Interview with the Segway Guy

He’s apparently gotten a bit weirder since the last interview/visit to his lair that I read. But it’s fun and funny weird. Anyway, he not only has a super-spectacular water filter now, but also a few things to say.


That business started six weeks ago, when the Coast Guard cut the cable to North Dumpling. They only maintained the cable to run the lighthouse and now they’re running it on photovoltaics, so Kamen had the option of crying in his beer or making lemons into lemonade, which is when he decided to deploy the Slingshot.

The “sling” is Lord Dumpling’s revolutionary new version of the Stirling engine, a no-emission power source that engineers have been trying to perfect for almost two hundred years. Instead of the tiny explosions that drive the pistons of a standard internal-combustion engine, the Stirling drives its piston by forcing gas from one chamber to another in a perfectly closed system. He’s pretty much got it nailed, aside from a few tweaks and a few niggling questions about who will pay for it.

The “shot” is his equally revolutionary vapor-compression water distiller, which can make pure medicinal-grade water out of anything that’s wet, even urine or toxic waste — water so clean you could inject it into your arm. Together, the sling and the shot could save millions of lives. That’s why he spent $50 million of his own money developing the prototypes and testing them in Third World villages, and they work, and we have to get the word out because 50 percent of all human illness is caused by waterborne pathogens.

… Here’s the vapor-compression distiller. The vapor goes through this hose and comes into the turbine heat exchangers here and there’s no noise and no consumables and no activated charcoal and no chemicals and no filter and no membranes. It makes a million liters of water in a thousand days with no human intervention. The goal is to get volume up and cost down. Maybe Wal-Mart can help? Coca-Cola?

And here’s the Stirling, handcrafted by some of the most brilliant engineers in the world. It’s running on propane now but a piece of burning cow dung will generate enough power to run a small refrigerator and charge a cell phone and run all the house lights — and remember, more than 20 percent of the people alive today have never used electricity. They need the tools. So who’s going to step up? Who will spend the millions and millions it will take to put this baby into production?

Also, this truism:

if some foreign power came into this country to pervert our kids from doing the things that sustain our quality of life the way sports does, we would find them and prove that they were treasonously undermining our way of life and kill them.

(Naturally, he’s talking about the crazy year-round, seven-day-a-week sports worship by today’s parents and kids, not ‘a sound mind in a sound body’.)

The amusing thing about his private island is that, as I read, I kept being reminded of the folks over at eyrie.net and their elaborate fanfic universe. The ‘okay, let’s build a solution, and let’s do it tonight’ spirit. The acronyms. The emphasis on sharing and education.

Come to find out, he went to the same school in Worcester, Massachusetts as the eyrie.net people did, and apparently managed even more to bend it to his will. Obviously, there’s something in the water in that town.

I’m also strongly reminded of Buckaroo Banzai. :)

He designed the house, too, shaping it around a three-story steamboat engine once owned by Henry Ford. He spent fifteen years rebuilding the engine himself, cutting every nut and bolt in the vast machine shop just below his living room. “Eighty-seven thousand pounds of love,” he calls it. Because there’s nothing so soothing as cutting a piece of steel when it’s late and you can’t sleep because you’re trying to work out some problem in your head. Because machines are more than machines, they’re a road map to the people who built them. They tell you what kind of problems they had and what they wanted. Just as Kamen’s inventions are his own autobiography in steel — every one designed to cheat gravity, to declare independence, to make every man the king of his own empire.

…This is why he never got married or had children. He loves being away from everywhere, completely alone. He can watch planes land at the airport. He can watch the weather change. And it doesn’t bother him that he usually comes home at nine or ten and drops into bed exhausted. It’s like the private island he rarely visits, the girlfriend he rarely sees, the vacations he never takes. It’s the idea that counts. Just knowing he has it is enough. Anyway, what should he stop doing? FIRST? Water? Power? Medical equipment? “I can’t stop,” he says. “As a practical matter, I can’t put the world on hold.”

He really can’t. There’s just too much he wants to do.

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One response to “Interview with the Segway Guy

  1. I’m going to retroactively back off my impression that the Segway was a weird and useless idea. I’d gladly drive an electric car with a Stirling charger. And Stirling-powered water filtration units? That comes very close to being a moral imperative to produce, considering the number of people who do not have reliable access to clean drinking water.

    Is Kamen a little on the strange side? Yeah, probably. But it’s a good kind of strange. Thanks for the link!

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