March 8, 2001
This year, you couldn't escape media reports about "IT," a top-secret invention that has been hailed as more revolutionary than the Internet. Senior writer Mark Boal interviewed "IT" inventor Dean Kamen about the media onslaught and the fate of the controversial book proposal that sparked all the hype.
The difference between a particle and a wave was easy to demonstrate. Dean Kamen took a flashlight from the pocket of his army jacket and began pointing it in my direction. "See, you can see this," he said. Then he covered the lens with his hand. "But not this." Removing his hand, he twirled the flashlight in a tight circle. "Where is the light coming from now? Clearly, you can tell." Sound was another story. Sound was a wave and traveled differently. "Where is my voice coming from?" he asked, covering his mouth. "You don't know, exactly. You can't say if it's here," he said, jabbing the air with his other hand, "or here."
Earlier this week, Brill's Content asked Dean Kamen for his reaction to media speculation about "IT." Read Mark Boal's exclusive interview with the inventor here.
This was no ordinary science lecture. Kamen was very much in demand at that moment, having been the subject of some 200 news stories in the last few weeks. All of them said he'd invented something marvelous, something paradigm-shifting and earth-shattering, but since that information came from a leak and not from Kamen himself -- who was declining to comment -- not one story could say what the something was. Lacking a name, it was called IT, and was variously described as a hovercraft, a teleportation device, and a motorized scooter. It was said to be "bigger than the Internet." And the week before the Super Bowl, Kamen's IT was the subject of more queries on the Internet search engine Lycos than the NFL.
MY FIRST REQUEST to interview Kamen at his office in Manchester, New Hampshire, was met with the polite suggestion that I'd be better off going skiing. A few days later I called again, this time from Manchester. I told Kamen's assistant that I might just do some skiing at Loon Mountain, and asked if Kamen would have any time before then. I was granted a dinner with Kamen, provided I not heckle him about IT and provided I hear him out on a subject dearer to his heart, a robotics competition for middle- and high-school students Kamen had organized called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Its mission, Kamen said without any irony, was to promote the notion that scientists ought to be celebrities.
Kamen himself is an odd candidate for celebrity. Sitting across from me in his blue jeans and faded jacket, his black hair brushed back in a gravity-defying pompadour, Kamen, who is 50, spoke in the nasal tone and rapid-fire rhythm of his native New York. "I want the best of both worlds," he said. "I want the press to go and see how great FIRST is, but I don't want the press to ruin my ability to run a small R & D company with secret projects."
He had come to dinner with Donna Tamzarian, the human- resources director of his company, DEKA (DEan KAmen) Research & Development Corporation. It wasn't easy being ordinary folks coping with a media onslaught, they said, what with all the phone calls, the pleading, the promises and threats. 60 Minutes II, which had started filming a story on Kamen before the IT news broke, had returned for a follow-up interview, and Kamen said he was afraid the show would quote him out of context. Now Oprah was calling, too.
"I don't have time to take all these calls, to be on the phone all day," said Tamzarian.
"This woman named Katie..." Kamen began.
"Katie Couric," Tamzarian interrupted.
Apparently, the Today co-anchor had been especially persistent.
"I don't want anybody to feel like I'm poking a stick in their eye by not talking," Kamen said.
Around midnight, the lights outside the restaurant were turned off, and it was dim inside. A man from another table approached.
"I just wanted to say hello to the celebrity," he said.
Kamen eagerly shook his hand, then muttered, "Celebrity -- that's just what I need."
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a company called Transmeta. The name suggested something big, something futuristic. But that was true of a lot of other Silicon Valley firms; what distinguished Transmeta was its secrecy. I don't mean that Transmeta was unknown -- plenty of people knew it existed -- but that it was unknowable. Apart from mundane details about its location (Santa Clara), hardly a soul knew what the firm was all about, even whether it manufactured hardware or software.
This was back in 1995. Remember 1995? When the air was thick with speculation and dotcoms were budding in NASDAQ's fertile ground, little fortunes waiting to bloom? Transmeta epitomized the best and worst of that era. Assuming that secrecy implied importance, reporters covered Transmeta's every twitch. Then, in January 2000, with press releases blaring, Transmeta raised the curtain. Some people knew right away; for others, reality took a while to set in. But in the end, it was clear that what Transmeta had invented was little more than another microchip. Dubbed Crusoe, it was supposed to be lightning-fast, but it was actually slower than existing chips. In short, Crusoe was a flop.
Transmeta is still around and may yet turn a profit, but for technology journalists like myself, who had spent years waiting for a chip revolution that never came, Transmeta became a cautionary tale. Judging by how IT dominated the news this January, however, the media still have the will to believe in technology miracles. Perhaps the dotcom boom had made us into a nation of cheerful futurists, but whatever the reason, in the frenzy over Kamen's IT, the hallowed journalistic practice of checking with primary sources was left by the wayside.
Like a self-replicating virus, the story of IT spread through the media. Ground zero was Inside.com, a site for and about media professionals. On January 9, Inside.com's Books section posted a story about Harvard Business School Press's recent acquisition of a forthcoming book; the headline read: "What Is 'IT'? Book Proposal Heightens Intrigue About Secret Invention Touted as Bigger Than the Internet or PC. A venerable press pays $250,000 for a book on project cloaked in unprecedented secrecy." The piece itself played up the book proposal's mystery: "Is IT an energy source? Some sort of environmentally friendly personal transport device? A type of personal hovering craft?" In the Inside.com story, we had an eccentric inventor straight out of central casting, "a single man obsessed with his work and out of touch with popular culture." And we had all of it sealed and certified by leading businessmen: "It has drawn the attention of technology visionaries [Amazon.com CEO] Jeff Bezos and [Apple Computer CEO] Steve Jobs and the investment dollars of preeminent Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr...predicting Kamen will be worth more in five years than Bill Gates."
For PJ Mark, the Inside.com reporter who wrote the story, the piece was more about publishing than technology. It was unusual for Harvard Business School Press to pay $250,000 for a book, especially a book intended for a general audience. It was also important to Mark that consumer publishers had turned it down and that Steve Kemper, the freelance writer who wrote the book proposal, "had exclusive access to Kamen and the engineers." Inside.com's readers, who hail mostly from the worlds of publishing and media, no doubt read between the lines and sensed that the proposal about which Mark was writing in such a breathless tone was itself a document designed to stir interest. However, when Inside.com realized it had a story with legs, one that could reach outside its narrow readership of media insiders, the distinction between a tech story and a publishing story was either dropped or ignored.
One day after his piece was posted, Mark appeared on CNBC, and within 72 hours he had appeared on half a dozen shows, including CNN's Today, CNBC News, and NBC's Today. Mark was joined frequently by Scott Kirsner, a reporter for Wired who had profiled Kamen in the September 2000 issue. Together, they fueled the speculation that the invention would -- in a phrase that was as meaningless as it was enticing -- "change the world."
Then, only three days later, Inside.com continued to drive the coverage by filing a second story, this one comprising largely quotes from various technologists speculating about what IT might be. In the next three weeks, there were an additional 173 stories about IT, or, as it later came to be known, Ginger. (IT was the name Kemper gave the device in his book proposal. Ginger, it turned out, was the name Kamen had originally used.) The New York Times ran a chatty piece on January 12 wondering what IT was and followed with a more serious piece in the Week in Review section on January 21, which dismissed the speculation the paper's own coverage of IT had generated as "Nostalgia...masquerading as futurism." U.S. News & World Report wondered, "Could [Kamen] even make a wheelchair fly?" The Washington Post, on the other hand, cited inside "digerati" sources, who were certain the device was "a wearable car." A headline in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution commanded, "Behold The Power of Ginger!" The news reached Europe and Asia, too, where Thailand's newspaper The Nation quoted local business hero Miko Matsumura as saying that Ginger was "kind of like a flying super tuk-tuk."
Word traveled at Internet speed. A day after the Mark story, a pair of ardent speculators started theITquestion.com, packed it with articles and a bulletin board, and claimed, within 24 hours, 125,000 visitors. Then came GingerPoll.com ("What do you think Ginger is: Can Opener? Hoax? Hovercraft?") and theGinger.com ("it HAS to involve computers in some sort of way, and not software"). Over at Slashdot.org, the news site for nerds, amateur sleuths posted one of Kamen's recent patent applications, along with more than 50 illustrations he'd submitted for previous patents; the messages ranged from the technological ("Perhaps IT is a robotic prostitute") to the gastronomical ("The George Foreman Grill has already been invented"). By the end of the second week in January, four days after Mark wrote his first piece, Ginger/IT was the fourth most requested search term on the Lycos search engine, right behind Britney Spears.
The websites became the subject of additional news stories, which the sites then posted, generating still further stories. So great was the momentum that not even Kamen -- who emerged on January 12 with a statement downplaying the buzz -- could stop it. "The leaked proposal quoted several prominent technology leaders out of context, without their doubts, risks and maybes included," Kamen's statement read. "This, together with spirited speculation about the unknown, has led to expectations that are beyond the mere whimsical."
But it was too little too late. Inside.com was invested in the speculation, having devoted three stories to IT. In response to Kamen's statement, Mark filed a retort saying that "Kamen himself made claims as grand as those made by those handpicked witnesses to greatness. In a letter to Kemper about the book proposal, Kamen wrote that the invention would 'profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide.'" Afterward, Inside.com ran a piece evaluating the frenzy it had initiated (titled "The 'IT' Files: Who Cares If the Hype Is True, Let's Talk About the Hype," it also likened the IT phenomenon to the Transmeta one) and also planned to recap the whole affair in its print magazine. In other publications, the point-counterpoint between Kamen and Inside.com was duly noted, and then the speculation rolled on. There were a few skeptical voices. Forbes.com said that "IT has media manipulation written all over it." But on the whole, the game had run for so long that by the time IT reached the morning talk-show circuit, it was being compared to cold fusion.
Here's Bryant Gumbel on CBS's The Early Show on January 25, 2001:
Gumbel: So it's a mode of transportation.
Meteorologist Mark McEwen: See, it's like a little scooter....Well, let me tell you what these guys said. Now you said Jobs. It -- is it Jobes?
Cohost Jane Clayson: Steve Jobs.
McEwen: I pronounced it Jobes.
Clayson: I always called it Steve Jobs. What is it?
Gumbel: Don't look at me.
McEwen: Okay. They quoted Apple's Jobs as saying -- listen to what Steve said: "If enough people see the machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it, it'll just happen."...Listen to what Bezos says from Amazon.com: "It's a product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it."
Clayson: And these guys, Bezos and Jobs, have -- have invested millions of dollars.
McEwen: That's right.
Gumbel: It's between the Internet and cold fusion.
Clayson: Somewhere between the Internet and cold fusion -- Okay.
Gumbel: Cold fusion. That's pretty big.
In fact, neither Jobs nor Bezos is an investor in any firm held by Dean Kamen. And the scientific community believes that cold fusion is not feasible. But at this point, we were in the playground of myth.
I WAS CURIOUS TO MEET the writer whose article started the craze, and PJ Mark agreed to meet me for lunch at a restaurant near Inside.com's offices in Manhattan. Mark, who is in his early thirties and cordial, was crisply attired. Though his television appearances hadn't hurt his career, he seemed sheepish about the media ride. It was, he said, a surreal experience. Though Mark had no regrets, he did say, "I would have stressed more the hyperbole of the proposal. It was always a book story for us. It was never a tech story."
Had it been a technology story, perhaps Mark would have quoted from the proposal more inclusively. Brill's Content obtained a complete copy of the proposal and found that portions he left out portrayed IT as being mired in setbacks and uncertainty, a far cry from an invention about to take over the world.
The proposal reveals that Kamen, far from flush with venture-capital cash, had mortgaged his home in 1999 to pay DEKA's employees. It also says that Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were deeply critical of IT's design and the plans for its release. Jobs said the design "sucks" and that "its shape is not innovative, it's not elegant, it doesn't feel anthropomorphic." Bezos said, "I think this plan is dead on arrival. The U.S.A. is too hostile." His idea was to introduce IT in Singapore. (Jobs thought it should be introduced at Stanford and Disneyland in order to build interest and run feasibility studies.)
The proposal continues, "All it took was one stupid kid at Stanford who hurt himself using a Ginger and then said on-line that the machine sucked, and the company was sunk, because there was no way to control or counter it."
"All the talk about small launches at colleges or in foreign cities or among industries worried [Kamen]."
And as for the billions of dollars? Kamen's marketing director, when asked by venture capitalist John Doerr what Ginger would be worth in dollars and cents, could not provide an answer: "Doerr snorted in disgust and shook his head, then looked at Kamen to see if he understood that he had a dunce for a marketing director....Doerr still seemed agitated. He had drawn several conclusions from the meeting. First, they needed a value proposition. Second...the launch was indefinitely on hold until they got the product right."
SO WHERE DID that leave IT? Was the phenomenon -- and by the end of January, that's precisely what IT had become -- nothing more than hype layered on hype, a spectacle of no meaning? The morning after our dinner, I visited Kamen at home in a last effort to find out.
There was a tall metal gate keeping visitors at bay, beside which was a granite marker with Kamen's name etched in, announcing the occupant to passersby. I buzzed, and the gate opened to a long, sharply curving driveway, which crested at the top of a hill, where there was a house designed by Kamen.
Many millionaires build homes to impress, but this one was designed to leave the impression of a scientist at work. In his varied career, Kamen had invented a drug infusion pump, which made him rich; a portable dialysis machine; and, most recently, an all-terrain wheelchair he called the IBOT. In the living room, there was a gigantic steam engine, at least two stories high and extending down into the floor below, that Kamen had bought from the Henry Ford Museum, reassembled himself, and put in working order. There were, in strategically positioned glass cases, various models of historically significant inventions, including a replica of a Ming Dynasty compass. It was a museum designed for entertaining. Spread out across the shiny floor were toys: a stainless-steel pool table, a Lucite Ping-Pong table, a working vintage elevator, a pinball machine, an original tabletop version of the seventies videogame Asteroids. But for all the life these playthings suggested, the place had a strangely sterile feel to it -- the only personal touches, the only signs of the individual who lived there, were Kamen's awards and plaques and the many portraits of Albert Einstein.
In the basement, Kamen had a factory-quality shop, complete with a computerized lathe and a foundry for melting metal. There were several clocks lying about (he makes them as a hobby) and tools of every sort. When Kamen is tired and unable to think clearly, he relaxes with his machines. He'll calibrate the gears on a clock or cut a steel rod into finely threaded bolts.
On the way down to the shop, I noticed several diagrams and futuristic sketches of various devices. When I asked if I could write about them, Kamen replied, "Well, they're not really for the public. I mean, people know about them, but they're not public."
Kamen's dining room doubles as a conference room, and we settled there for the interview. It was here that Kamen had held so many meetings with corporate leaders, trying to persuade them to invest in FIRST. He reiterated his dilemma: This year's FIRST competitions were starting soon, and he was worried that any interviews he gave would focus on IT, which, he said, he had both a fiduciary and legal obligation to keep out of the public eye.
Steve Kemper's earliest conversations with Kamen were about FIRST. Then Kemper wrote a glowing profile of Kamen for Smithsonian magazine in 1994, and the pair developed a mutually beneficial relationship. It's not clear who dreamed up the book idea or whether the two had a financial agreement. Kemper declined to be interviewed for this article, but his book proposal states that Kamen offered to pay him for the job, which Kamen vehemently denies.
The disagreement doesn't stop there. Although Kamen says he believed a good chunk of the book would be about FIRST, Kemper's proposal, which is 26 pages long and structured as a series of letters from Kemper to his agent, mentions FIRST only in passing. Kamen also told me that he thought that Kemper's agent had sent the proposal under strict confidentiality to only two publishers. But according to three publishing sources I spoke to, the agent had submitted the proposal to at least three editors via e-mail -- without a confidentiality agreement, which is how literary agents protect sensitive proposals. The proposal had also been sent to several New York-based literary scouts, whose job it is to flog American books to overseas publishers. It is beyond reasonable to assume that Kemper's agent, Dan Kois, who works for the high-powered Maryland-based Sagalyn Literary Agency, was unaware that Inside.com had a practice of writing about hot proposals and that scouts were some of its main sources. So there was a good deal of speculation in the press (confirmed by two people in the publishing business) that the proposal was leaked after the Harvard sale to drum up interest in the foreign rights.
In response to that speculation, Kamen said, "You know, would people think I did this -- I didn't know, and I just...I made a simple statement, which took an hour to write. I didn't want to accuse anybody, not the guy or the agent of doing anything knowingly, misrepresenting things. But I just wanted everybody else to know, hey, I've got a private little company, I've spent 30 years working on projects, and I know how to hold a confidential -- I mean, I'm not saying anything. What I was saying was, I don't really think it's appropriate or in anybody's best interest...." He looked off into the distance and shook his head.
While Kamen says he has no personal disagreement with Kemper, he adds that he "would have assumed and believed to this day that he still couldn't disclose to them things that are confidential information inside DEKA, which apparently he did, because people are all speculating." Whatever their understanding, it's clear that the writer-subject relationship is now strained, perhaps beyond repair. All of Kemper's overheated prose is distinctly at odds in at least three respects with Kamen's own view of his work. First, Kemper portrayed Ginger as a project ready to take off. Kamen, on the other hand, suggested that it was still very much on the drawing board and nowhere near completion. "This is hype about a product that doesn't even exist yet," he reminded me. There were patents that needed to be filed, he said, which was why he couldn't talk about IT; discussing an invention before filing a patent can result in loss of rights.
Second, although the proposal paraphrased representatives of the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston as having projected that Ginger would make Kamen richer than Bill Gates in five years, Kamen says he is not aware of any financial projections made about Ginger, and certainly none that compared him to Bill Gates. "I don't even know how much money Gates has," he said.
Third -- and, for Kamen, worst -- was the issue of confidentiality. Kemper's agent, Dan Kois, along with Harvard Business School Press, declined to comment for this story, but by Kamen's account, Kemper had signed a confidentiality agreement with him, and by releasing details of the meeting to the public, even if it was only to the small world of book publishing, he had breached that agreement. Furthermore, Kamen believed that Kemper was obligated to get permission from Jobs and Bezos and anybody else before quoting them in either a proposal or a book.
Indeed, the hype got Kamen in trouble. According to Kamen, half of the meeting with Jobs and Bezos was about FIRST -- though obviously not the half that made it into the proposal. By Kamen's lights, he was meeting with Jobs and Bezos in order to get their help with FIRST; IT was secondary, "coffee table" conversation.
Kamen says that Jobs was more than a little annoyed at the implication that he had invested in Ginger. Shortly after the stories began to break, Kamen called Jobs, Bezos, and John Doerr and apologized. "I called them all and said, 'You know, I hope this thing isn't a source of nuisance and embarrassment, and also I hope you all understand I certainly wasn't trying to exploit your reputation. And I guess, certainly there's a lot of bad judgment here, but I don't think there's any malice,'" Kamen said. "I just apologized to them," he continues. "I think they were all very classy about it. But that only makes you feel worse."
WE PAUSED OUR interview for lunch. Kamen said he was sorry we couldn't fly to a nearby restaurant in his helicopter, as the rotors were being repaired. We went down to a garage, a short walk from the main house, where a mechanic Kamen keeps on staff was lying under the chassis of his truck.
"How's it going?" Kamen asked.
"I still gotta put your muffler back on," came the reply from under the truck.
Kamen leaned under the hood. "Did you fix the lights?"
"Nope. Haven't gotten to those yet."
Kamen then asked if it was going to be ready by the evening, and the mechanic said yes. As we walked to my rental car, Kamen explained that his mechanic was certified to repair both airplanes and cars. The combination of those skills, he said, was, sadly, increasingly rare.
FOR ALL THE TIME Kemper spent with Kamen (two days a week for two years), he seems to have missed an essential trait of his subject: Kamen is a master of exaggeration. Kamen knows this about himself, but he also knows that when it comes to launching a new enterprise, being skilled in the art of hyperbole is often the difference between success and failure. "Look, I say FIRST is going to be as big as the Olympics....[It can] change American culture," he said.
In fact, Kamen is such a good publicist for his own work that he's gotten press for his wheelchair, IBOT, even though it has yet to be approved by the FDA. Of course, he's not alone in his ability to impress a media always hungry for the next new thing. Bezos, after all, became the Time magazine "Person of the Year" despite running a company that loses money on every transaction. And Jobs emerged from the disaster that was the Newton to revitalize Apple, largely by encasing the computer in a candy-colored shell. The business and technology presses know all too well that the salesman's reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, which is why most avoided this January's media frenzy. As Wired noted in its September 2000 issue, it was well known within technology circles that Kamen had for the past five years been working on a project that combined a balancing mechanism -- like the one he designed for the IBOT -- with a clean-burning Stirling engine into some sort of personal transportation device. But since nobody has ever made a Stirling engine viable for mass production since the engine was first patented, in 1816, Wired never gave the project much heed. The "wearable car," as The Washington Post had dubbed it, may fit the individualistic tenor of our times, but rolling sidewalks were much discussed in the seventies, when urban planners predicted they'd become standard in cities and usher in a new kind of communal space; now, of course, they are to be found only in airports. Furthermore, standing in the way of consumer acceptance of any new kind of vehicle are not only a host of regulatory issues, the vagaries of the market and marketing, and inclement weather (which would disfavor an open-air device of the sort Kamen purportedly imagined), but also just plain old inertia. One could hope that all that might be overcome -- but anything more than hope would be a guess.
By the time Kamen and I were finished talking, it was late, and I clearly wasn't going skiing. Kamen offered to let me sleep in his guest room. I accepted. As the evening stretched on, we polished off two bottles of excellent wine (his private label) and talked about many of his other plans to change the world. Kamen had just been to Davos, Switzerland, at the global summit of leading political figures and intellectuals, and was disappointed by the lack of leadership he saw there. Then there was the Stirling engine, which Kamen said might be adapted to power portable water purifiers in Third World countries, thereby saving the tens of thousands of people who die every month from tainted water. And, of course, we talked a lot about FIRST, and the failure of American culture to honor worthy icons. By the time I went to bed, IT seemed the least interesting project on his plate.
The next morning, I woke up early, with a dry mouth. I walked through the silent hallways and down the stairs, heading for the kitchen. On the way, I passed the library and paused for a moment. I could see a thick bound document sitting on Kamen's desk. I'd seen it the previous day on my tour with Kamen and knew the cover said "Confidential." I thought about tiptoeing in, flipping through the pages, and reading all about IT. Frankly, it wasn't ethics that held me back, and it wasn't a failure of nerve. I was supposed to care, but I didn't. What I wanted right then, more than anything else, was a glass of water.
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