“Let’s run it through from the top. This is going downhill.”
Dean Kamen is standing on a six-inch riser in an almost empty room in the basement of Westwind, his 32,000-square-foot house in Bedford, New Hampshire, trying to get this thing right. It’s crunch time for FIRST, the high-school robotics competition Kamen founded two decades ago in an effort to get kids jazzed about engineering, to make science as sexy as sports. (FIRST = For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)
In less than a month, 42,000 students on 1,700 teams will gather at 43 regional championships to showcase the ball-throwing ‘bots that each team has spent six weeks assembling in novel ways from nearly identical boxes of parts. At stake — besides glory — is $9 million in scholarships.
Kamen would dearly love to speak at every one of those 43 regional games, because he can’t afford to squander any opportunity to reach any one of those 42,000 fertile minds. But even Dean Kamen can’t be multiple places at once, so he’s decided to clone himself through the magic of video. And that’s why Kamen and his FIRST Robotics Competition co-founder, Woodie Flowers, are standing here peering into a teleprompter, trying, take after painful take, to perfect their message.
“You can bail out a bank, but you can’t bail out a generation,” Kamen recites for the tenth time in the past hour, and then his reedy voice trails off. “You can’t bail out a generation . . . you can’t bail out a generation,” he mutters to himself, the wheels turning. This is supposed to be a pep talk — the barn burner the coach delivers to hype up the players before they storm the field, Kamen and Flowers taking turns exhorting these junior roboticists to new heights. But somehow the message keeps twisting away from simple inspiration toward something a bit more complicated.
“You can bail out the banks by printing money, but you can’t bail out a generation of dumb people by printing diplomas. …Although I personally think printing more money is about as dumb as printing diplomas.” As Kamen (who, for what it’s worth, never earned a college diploma) wanders further and further off-script, Flowers tries to reel him back: “After I say, ‘The world needs more and more people like you, dedicated to solving problems, problems that really matter,’ then, Dean, you need to go right into ‘But we have to get started,’ ” says Flowers, fully aware that trying to direct Kamen is futile. “We’ve been at it for 18 years,” corrects Kamen. “We can’t say ‘get started.’ “
Finally, hundreds of edits later, Kamen seems to feel that he’s gotten it right. “There is a lot at stake in the world today,” he intones. “We need you to be able to tackle energy challenges, advance our abilities in medicine, and develop entire new industries. Innovation is absolutely an essential part of the solution. Even before the current financial crisis, we were in a deep competitive hole. Too many people were making money from money, or money from flipping houses and hamburgers. Too few were using hard-earned science and engineering skills to devise real solutions. We need more of you to make your investment in learning and thinking — to be innovators. But we have to hurry. World leaders may be able to bail out the banks by printing money, but you can’t bail out a generation by printing diplomas. It takes hard work, but it’s worth it.”
No one ever said inventing was easy. And make no mistake, that’s what the man who created the Segway is doing here. He’s working on refining the invention that will trump all others, that will establish his legacy long after he’s gone. Except this invention isn’t made of gears and gyroscopes. What Kamen is doing is trying to reinvent our entire culture. And the brains of these high-school students is where he’s going to start.
You might be interested to know a few things about Dean Kamen. You might like to know that while he barely eked out his high-school diploma, as a teenager he had already turned his parents’ basement into a machine shop and was making 60 grand a year rigging sound and light shows at museums and hotels around New York City. (He’s an ADHD dyslexic, that classic driven-innovator double threat.) You might like to know that he’s a creature of habit, offloading pesky daily decision-making by wearing the same uniform of Levi’s jeans, denim button-down shirt and work boots every day for nearly 30 years and eating at the same middling Italian chain restaurant almost every night. It might intrigue you to learn that he is a pop-culture conscientious objector, a man who has watched Star Wars dozens of times and every other movie exactly never. And that in his garage resides the 14th Tesla electric Roadster to roll off the factory floor, with a license plate that says “FIRST,” plus a Porsche coupe and a military-grade Hummer. In another garage are his two Enstrom helicopters, a three-seat piston-engine model he’ll sometimes take for a three-minute commute to his office and a turbo-powered 480 for longer jaunts, like when he decides to head over to North Dumpling, his private three-acre island in Long Island Sound that in 1987 he declared (only half-jokingly) an independent and sovereign nation.
You might be interested to know all that, but, according to Kamen, you shouldn’t be.
“Have you looked out the window lately? Read the news? The world is a mess!” he says. “We’re obsessing over distractions and pastimes while the world unwinds itself!” Kamen is sitting in his office, across from a chair that’s painted to look as if Einstein were seated on it. Above him hangs an aerial photo of his lighthouse home on North Dumpling, the image emblazoned with a characteristically provocative boast: “The only 100% Science Literate Society. America could learn a lot from its neighbor.”
Kamen is not entirely averse to the propagation of the Dean Kamen mythology. Indeed, if he’s going to rally the troops necessary to rescue this country from its descent into moral complacency and moronic doldrums, attaining rock-star status would be a wise tactical move. He’d just like to control the message. So here is what he would like you to know about him, something he deems a worthy investment of your mental energy: that every one of his inventions — the wearable drug-infusion pump he devised in 1973 at age 22, the Segway scooter, his water purifier for impoverished communities — has been designed for the betterment of mankind. And that in 1982 he built from nothing a company of inventors-for-hire called Deka Research, with the express mandate that they only invent products that make the world better. It’s also worth knowing that Kamen’s definition of better is not flexible: Better means giving humanity what it needs, not what it wants. Once we’ve provided the basic necessities (water, power, health care) for the nearly seven billion people on the planet, Kamen explains, then we can go back to chasing a quick buck.
“I don’t think Wilbur and Orville and Thomas Edison set out as their primary goal to figure out how, in the shortest period of time possible, to make the most money,” says Kamen as he wanders through the cavernous top floor of a newly acquired, gutted industrial space a quarter-mile upstream from Deka, number nine in his collection of abandoned textile-mill buildings. “They set out to make a machine that could fly, or make night safe by making light.”
Of course, Kamen makes money — a great deal of it, actually. But, he asserts, “making money is a consequence of good invention, not a motivation for invention.” And that’s how he runs his Manchester research outpost. Beholden to no stockholders and no bottom line, he has fashioned an inventor’s paradise, where the laws of physics and thermodynamics are the only ones that matter, the laws of economics banished to some less evolved place and time. Deka is a strange, cultish world of really, really smart do-gooders who have the will and the capacity to build life-altering machines, and they couldn’t care less if the rest of the country thinks they’re crazy. It’s an extension of Kamen himself.
“Deka is a masterpiece,” says bioengineer Jason Demers, who has worked with Kamen for 15 years. “One person can do only so much. But when you get 300 people to think like you — and with your strengths — well, that’s when you can get a whole lot done.”
Now if Kamen could only get the rest of the world to run like Deka.
Clean Water for Everyone
Kamen’s Stirling engine–run Slingshot burns grass or cow dung or whatever is handy to power the world’s poorest, grid-less villages and convert their brackish water into clean drinking water. For the power, the Stirling alternately heats and cools (and in turn expands and compresses) helium sealed inside a cylinder, pushing pistons to create work. Channeled into the Slingshot, that energy boils water in a chamber. The steam is superheated by a compressor and, as it condenses into clean water, releases heat that can be recaptured to keep incoming water boiling.
In 1987, a doctor named William Murphy died and left his most prized possessions to his son, a doctor named William Murphy Jr. Not long after that, Murphy Jr. invited Kamen, who was already a successful inventor of medical devices, to his home. When, through casual conversation, Kamen learned that neglected somewhere in his friend’s house, jammed into a cluttered closet or packed in a box, there was a Nobel Prize — the actual Nobel Prize diploma that his friend’s father had received in 1934 for his treatment of anemia — something fired in Kamen’s brain. Suddenly he could see it clearly: We’re celebrating the wrong stuff. We should celebrate the heroes in science and technology the way we celebrate sports figures and entertainers. We need an organization directed at kids that exists solely for inspiration and recognition of science and technology. We need FIRST.
That was in 1989. Now Kamen had a vision, and soon he had a nonprofit and a snazzy red, white and blue logo designed by his father, the acclaimed pulp comic-book artist Jack Kamen. Not long after, Kamen and Flowers met for the first time, and, as Flowers recounts it, “had a philosophical love-in.” Flowers, a mechanical engineering professor, had founded an engineering contest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that attracted more fans than the school’s football games. The contest, the two came to agree, should be blown out into a homecoming-game-style sporting event for high-schoolers: the NCAA of smarts. By the inaugural FIRST competition in 1992, Kamen had arm-twisted companies like Xerox and Baxter to foot the bill for the games and to sponsor 28 student teams, all mentored by professional engineers. It sounds small by today’s standards, but it was four times the size of any of the MIT contests, and it was an instant hit with the kids. By 1995, the contest had more than doubled in size, and it’s been growing rapidly ever since.
“If you give a clever kid just one wish, he’ll wish for 10 more wishes,” says Kamen. “I’m that clever kid. If you ask me what my greatest invention is, I’d say it’s more inventors, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. It’s FIRST.”
Forgive him his urgency, his evangelism, his hard-earned sense that not enough people out there get it. Over nearly four decades, Kamen has built an unparalleled portfolio of transformative medical devices: portable insulin pumps, stents, mobile dialysis machines, a breakthrough prosthetic arm. But when it comes to his more ambitious “fixes,” the ones with the potential to affect tens or hundreds of millions of lives, the world tends to give him a much cooler reception. Before the Segway debuted in 2001, the media was falling over itself to get a glimpse of the new machine, which was $100 million and 10 years in the making behind the closed doors of Deka’s skunkworks lab. When Kamen finally lifted the shroud of secrecy, it was to a mystified Diane Sawyer’s “That’s it?” Instead of transforming the way we get around cities, the way we design cities, the Segway has hit roadblock after regulatory roadblock, suffers weak sales, and appears destined to remain a novelty.
Kamen hoped his iBot wheelchair, which climbs stairs and raises a user to eye level, would transform the way disabled people interact with their environment. The iBot is one of the key innovations behind his selection for some of the nation’s most prestigious honors, including the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-MIT Prize and the Heinz Award. But in January, with insurance companies and Medicare refusing to foot the device’s steep $26,000 price tag, the Johnson & Johnson division that manufactured it had no choice but to discontinue its production.
“I am the most frustrated man on the planet,” Kamen pronounces. “But after someone kicks sand in your face, you’ve got to keep on going.” For all his setbacks, he is still a true believer. It’s not his solutions that fail; it’s the rest of the world that fails — fails to see the value in his solutions.
One December evening at UnWine’d, a Kamen haunt in Manchester with live jazz and a wine selection that rivals the one in his own home’s basement, something bad happens: The silent flat-screen TV in the corner of the bar catches Kamen’s eye. “Look at these guys running around in tights and padding and throwing a ball around a field for millions of dollars.” He’s been snared by highlights from Monday night’s snooze of a matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans. “It’s ridiculousness! We get what we celebrate in this country, and if we celebrate bounce-bounce-throw…”
He’s interrupted by a call from Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle. After sacrificing approximately half a second for pleasantries, he jumps right back onto the pulpit, this time preaching to Lingle. She’s already a big FIRST supporter, but Kamen wants more. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, he tells her, has pledged to make Kamen’s state the first in the union to have a FIRST team at every high school. Kamen is trying to spur a race between the two states.
“You rarely see him eat, because when other people are eating, when their mouths are full, he’s got a captive audience,” says Vince Wilczynski, a FIRST game designer and dean of engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Kamen admits that he’s shameless about pushing FIRST on anyone within earshot, bartering for favors and never missing a chance to rally support, be it in the form of time or money. “When I’m in a room, people around me hear a sucking sound,” he says. “That’s me trying to take any bit of energy they have left and redirect it to FIRST.”
Kamen has no trouble justifying his relentlessness. Every spring, he sees the thousands of kids massing at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, home to the FIRST championships, and thinks, One of these kids is going to cure cancer someday. “We’re playing with the laws of large numbers here,” he says. “You’ve got to look at the probability of outcomes.” In fact, the formula is pretty simple: The more problem-solvers you have, the more problems they will solve.
Already, he estimates, a million people have competed at FIRST games. Ten percent of MIT’s freshman class last year were FIRST alums. According to a 2005 Brandeis University study, compared with non-FIRST students, FIRST students are significantly more likely to go to college, get graduate degrees, and volunteer in their communities. More impressive still, they are twice as likely to pursue careers in science and technology, and four times as likely in engineering.
But for Kamen, it’s not enough. FIRST should be a competitor to the Super Bowl, not the science fair. “Dean has always said that we’re going to change the culture of the country,” Flowers says. “But he thought at the end of the first FIRST season, after we’d shown that it works, that it should take off.” It didn’t, at least not to Kamen-satisfying levels. After 18 years, FIRST is not in every school; it’s not even in 10 percent of schools. And scientists are not celebrities. “Everyone else involved sees FIRST as hugely successful,” Kamen says. “The way I see it, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Most kids in America have never even heard of FIRST.”
Maybe FIRST is a victim of Kamen’s uncompromising nature. Maybe his scorn for “bounce-bounce-throw” is getting in the way of creating a truly popular culture-changer. “Football works because we all know what’s going on in the game,” says fellow inventor Greg Harper, who is part of a faction of FIRST insiders who want to make the game more entertaining. “As it’s played now, it’s not a spectator sport. We’ll know we succeeded when FIRST is televisable. Even Kamen agrees with that.” Besides the teams, only parents, teachers, sponsors and mentors fill the stands, and even they have a hard time following what’s going on, partly because the game — the rules of the match, the designs of the robots — changes from year to year. And what doesn’t change, like the scoring and alliance systems, is so convoluted and unique that Kamen actually patented it.
The design committee is at a crossroads. Should they do the same contest over and over, so that fans don’t have to learn how to watch a game? Is boosting popularity and growth worth the sacrifice of making FIRST less challenging for the future innovators of America? FIRST could very well prove to be the perfect solution to an intractable problem; he may well have devised the formula for making the ideal engineer, scientist, inventor — the perfect problem-solver. Or maybe, as with some of his other lofty inventions, he’s found a beautiful solution that fails to account for the marketplace. Maybe he just expects too much of other people.
There is nothing in Kamen’s life that is superfluous, nothing that does not serve the greater mission. Not even his home. He’ll lead you through his hexagonal maze to tour centuries of science and industry: the three-story steam engine, the hand-cranked elevator from the set of The Sting, the Wurlitzer jukebox stocked with classical music, 19th-century wooden wheelchairs juxtaposed with his iBot, a pinball machine, a flight simulator, a chess-playing robot. For the endless string of overnight VIPs or the families of employees called to work on Sunday afternoons, Westwind is also a five-star resort, complete with indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, championship-grade tennis court and lighted baseball diamond, most of which Kamen has never enjoyed himself. But then, this is a man who hasn’t taken a vacation in 30 years (he’s 58). Or so the rumor goes, though it’s a hard one to believe; even Kamen’s hero Einstein took vacations.
And indeed, Kamen denies the allegation — sort of. “I take vacations all the time,” he says. “Vacations from the Slingshot to work on the Stirling, vacations from the Stirling to work on the prosthetic arm, vacations from any of that for FIRST. But if you mean going to some island and lying on the beach all day doing nothing, no, I have never done that. If you could point to one thing I’m working on that is not so important that I can spare to waste a week, well then, I’ll go on vacation. But you see, those are the projects that I’ve already given up. What’s left — these are too important to waste even a minute.”
Time. It’s the only thing Kamen fears running out of. It’s why he can’t take a day off. It’s why he can’t stop working until he is too exhausted to think. It’s why, only in the wee hours of the night, after too much wine and too little sleep, will Kamen the preacher, the salesman, the uncompromising moralist finally take a vacation from the hard sell. In the comfort of his hexagonal wine cellar, with its redwood panels and thousands of aging vintages, Kamen turns into an ordinary man, with fears unconquered and dreams unrealized and an almost obsessive awareness of his own mortality, heightened by the recent loss of his father to cancer.
“Other people have peace because I think maybe they just don’t think about it — the ticking clock. But it’s always there with me. I know that I have this finite amount of time, and there’s so much to do, so much in this world that needs fixing,” he says. “What if I don’t have time to finish all this before . . .” The London Symphony (playing the Moody Blues) fills the silence of a long pause. “I can’t cheat death,” he says finally. He begins to talk with his hands. “I’m not a religious man,” Kamen says, “but I have a kind of faith. Faith that these kids will be able to finish what we’ve started.”
Six Weeks to Game Day
It’s day one of build season, and the Morris High School FIRST robotics team from the Bronx — dubbed 2Train, for the subway line that takes them to team meetings — is still wrapping their minds around the challenge that has just been unveiled. Teams must design and build robots that gather balls off a court, shoot them into goal baskets attached to opposing robots, and do it while sliding over a tennis-court-size field as slick as an ice rink. The low-friction polymer surface is meant to simulate the crippling effect of the moon’s one-sixth gravity, which helps explain the name Kamen and crew have given this year’s game: Lunacy.
By day three, team captain Adam Cohen, drill in hand, is ready to start building. A couple dozen students gather in the machine shop of Columbia University’s engineering school. The gymnasium-size shop, packed with lathes, mills, grinders and CNC machines, will be their second home for the next six weeks. Wearing a “Robots have feelings” T-shirt and a heavy tool belt, Cohen is already taking apart the bearings on four plastic wheels. Most of the other kids are still in brainstorming mode, and lead mentor and engineer Bob Stark, who runs the shop, encourages any and all ideas. “How about we use a turret to shoot the balls?” says one student. Suggests another, “We could use a laser, like the laser in your computer mouse, to track the acceleration.”
Today is laid-back and low-key. Soon, though, they’ll be napping on cold cement floors and eating leftover pizza off workbenches in the little snatches of downtime they can grab between fabricating parts, writing code, and wiring electronics.
Three Weeks to Game Day
Team 2Train is revving up to test-drive Tan Tan, the five-foot-tall boxy robot that the students have packed with $7,000 worth of controllers, gears, motors and conveyor belts. At the moment, they’ve got Tan Tan sprawled on its back in a corner of the machine shop, its innards exposed for inspection and adjustment. A handful of the students crowding around Tan Tan begin to speculate about who will drive the robot at the upcoming competitions. Tryouts are in a week. “I don’t want to be a driver,” says sophomore Steve Thomason, in baggy jeans and a black hoodie. “It’s too much pressure. Maybe a shooter.” From the sidelines, two students will drive the robot with joysticks, while three more will shoot “moonrocks” into the opponent’s baskets. “The guys shoot a lot of b-ball,” says mentor and Columbia engineering student Hans Hyttinen, a former FIRST kid himself, “so we’ll score big there.”
Thomason also has his sights set on another position: scout. Several students will be assigned to identify teams at the competition that would make good allies. Alliances are a huge part of the game. Each two-minute match pits one three-team alliance against another, and the alliances change with every round. So the players have to work well not just with their own teammates but with their competitors too.
One Week to Game Day, 10 hours to Robot Shipping
“OK, turn it on,” says Hyttinen. “It is,” replies Noah Kleinberg, a senior in charge of programming. Nothing. No electricity runs through Tan Tan’s wires. It’s past 2 a.m., and the robot must be crated up and ready for transport to the New York Regionals by noon tomorrow. The tick of the clock is nearly deafening. The robot has logged many hours on the sample sheets of slippery polymer the team laid out to make a test field in an empty parking lot. Tan Tan wasn’t exactly graceful, but it moved when and where it was supposed to, mostly. Now it won’t respond to even the most basic of commands: on.
They systematically disconnect and reconnect everything, part by part. Tick, tock, tick, tock. After an hour, Hyttinen steps back and realizes that the sleep-deprived students, when swapping in some new motors, wired them backward. An easy fix.
By 3:30 a.m., all systems are go. Ball-shooting time. The students start feeding Tan Tan moonrocks, rolling them toward it. The robot’s lower belts spin so fast they suck in one ball, two balls, three. But nothing comes out of the top. Adam Cohen sums up the prevailing verdict: “Now we’re sort of screwed.”
Game Day, New York Regionals
During the first two-minute match, it’s mayhem. The six boxy robots on the field, which looked so different from one another a minute ago on the sidelines, now have standard-issue goal baskets nearly as big as the robots hitched to their backsides, making them all blur together. Dozens of orange-and-purple and pink-and-purple moonrocks whiz across the tops of the baskets. Most fall to the floor, where they’re sucked up through the bottoms of the ‘bots. A few land in trailers and score — either 2 points or 15, depending on… well, don’t even ask. For a second, you can make out 2Train’s robot — distinguishable only by its team number, 395, labeled in red — scooping up moonrocks like mad. Half a dozen are already about to spill over the top. Kleinberg, who is remotely driving the ‘bot from behind a Plexiglas wall a few feet way, rams it against an opponent’s trailer and dumps in all his moonrocks. It takes a few beats for Kleinberg to hear a delayed cheer from the stands once the scoreboard catches up to game play. 2Train’s alliance wins this match, but in the end it’s not enough to place in the regional. In two weeks, they’ll head to Philadelphia for another stab at a championship spot.
Game Day, Philadelphia Regionals
2Train is on fire in Philly. They’re 3 and 0 on day three of the tournament, and Tan Tan is proving to be one of the competition’s biggest scorers, pummeling opposing robots by as much as 67 points — practically a shoo-in for the semifinals. Except that Tan Tan is just one big hit away from permanent breakdown.
The bot’s “scooper,” the lower conveyer-belt system that sucks in moonrocks off the floor, has taken a serious beating over the past day and half. And every time the robots slam into each other (which is about as often as bumper cars, given the slick polymer field), the impact bends the already bent metal shafts even more and knocks the belts farther out of alignment. The pit crew has replaced the shafts twice, and has no more spares.
“All we’ve got for tools are hacksaws, screwdrivers and whatever we can get our frazzled brains to think up at that second,” says team captain Cohen. At one point, senior Gabriel Ruiz bends the shaft back to almost straight with his bare hands and knees, buying the team a few more rounds. “When you’re in the pit, it’s your job to turn the robot around, no matter what,” Cohen says. “No matter what, you fix it.” So that’s what they do. They fix it. Over and over they fix it, and they keep bringing it back out on the field. In Cohen’s four years on the team, he’s never worked so hard or so fast.
The Final pits 2Train and its two partner teams against an alliance featuring the two top-seeded teams of the tournament. Tan Tan takes hit after hit, and Cohen and Ruiz wince every time. Only 15 seconds to go, and the scoreboard shows a tie: 64–64. “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!” they chant, in unison with the sea of voices from the pit, from the sidelines, from the stands, from the opposing pit. As the clock runs out, the scoreboard goes blank. Too close to call.
A minute of silence, and then the scoreboard flashes: 82–74. And team 2Train from the Bronx — Philadelphia regional champs — swarms the field. Next stop, Atlanta. After that, who knows?