A Modern Day Edison

Dean Kamen was born in 1951 in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York. Dean’s father was an artist working as an illustrator for Weird Science and Mad comic books. His mother, Evelyn, was a high school teacher. From a very young age Dean was a tinkerer. He was always building gadgets from appliances in their home. When he was five years old he invented a way to make his bed without running from one side to the other.

Young Dean was obviously bright and very curious. However, he did not do well in school, earning just average grades in junior high and high school. He found himself at odds with his teachers, which is a common experience with creative people. Rather than do his homework, he would read primary texts like Isaac Newton’s Principia on his own and then heckle his science teacher. Thomas Edison, for example, spent only three months in a formal school. Edison’s teachers told his mother he would never learn anything and was a waste of their time. Instead, Edison’s mother taught him herself at home. He read every book he could get his hands on. Like Edison, Dean Kamen is still an avid reader of science texts.

By the time Dean was a teenager he was being paid for his inventions, which he built in his parents’ basement. He designed, built and installed light and sound systems for local bands. He was even asked to work on automating the giant ball that is lowered on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Before he graduated from high school, Dean Kamen was earning around $60,000 a year.

Following high school, Dean Kamen attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. But again, he was more interested in inventing than going to classes. During his early years at WPI, Dean developed the first of his many medical breakthroughs. Dean’s brother Barton, now a renowned pediatric oncologist, was in medical school and commented to him that patients who needed round-the-clock medication were forced to check into a hospital for treatment. Dean came up with his AutoSyringe, a portable device that could be worn by patients and that could administer steady doses of medicine, such as insulin. Kamen worked on his AutoSyringe during his frequent trips home. The Kamen family basement was soon over- crowded. Dean hired an architect to expand the basement under a newer wing of the house. He hired a crew to prop the house on stilts to make room for a Bridgeport milling machine, an arc welder, lathes, saws and other equipment. During the heaviest construction, Dean sent his parents on a cruise.

After five years at WPI, Dean Kamen still hadn’t earned enough credits to graduate and he was asked to leave. He moved back home to Long Island and poured all his energy into his AutoSyringe. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article about the benefits of his pump. The National Institutes of Health ordered 100 units. The medical community embraced his AutoSyringe and among his peers he gained a reputation as a maverick inventor. In 1982, Kamen sold AutoSyringe to Baxter International, an international health-care company. The sale made him a multi-millionaire at the age of thirty.

In the late 80s, Kamen watched a man in a wheelchair try to negotiate a curb. He wondered whether he could build a chair that could hop curbs without losing its balance. After $50 million and eight years in development he built the iBot Transporter. The iBot is a six-wheeled robotic “mobility system” that can climb stairs, traverse sandy and rocky terrain, and raise its user to eye-level with a standing person. Its dual processors direct the grounded wheels to move back and forth slightly, compensating for weight shifts. The iBot is so stable in balance mode that its occupant can even win a shoving match with just about any human. The iBot erases the need to retrofit a home for a wheel chair. To test it out, Kamen himself saddled up his iBot and climbed the stairs from a Paris Metro station to the restaurant level of the Eiffel Tower.

In the mid-90s, Kamen devised a phone book-sized dialysis machine. Similar devices at that time were the size of dishwashers and required patients to make regular trips to dialysis centers. Vernon Loucks, former chair of Baxter International, contracted Kamen’s company, Deka Research and Development, to develop the machine. He recalls, “We didn’t believe it could be done. Now it’s all over the world.” Deka also designed and worked on a series of innovative vascular stents for Johnson & Johnson. To date, Dean Kamen holds more than 440 US and foreign patents. In 2000, Kamen was awarded the National Medal of Technology. He was also awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.

Dean Kamen broadened his work beyond the medical field. Deka designed and built the Segway Personal Transporter. It can carry a rider up to 250 pounds and cargo up to 75 pounds at speeds up to 17 MPH. It is a totally self- balancing system of gyroscopes, computer chips and electronic sensors. The Segway has no brakes, no engine, and no steering wheel. It is battery powered and can be recharged. He believes technology and ingenuity can solve all kinds of social ills- like pollution, limited access to electricity, and contaminated water in third-world countries.

Deka’s team of 170 engineers is working on a nonpolluting engine called the Stirling, funded by several million dollars of Kamen’s own money. The engine is based on a concept first conceived by Robert Stirling, a Scottish Minister, who patented the first version in 1816. The basic principal of its external combustion is simple: a chamber is filled with a gas that expands as it is heated by a small heat source, such as a propane flame, and contracts when cooled. The process operates as a piston and drives the engine. Cheap local fuels can be used to run the engines and Kamen has adapted his model to produce electricity instead of mechanical power. Kamen hopes it can be developed into an affordable, portable machine that will run a water purifier/power generator that zaps contaminated water with a UV laser to make it safe for drinking. He envisions briefcase-sized Stirlings powering cell phones and cell towers, as well as purifying water. “It can burn any fuel, and you can do all kinds of things with it,” he says. “It might be very valuable in emerging economies, giving them access to electricity, even the Net.”

Currently, Dean Kamen’s first love and great passion is an idea that may be his most far-fetched yet: turning engineers and inventors into pop-culture superstars. Kamen sees the lack of appreciation for science as a problem. He believes students “need to have access to challenging, hands-on projects that result in a tangible product” and that they need role models such as engineers to assist them. In 1989, Kamen founded U.S. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), as a non-profit organization to encourage kids to pursue careers as scientists, engineers, and big thinkers. Dean Kamen and First’s Vision is, “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes”. He launched First when he realized that many American teenagers were unable to name a single living scientist. “You have teenagers thinking they’re going to make millions as NBA stars when that’s not realistic for even 1 percent of them. Becoming a scientist or an engineer is.” Kamen refers to First as “the NCAA of smarts”.

First sponsors an annual national competition that matches high school students with engineers from local companies. The students are given a standard kit of parts and challenged to build a working robot in six weeks. There are only two restrictions: expense (no more than $425 can be spent on additional parts) and weight (the robot can be no more than 130 pounds). The robots are pitted against each other on a playing field. The best-designed and wiliest robots rise to the top.

One year the annual robot competition took place at Eastern Michigan University. GM, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, Xerox, and NASA together supported 171 teams. The robots had to pick up basketball-sized rubber balls and drop them in bins, earning different points for different colored balls. The robots could also earn points for hanging from a chin-up bar and earned extra points for helping a partner robot hang from the bar. In one two-minute match one robot grabbed the chin-up bar, slid along it laterally and plucked balls out of its opponents’ goal and placed them in theirs. The competition is aggressive and exciting. The crowd gets as worked up as WWF fans.

These days when Dean Kamen arrives at the competition (which he never misses) teenagers approach him and say, “Can we have your autograph?”

Jody Victor