Code Name Ginger

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“Now he was inventing a new story, in which I never told him that I was writing a book and in which he controlled anything I wrote.” Sounds familiar. “I” was Steve Kemper, the author of this book, and “he” was Dean Kamen, who became an amnesiac whenever it was convenient.

The Book of the Week is “Code Name Ginger, The Story Behind SEGWAY and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World” by Steve Kemper, published in 2003.

Born in 1951 in Rockville Centre on Long Island, Dean Kamen is a spell-binding genius entrepreneur with some social blind spots. Nevertheless, he had a well-founded fear that “…scientific illiteracy would wreck the country’s economy, lifestyle and future.”

Anyway, by the time he graduated high school, he had become wealthy building cool audio-visual lighting systems that synchronized multiple slide projectors for rock bands and friends and family. By age 31, he was a multi-millionaire, after producing patented breakthrough medical products, horrifying other alpha males– ones who held graduate business degrees– with his drastic plans.

In the early 1990’s, some of Kamen’s company-employees began working on his vision for a new product– a wheelchair that adjusted the way a human being would, to different situations such as curbs and stairs. He was extremely possessive of his product, which was his heart and soul. He wouldn’t grant investors more than ten percent financial interest in the product. Ever.

In 1999, the creators planned to launch the new product, code-named “Ginger” early in the second quarter of 2001, and projected the construction of cookie-cutter factories on different continents that would build two million machines in ten years. However, Dean’s fellow employees felt he didn’t understand that high-volume manufacturing for a product like Ginger required hundreds of employees, a dozen loading docks, fleets of tractor-trailers, etc.

Kamen also reeked of overconfidence, even when presented with ample evidence that disproved his claims. In the late 1990’s, there was already so much competition from other products in the forms of various scooters and folding bikes. At a December 2000 meeting of investors, Steve Jobs told him that U.S. automakers would lobby against Ginger and the automakers would win.

Kamen’s ace in the hole was that he had friendly contact with nearly all of George W. Bush’s cabinet in early 2001. They had the power to grease the wheels of commerce in his favor.

Read the book to learn how the product turned into a toy for the rich but made mobility fun, and the personalities that shaped its evolution.