those big names,
S3: smoke and mirrors. 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, instead, make them say this is crazy and how do I get in on it?
S6: By New Year’s 2001, we have 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. I was unbelievably proud that he was entrusting me with something with this much potential.
S1: But I was just so happy. I was just there looking over your shoulder, so to speak, meaning, you know. But even though you were in Hawaii. Oh, God,
S6: yes, Hawaii. We had just moved there. My wife graduated from law school. She’d gotten a clerkship with a federal judge in Honolulu. And for some reason, Rafe let me keep working for him, even though I was five timezones 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 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. I knew what to do. I’d seen Rafe do it one hundred times the day after New Year’s, like eight a.m. Hawaii time, and made a little list of things to say to editors. And then I dialed a bunch of two one two numbers. And when each editor said, sure, I’ll take a look, I would email the proposal with a note, reminded them how secret it was. Please don’t share, I said. And at the end of the day, after I emailed the last editor, I exhaled, I drove downtown and met my wife at a bar in Alamogordo for Taco Tuesday. All the clerks gossiped about their judges, but I just drank margaritas and smiled about the secret thing I was doing. That night, I heard the office phone ring at like 4:00 a.m., and when I got up the next morning, I already had messages on the answering machine. Wow, it was totally happening. Most of the responses were from the big trade houses, all those two and two numbers. But it also sent the proposal to an editor named Hollis Heimbach at Harvard Business School Press there, an academic publisher of leadership books, business case studies, stuff like that.
S4: And I just remember reading it and saying, wow, this is incredible. Now, it didn’t reveal what it was. So I’m reading it and thinking, wow, I love to publish this. And then thinking, wow, could we ever publish that here?
S6: The big publishers were interested, but with a caveat. Editors wanted to be able to get out of the deal if once they learned what it was, they didn’t think it was cool enough. But Harvard Business School Press didn’t have those conditions. So just a few days after sending out the proposal, we sold it to Hollis Heimbach for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
S4: It was on the higher end of what we would pay for a project. We were we were seriously committed to needing to make the success.
S6: I got to work selling foreign rights right away, just like Rafe always did when he made a big deal. I emailed a bunch of our co agents and foreign rights scouts Rafe, and I knew we’d done something kind of remarkable.
S1: There was a sense of both triumph, but also a sense that if only we could have been more forthcoming about what this really was. Boy, you know, the sky was the limit.
S6: My response definitely was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
S1: You hadn’t done a lot of deals.
S3: And so I don’t know if you remember this, but I got the deal, and that night I went up to the big banquet at Dean’s house and I was very excited and told Dean about it. He was very excited. And then, like three days later, it all blew up.
S6: Three days after we sold the book on January 9th, 2001, Steve Kemper phone rang.
S3: A reporter from the Hartford Courant called me, started asking me questions about Ginger, except she called it it. I didn’t know what she was talking about. So I said, how how do you know these things? And she said, Oh, you don’t know that your proposal’s been leaked.
S6: A brand new website called Inside Dotcom had posted a blockbuster story. Harvard Business School Press paid a quarter million dollars for a book about an incredible invention, called it, but no one knows what it is. This was a perfect scoop for inside Dotcom, which ran Jussie Industry stories that once upon a time only the trades covered media hyers book deals Silicon Valley money. And it was the perfect time for a story like this. The Internet bubble was bursting, but here was an invention from an inventor like Thomas Edison or something. The story got picked up everywhere. People were speculating on CNN, The Washington Post and the BBC and Good Morning America. This tech commentator, Bob Metcalf claimed he’d seen it and it was bigger than the Internet. It was one of the first genuinely viral stories on the Internet. So viral they were talking about it on the news. Here’s a clip from NPR’s Talk of the Nation.
S4: There’s so much speculation. I’ve actually heard that it was maybe a hovercraft or some type of vehicle that wasn’t with wheels.
S1: Oh, you think it might be some sort of a. gravitational device?
S6: When inside dotcoms saw the kind of attention the story got, they flooded the zone with post after post. Soon they went even bigger inside Dotcom. The website wanted to launch a print magazine spinoff. So the cover story for their very first issue was what it is. The journalist Adam Penenberg wrote that story. He thought he’d figured out what it was. Hydrogen powered Scooter
S2: Bakay had registered all these domain names for, like my Stirling’s scooter dotcom and, you know, things based on a scooter, which I thought that’s kind of weird.
S6: Dean hadn’t been careful enough for the new world of the Internet.
S2: He left a lot of clues.
S6: All those patents Dean came in, had filed his inventors paranoia backfired. In an earlier time, a journalist would have had to do a lot more legwork to dig up all those patents. But now they were all right there on the patent office’s website, Penenberg may have basically worked out the ginger was a scooter, but plenty of people didn’t believe it. Or maybe it was just more fun to speculate like crazy.
S1: The first thing that really took off was the whole idea of a hoverboard. This was going to be Marty McFly skateboard. They’ve done it. We can’t wait.
S6: That’s James Bottorff. He and his brother Greg were Web entrepreneurs in 2001. They ran a site called Bargain Flick’s, which compared DVD prices across different online sellers and another site called to Bargain’s Dotcom. They were immediately fascinated by it. So they did what came naturally. They made a website. Here’s Greg Bottorff
S1: and I can’t remember whose idea was, but one of us said, why don’t we just put a board up and have people speculate on what this could be?
S6: The question Dotcom got more than 100000 hits in its first twenty four hours online. When Time magazine linked to some Decha patent images, the question posted their servers completely crashed. Greg had to drive out to the server farm in the middle of the night to pay for more bandwidth. Everyone was so hungry for speculation about it that the Bottorff started being quoted in the media as experts.
S1: And James and I would laugh about the fact that he’s sitting in Cincinnati. I’m sitting in my 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.
S6: Maybe the peak of IT mania was when it made it to South Park. Mr. Garrison invents a revolutionary new transportation device, called it, which blows away Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who literally quote our book proposal.
S1: It gets over three hundred miles to the gallon and is safely capable of speeds of over two hundred miles per hour. Wow, wow. This will change everything. We’re going to have to rethink
S6: city and classic South Park style. The only wrinkle is that it is controlled by levers shaped like penises, left side
S1: for throttle, right side for steering. The third flexi grip is gently inserted into the anus to keep the driver in place.
S6: Anyway, you can just imagine, I’m sure all of this hubbub felt completely new. A wild confluence of the Internet and old media pathing, something we never had before. A print magazine spun off from a website scouring online patent applications. Venerable Time magazine crashing a tiny little fansite because they didn’t bother uploading their own images, TV shows, making jokes about things they read online to the wreckage of Web 1.0. The new Internet was stirring. And how was I doing?
S1: It was a once in a lifetime thing, without a doubt.
S6: My old boss, Adam Rafe Sagalyn, it
S1: was just I think we were smiling all the way. I mean, we were, you know, the gulf
S6: between how Rafe remembers the 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.
S1: Every morning I woke
S6: up out there on my island, stressed and anxious, I was supposed to be excited, but everything felt totally out of control. When I talk to Rafe for this podcast, I tried to explain, but I hadn’t told them back that I would wake up and it would be like this horror show of, oh, fuck, what happened while I was asleep. The excitement like curdled into total misery
S1: at some point because I had an author who freaking out at me and at a situation that I couldn’t control it all. And I felt
S6: so over my head at this that this entire thing.
S1: That’s one reason why I loved your taking the lead on it. So you took some of the pressure off of me?
S6: Yeah, I didn’t know how the story had leaked, but I was sure it was my fault somehow. Every morning I would go on the IT question dotcom 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 my way of avoiding all those emails piled up in my inbox. A lot of those emails were from Steve Kemper. Steve was still trying to report the book, even as Dean was going completely crazy because his secret project was now front page news.
S3: Oh, I felt horrible. I felt horrible for so many different reasons. I didn’t know what the future would be because of the leak.
S6: The day after that first article, Steve went back up to Decha to explain that he hadn’t leaked anything, at least not on purpose. He had spent 18 months there. In some ways, he’d become part of the team in the gingered testing room, where all the engineers autographed the dents in the wall from their notable crashes. There was a big hole labeled in Sharpie. Steve Kaye. Those engineers told Steve they were kind of glad it was finally out there, but Dean wasn’t glad he was beside himself. Dean told Steve he still thought the book was important, but that the investors wanted to kill it. Steve reminded Dean that it was Dean’s call, not the investors call. And Steve walked out of the building. He realized he’d forgotten something and he tried to open the door. But its key no longer worked. He was out.
S1: Are you ready? I’m ready. OK, I think it’s time
S6: the curtain finally came up on the Segway personal transporter in December 2001, just under a year after the proposal leaked, there was Dean in jeans and work boots.
S1: Good Morning America. There it is. Now, what does it do? It’s sort of like putting on a pair of magic sneakers. You stand on this Segway H.T. and you think forward, you go forward.
S6: You Diane 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.
S1: We do have our tricks. Are we ready? We are ready. OK, we have the no hands for.
S6: Time magazine put the Segway on the cover and gave seven pages to the invention and that story, Dean says that the Segway would be to the car, but the car was to the horse and buggy. Jay Leno rode out on a Segway to do his monologue and interview Dean on The Tonight Show right between Russell Crowe and Sting. The next week, the Segway even appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, Osama bin Laden, fleeing coalition forces, riding a Segway along a mountain pass in Afghanistan. Now, I don’t need to tell you that even with all this glowing publicity, this incredible launch, the Segway, it was a flop. Remember when Dean leased that factory to make 6000 Segway a week? A year after launch, Wired magazine reported that the Segway factory was manufacturing 10 Segway zoek. There isn’t just one reason why the Segway wasn’t the smash it everyone thought it was going to be, there are many. First, it was expensive, way too expensive. When you could finally order a Segway, it cost five thousand dollars. Dean had built the most elegant piece of technology possible to medical level safety standards. The thing had two separate engines attached to two separate batteries just in case something failed. And Decha didn’t know it was overpriced because Dean, obsessed with secrecy, hadn’t led his marketing guys do any market research whatsoever.
S5: The Segway comes to market as something that is so expensive and doesn’t meet in an existing obvious mass.
S6: Consumer need Margaret O’Mara the story of Silicon Valley,
S5: its main customer base, are these wealthy mechanical engineering nerds who probably built radios and computers in their basements when they were
S6: kids. That kind of customer base isn’t big enough to change the world. That kind of customer base, no offense, maybe also doesn’t care that much about looking cool. And that was the second strike against the Segway. It made you look kind of silly. This fact was the inspiration for the 2009 hit comedy Paul Blart Mall Cop, starring Kevin James as a security guard who rides a Segway everywhere.
S1: Please pull to the sides are out of traffic. Tan jacket, red scooter, please pull to the right out of traffic.
S6: Nick Bakay wrote Paul Blart with Kevin James Bakay says that they basically knew they had a movie. As soon as I saw a mall cop riding a Segway,
S1: I think they found a way to make the most non-threatening vehicle possible, which is great for a guy who’s trying to maintain law and order. And there’s something about the motion. It’s it is more graceful than threatening. And you put a big man on one of those things and you’re halfway to comedy right there. This is not
S6: at all what Dean Kamen was envisioning back in 2000. Dean tried to convince Steven Spielberg that the cops and Minority Report should all be writing Segway. He thought that would nail the future cops on Segway Kois. Instead, he got Paul Blart. Do you think that Paul Blart helped to cement in America’s mind that the Segway was uncool, or was it always uncool if
S1: the idea ever was Willa? You know, all the cool kids are going to be right and Segway Kois, you know, down to the Sunset Strip and nightclubs, you know, that was not a good plan to begin with. We didn’t put any nails in that coffin.
S6: The history of the Segway Post 2001 is basically one long, dark comedy compared to the high drama of its development and funding, and it only got darker. The same year Paul Blart came out, Dean Kamen finally sold Segway to a British millionaire named Jimmy Hesselman. Jimmy Hustlin loved Segway. He had big dreams for the company, but that all ended in 2010 when he accidentally rode his Segway off a cliff.
S3: And my theory is that he had one wheel that was too close to the cliff and couldn’t get enough traction, and it didn’t communicate fast enough with the other wheel and it spun him and it spun him around and took him over the cliff. There’s a lot of theories the machine is not totally foolproof because fools are so ingenious. You know, as the old saying is,
S6: the death of the one guy who loved Segway is enough to invest in Segway killed by his Segway seemed basically to put a cap on the story of Ginger. It was too expensive. It looked Dufy. It was cursed. But I think there’s another reason the Segway failed, it has to do with 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 one thing, what if we hadn’t done what we did? And that’s Kurt Andersen. He was one of the founders of inside the site that ran dozens of stories about it and put it on the cover of the first and only issue of Inside Magazine. He asked me what if it had never been leaked and overhyped in the first place. One of just
S1: been a thing that came out and then came and did it. And that alternate history is interesting because it would have had a, I think, different trajectory,
S6: which is to say, what if a twenty five year old dumb ass 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. I never told Steve my suspicions that until you’re were speaking for this
S3: podcast, I still don’t know who did it. Maybe you guys knew you were kind of cagey about that. I must say, if you if you did know, you never let me know. I don’t know if you were afraid I would go down there with a machete or something, but
S6: was very cagey about it because it became clear to me pretty early that probably whatever had happened was my fault. I explained to Steve that once we made the deal with Harvard, I did what agents did next. I sent the proposal to book scouts who worked for foreign publishers, but I was play-acting. 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 that 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. 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. Ginger was one of the first moments that Web 1.0 started to turn into the Internet. We know now the all encompassing media eating real world changing Internet. I was Rafe Internet guy. I even coded the HTML on the Sagalyn agencies fancy website, but I completely failed to anticipate that. I’m sure I was cagey with you because I felt 100 percent responsible for all the shit that was going down.
S3: I believe that you guys knew what you were doing and it could have happened to anybody. But I see what you’re saying, Dan. I mean, you are naive. Like, I was naive, and that’s what happens to naive people. They get take one in the forehead. You know,
S6: I appreciate Steve going easy on me. I stop 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. Steve did write the book on the Segway, though. 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. Now, in twenty twenty one, Steve Kemper 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 probably his last one. I asked Steve what lesson he took away from the ordeal of the Segway story. He surprised me.
S3: It was a bad experience at the end, but it was so worth it to write them to live through it and then to write the book writers. You don’t get many chances at something like I got to do embed yourself with this kind of group of people, this kind of main character, until that story from the inside, it just doesn’t happen. So I wish I had another opportunity to do something like it again.
S6: Dean Kamen and Decha are still up in Manchester. I left about a dozen voicemails for Dean’s long time administrator. I sent word through friends. He never responded. The company is still working on big projects like a portable water purifier. They’re still trying to make that stair climbing wheelchair work. It bombed for Johnson and Johnson because it was way too expensive. But the next time you go to the movies, you might see a different innovation. The Coca-Cola freestyle machine, that miracle device that mixes flavors into your Diet Coke with the same precision. The dean’s first invention, the drug infusion pump, delivered medication and carefully calibrated levels. And Segway. After poor Jimmy Hazeldene died, Segway was bought by the Chinese company nine Bottorff Segway now makes a lot of the rental scooters that you can see zipping around every American city. In fact, Segway children are everywhere. Here’s Benge Ambrogi, the Dufka engineer
S2: that was on a bike ride this past weekend. And I saw a guy on one of these single wheeled devices with two pedals on each side. And there’s a picture of that. And one of our patents,
S6: the Decha guys, scoff at those hover boards and scooters, how cheap they are. Sometimes the battery is just burst into flames, but way more people own and use them than ever. Owned or used a Segway. The other day, I went to Capitol Segway in downtown D.C. because
S1: I put an hour on their support, 3:00 p.m. If it’s not here by then, I’m assuming you put it in the river or something, right? We went in the river. I went and
S6: he gave me a 10 minute riding lesson, put a helmet on me and let me out to Ginge about the National Mall
S1: scooters everywhere. There’s Bikes hoverboard. I’m not really the only Segway, but I got to say, man, it just feels remarkable riding on this thing propelled forward by technology. I could never understand in a million years, technology sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.
S6: When I return the Segway, I told the guy at the rental place how I learned about all the incredible inspiration 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.
S1: A bunch of really smart people got together that you need like one dumb person in the world to keep things exactly right. All right, thanks.
S6: In the Segway was an elegant work of genius when what the world really needed was a good enough piece of crap. Maybe it’s too bad I was the only dumb guy around on the way back to my office, just walking on my plain old feet. I thought about the moment when your path diverges from what you always thought would be. The leak was the moment Ginger’s path diverged. Ginger was a moment the Internet’s path diverged. But it was also the moment my path diverged. I watched what Steve Kemper did, how he turned that smoke and mirrors proposal into a true, entertaining, rock solid book. Amidst the swirl of speculation and hype and wild promises, there was always his sure reporting that raised a curtain for me. I didn’t know how to do that, but at least I knew. I didn’t know how to do that. And maybe I could learn. This is Decoder. I’m Dan Kois
S5: and I’m Willa Paskin, you can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin.
S6: You can find me at at Kois clients.
S5: If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, you can email us at Decoder, Rafe at Slate dot com. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe and read our Feet and Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Dan Kois. It was edited and produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Clear Levin is our research assistant, thanks to William Zalmen, Mike Ambrogi, Brian Toohey, Justin O’Mara, a capital Segway and everyone else who gave us help and feedback on the way. If you are already a slate plus member, thank you so much. You can listen to the entire season of Decoder ring right now. If you are not a slate plus member, we would love your support. It means a lot. Please sign up for Slate plus at Slate dot com Decoder plus and we’ll give you access to this whole season of Decoder Rafe.
S7: Otherwise, we’ll see you next week.