Biography of Dean Kamen, American Engineer and Inventor

Portrait of Dean Kamen

Shahar Azran / Getty Images

Dean Kamen (born April 5, 1951) is an American engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who is best known for his invention of the Segway PT, a self-balancing personal transporter scooter. He is also noted as a founder of the non-profit FIRST organization for advancing science and technology-dedicated education. Holding over 450 patents, Kamen has been called the “next Thomas Edison,” particularly for his life-changing inventions improving the mobility of persons with disabilities and treating illnesses ranging from diabetes to cancer.

Fast Facts: Dean Kamen

  • Known For: Inventor of the Segway self-balancing scooter
  • Born: April 5, 1951, in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York
  • Parents: Jack Kamen and Evelyn Kamen
  • Education: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (no degree)
  • Patents: US8830048B2: Control of a personal transporter based on user position (Segway)
  • Awards and Honors: National Medal of Technology, Lemelson-MIT Prize, National Inventors Hall of Fame, ASME Medal
  • Notable Quote: “Life is so short. Why waste a single day of it doing something that doesn't matter, that doesn’t try to do something big?”

Early Life and Education

Dean Kamen was born on April 5, 1951 in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York. His father worked as a graphic artist for Weird Science, Mad, and other comic books, and his mother was a teacher. By his own account, he was a lackluster student, preferring to educate himself on advanced science and engineering topics outside of school. According to Kamen, he had created his first invention by age six: a pulley system that enabled him to make his bed without running from side-to-side.

Kamen’s career as a professional inventor took off in his teenage years. While still in high school, he was asked to automate the annual New Year's Eve ball drop at Times Square. He designed sound and laser-light displays local rock bands and the Museum of the City of New York. By the time he finished high school, Kamen’s creations were earning him around $60,000 a yea— more than the combined incomes of his parents. After completing high school, Kamen headed to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study engineering.

Early Inventions

As a sophomore at WPI, Kamen invented a pocket-sized, wearable medical device that delivered precisely measured doses of medications, such as insulin, over extended periods of time. In 1976, Kamen dropped out of college to found his first company, AutoSyringe, to produce and market his insulin pump.

In 1981, Kamen sold AutoSyringe to health-care giant Baxter International. The same year, he founded DEKA (DE-an KA-men) Research and Development Corp., a firm dedicated to creating robotic mobility solutions for persons with disabilities. By age 30, Dean Kamen had become a multimillionaire.

After founding DEKA, Kamen invented a groundbreaking portable and affordable kidney dialysis machine that allows diabetics to dialyze at home while they sleep. In 1993, the device earned him the Medical Product of the Year award from Design News and set the stage for his best-known inventions to date: the iBOT, the Segway, the Slingshot, and the “Luke” Arm.

The iBot

Revealed in 1999, Kamen’s iBOT self-balancing mobility device is a self-balancing, multi-terrain, battery-powered wheelchair. Built from sensors, microprocessors, and gyroscopes that would later be incorporated into his Segway, the iBOT allows its users to climb stairs without assistance and travel safely over uneven surfaces, including sand, gravel, and water up to 3" deep. With its ability to stand upright on two wheels, the iBOT empowers persons with handicaps to move about at eye-level.

Bill Clinton and Dean Kamen in the office of the president. Kamen is on his iBOT.
Inventor Dean Kamen demonstrates his iBot wheelchair for President Bill Clinton. US Government/The White House

Because of the iBOT’s flexibility and agility, Kamen nicknamed the project “Fred,” after famed dancer Fred Astaire. He would later nickname his Segway project “Ginger,” after Astaire’s equally famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers.

Commercial production of the iBOT was temporarily halted in 2009 due to high production costs. By then, only a few hundred units per year were being sold at a retail price of about $25,000. However, in 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered its costly federal regulatory controls over personal mobility medical devices, allowing Kamen and DEKA to revive the project. In 2016, DEKA entered into a partnership with Toyota to produce a new, less costly version of the iBOT.

The Segway

On December 3, 2001, after months of media-hype and public speculation, Kamen appeared live on the ABC News morning television program Good Morning America to unveil his best-known invention—a battery-powered, two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter he called the Segway.

Inventor Dean Kamen introduces the Segway Human Transporter, the world's first dynamic, self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine.
Dean Kamen introduces the Segway Human Transporter on December 3, 2001. Mark Peterson / Getty Images

Based on technology developed for the iBOT, the Segway used independently computer-controlled motors and gyroscopes in each wheel to remain upright and change its direction and speed according to the rider’s body movements. The device’s name comes from the word “segue” which literally means “follows without pause.” As the rider leans forward, backward, and to the left or right using a handlebar attached to its base, the Segway follows accordingly. Capable speeds up to 12.5 miles per hour (20.1 kph), the Segway can cover up to 24 mi (39 km) on a fully charged lithium-ion battery.

When the Segway hit the market in early 2002, Kamen predicted future sales of 10,000 units a week—half a million a year. However, by late 2008, only 30,000 Segway scooters had been sold. While it worked as advertised, the Segway suffered from its $4,900 price tag and a bad public image. It had been featured as a comedic prop in the movie “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” gaining it a “nerd toy” image. In 2003, President George W. Bush was filmed falling off one and in 2010, Segway corporation owner James W. Heselden died after accidentally steering his scooter off a 30-foot cliff, landing in a river.

After a patent infringement dispute in 2015, Kamen’s Segway Corporation was purchased by its Chinese rival Ninebot. The two companies announced at the time that they were uniting under a “strategic alliance” to develop less expensive electric scooters using Segway’s self-balancing technology. Ninebot soon began selling several models of Segway-branded scooters priced at $1,000 or less.

While it never dominated the general consumer market as Kamen had predicted, the Segway has found success in commercial fleet applications. Police officers, mall security guards, warehouses workers, tour guides, and airport maintenance staff are now commonly seen riding Segway scooters.

The Slingshot 

Named for the humble weapon used by the Biblical David to defeat the giant Goliath, the Slingshot is the result of Kamen’s 15-year quest to bring safe drinking water to the world. “Fifty percent of all chronic human disease would go away—you would empty 50 percent of the hospital beds in the world—if you just gave people clean water,” Kamen has said.

Using a Stirling engine specially modified by Kamen to drive a process called vapor compression distillation, a single compact refrigerator-sized Slingshot can purify more than 66,000 gallons (250,000 liters) of water per year—enough to meet the daily needs of about 300 people. According to Kamen, the Slingshot can run on any combustible fuel, including cow dung, and can remove all organic and inorganic pathogens from “anything that looks wet.” In a 2004 demonstration, Kamen ran his own urine through a Slingshot, immediately drinking the water that came out. During a test in the summer of 2006, two Slingshot devices successfully produced clean water in a Honduran village for over a month.

In 2010, Kamen’s DEKA corporation announced it had partnered with Coca-Cola to manufacture and test the Slingshot in remote communities in Latin America. While the first Slingshot units cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Kamen has projected that savings from increased production will eventually result in a price in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

DEKA Arm System ("Luke Arm")

In 2006, Kamen and DEKA developed the DEKA Arm System, codenamed the “Luke Arm,” an advanced prosthetic arm named after Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand. Kamen took on the project after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) announced its “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” program intended to drastically improve the quality of life for wounded veterans returning home from the Iraq War.

Photograph of the Luke Arm prosthetic arm invented by Dean Kamen
The “Luke” prosthetic arm invented by Dean Kamen. Dean Kamen / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Offering its users much finer motor control than traditional prosthetic limbs, Kamen’s Luke Arm was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2014. At the time, the FDA stated that the Luke Arm was the first prosthetic arm approved by the agency that “translates signals from a person’s muscles to perform complex tasks.” Unlike traditional prosthetics, the Luke Arm allows its users to carry out multiple powered movements, while its fingers can apply six different user-selectable grip pressures.

Today, three configurations of Kamen’s Luke Arm are manufactured and marketed by Mobius Bionics in Manchester, New Hampshire.

FIRST Advances STEM Education

In 1989, Kamen founded FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—a non-profit organization for students ages 6 to 18 to promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. According to Kamen, the mission of FIRST 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 leaders.”

FIRST offers robotics-focused programs for K-12 students worldwide in three age groups, including the FIRST Lego League Jr. for younger elementary school students, the FIRST Tech Challenge for middle and high school students, and the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students. In 2017, FIRST hosted 163 teams from 157 nations in its inaugural Olympics-style robotics competition—the FIRST Global Challenge— at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Similar Global Challenge competitions have since been held in Mexico City in 2018 and Dubai in 2019.

“FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect – of the program nor of themselves. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future.” – Dean Kamen

Kamen has called FIRST the invention he is most proud of, predicting that the millions of students who take part in its competitions will go on to contribute to world-changing technological advances in years to come.

Awards and Honors

Kamen’s inventions and dedication to science and technology education have garnered him an array of honors. In 1998, he received the Heinz Award for “a set of inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide.” The National Medal of Technology Kamen was awarded in 2000 praised him for “innovative and imaginative leadership in awakening America to the excitement of science and technology.” In 2002, he was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize for his invention of the Segway, and in 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the AutoSyringe. In 2007, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers awarded Kamen its highest honor, the ASME Medal. In 2011 Kamen was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Mechanical Engineering by the Franklin Institute, and in 2013, he received the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.

Though he never formally completed college, Kamen has been awarded honorary degrees, beginning in 1992 with an honorary doctor of engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the college where he was inspired to develop the AutoSyringe. In 2013, WPI further honored Kamen by awarding him its Robert H. Goddard Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement. Among other institutions, Kamen has received honorary doctorates from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008, Yale University in 2015, and Quebec’s Université de Sherbrooke in 2017.

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