How the Segway didn't change the world

Originally published at: How the Segway didn't change the world | Boing Boing


It’s a classic first-mover (see what I did there?) problem: it cost too much and did too little.
With hoverboards, one-wheel skateboards and other devices proliferating, the segway seems quaint.
You still see the occasional Segway Tour tourist attraction, and some police usage, but nobody talks about it anymore.


he was the literary agent who got inventor Dean Kamen a $250,000 book deal.

Correction, @beschizza: he got another author (Steve Kemper) the book deal.

I remember this whole business well. I was on Netslaves at the time, where someone was tracking this and making it increasingly clear that “Ginger” was not the touted earth-shaking innovation but an advanced scooter. When that somewhat derpy patent drawing dropped we all gave a big digital groan. By the time Diane Sawyer said “that’s it?” on the Segway’s morning show debut we had moved on.

Kamen is one of those brilliant engineers who, instead of designing for the built environment and human needs as they exist, expects all of it to adapt to the requirements of his invention. In 2021 it’s still a major and agonising undertaking to get a U.S. city to built a few dedicated lanes for the bicycle (an innovation first adapted in large numbers more than a century ago).

Also, while there’s still an opening for “last-mile” mobility devices, most places in the U.S. are still too car-centric and still too underinvested in public transit to make the “last mile” something most consumers consider.




It was hyped like crazy. Anyone should have realized that it could never live up to what they were saying it would accomplish. I laughed. Then it came out, and I laughed harder.

The inventor has had some great ideas. But marketing isn’t his forte.


I remember a coworker at the time falling for the hype and predicting that it was going to be a “biological computer” or something. I believe I had mercy and just avoided the topic after it was revealed.


Another failure

The concept was ahead of its time, it didn’t help the technology was way behind the idea.


I don’t even think it’s that.

The marketing campaign described it as something that was going to change life as we know it. That our cities would be reorganized around it. The structure of society itself would change. Global warming would be a thing of the past.

And it was a god damn scooter.

Even then, and even at that price there was a market for the things. In exactly the context you see them in. Malls, and parks, museums and tours and shit. It was never going to be a mass consumer success, and even those hover boards were more fad from a thousand factories than corner stone product for a new company.

They tried to make it that anyway. Using some pretty extreme claims no scooter would live up to. Cause it’s a scooter.

I was very convinced at the time that it was a perpetual motion device scam, or a classic efficient car investor scam. Because the marketing seemed so similar to such things. Others expected a practical electric car or revolutionary train system.

And it was a scooter.


Did it seque into anything life changing? No.


I fell for all the hype too. I wanted to believe that this new ‘revolution in transport technology’ was sure to be some kind of anti-gravity device which was kind of a Holy Grail of mine.

I was so violently disappointed that I would have murdered the guy had he had the misfortune to meet me. And such was my residual disappointment a decade later, that when it was widely touted that the designer of the Segway was killed riding a Segway, I was very pleased.

(I’m not proud of this. And I know now that that guy, was a different guy)


If Elon Musk had led with an electric familymobile instead of a roadster that looked like a Lotus and took off like a rocket, I’m not sure Tesla would have survived the hype. But in his case the hype was pretty equal to the first Roadster.

The Segway, meanwhile, was a scooter.


Why didn’t the Segway work? Because generally, people are born with feet. The end.


Wait, he went on that show KNOWING they would not let him run it and demonstrate it? (Stated at 1.30 in the video.) Why would anyone agree to such a restriction?
The guy was setting himself up for a fall if that was typical of the level of marketing nous deployed in general.

Truer words …


The Segway was not the flying car/teleportation device that we were promised, that much is for sure.


That’s because no one wants to be spotted riding one in their own city.


(Least obscene version I could find)


I always thought Kamen’s pre-Segway invention was much more impressive and serving a much better need. The Segway tech was first used in his stair-climbing wheelchair. I don’t know became of that or why it didn’t get more press but if we have wheelchair riders in the thread maybe someone can comment. Perhaps it was not as effective as it looked, was too expensive, or had other flaws.

In fact it was literally a Lotus. It was the legendary Lotus Elise chassis, which is incredibly engineered for strength and light weight. That chassis is the only reason Musk’s pile-of-laptop-batteries was a practical car at all. He was once again taking credit for the work of others. The body they put on it was objectively uglier than the Elise also, but maybe I’m biased as a Lotus fan.


Essentially the segway looked like a two wheeled pogostick…
enough said


I saw one of those in the wild, and it looked useful. It also had the ability to “stand” and balance on its wheels so that the users head was at normal height for a standing person, which made interactions with standing people or standing, bar-height counters easier.