The Segway Guy Is Making a Comeback, And We Should Be Paying Attention

The inventor of the Segway is making a comeback. Dean Kamen, a rather underappreciated inventor, is best known for his famously failed project: the Segway. The same man who produced the stereotypical, but lovable, mall cop image we know today has teamed up to solve one of the most pressing economic, environmental, and ethical issues of our time: water quality and distribution.

Recently, the Netflix documentary Slingshot, named after Kamen’s newest project, popped up on my recommendations list. The film isn’t going to rake in any Sundance awards, but it may move in next to Food Inc., Blackfish, and WasteLand as part of the humanitarian/eco-geek film canon. The film is one part biopic, two parts awareness building, and four parts infomercial for the Slingshot water system, which may revolutionize water and the way we think about the resource in our lifetime.

The Slingshot project is one of those surprising gems of science that is revolutionary, life-changing, life-saving even…and for some reason, the majority of the public has no idea that it exists. Some very dedicated Stephen Colbert fans might know about the appearance of the Slingshot, but all of us are familiar with the Slingshot system’s long-distance cousin. Remember the buzz surrounding the Coca-Cola Freestyle Machine unveiling?

It turns out, Kamen designed the Freestyle system in exchange for Coca-Cola’s partnership in the development and distribution of his Slingshot Water purification system. The Super Cherry Coke Mixture (Cherry Coke Zero plus Cherry Sprite Zero, 10/10 would recommend) would have never been possible if it weren’t for Kamen, yet more people know and care about the flavor combinations Freestyle made possible than the project Kamen traded it for.

And yet, more countries have Coca-cola bottling plants than drinkable water.

Coca-Cola has had its fair share of issues with water quality and ethics, which may explain why they were so keen to work with Kamen. Then again, Coca-Cola has bottling and processing facilities in more than 200 countries. More countries sell and manufacture Coca-Cola than there are countries in the United Nations! Also, Kamen tried to get the UN in on his project. The Slingshot system, a vapor compression distiller for all the science nerds like me who care, can take any polluted water source and produce a drinkable result. When Kamen says any source, he means it. The Slingshot system is one of the only systems currently that can purify ocean water, and it is the only available system that can do so with reasonable costs and processes. The machine requires no filters, which means less potential operator error. The machine usually runs on electricity and is capable of using cow dung as fuel, which means the Slingshot is an accessible option for multiple environments, cultures, and economies. The documentary emphasizes a vital mistake repeatedly made in the attempt to overcome the water crises in the past: the band-aid method.

It’s human nature to look for the one size fits all solution. With a name the like “the Water Crisis,” it’s easy to get stuck on the idea that a single solution and methodology will be the answer to our prayers. Kamen’s Slingshot attempts to overcome the “slap a band-aid on it” mentality by producing a smaller, lighter weight, more versatile system that is installed and utilized according to the discretion of those who will use the system daily.

The documentary also raised interesting questions about women and water when Kamen spoke about the presence of pharmaceuticals in our water supply, particularly, the hormones from birth control. Kamen even claimed that the steadily decreasing average age of puberty in American girls is partially a result of changes in our water quality. My red flags went off because if birth control was in our water, we would all know by now.

As it turns out, Kamen isn’t entirely wrong. According to Harvard Medical School and Scientific American, the hormones from birth control are infecting our water supply. * While most pharmaceutical drugs can be filtered from wastewater, the hormones present in birth control and, therefore, women’s waste, cannot. Most of the hormones present in the water actually come from agricultural waste and industrial production, but Kamen’s concerns should be taken seriously. Trace hormones have been proven to cause major damage and health defects, no matter the source or size. Scientific American confirms that the decreasing fish and aquatic biodiversity is a result of hormonal changes, such as intersexuality and infertility, that fish and amphibians undergo when exposed to the drugs.**

The Slingshot project could potentially be the solution to this problem, and if it’s not, then Kamen is determined to find a better solution. His film, multiple companies, nonprofits, and educational programs raise awareness about several environmental issues like this one. The man is innovative and unafraid to go against the grain. Steve Jobs thought the Segway was going to be “as big a deal as the PC,” and John Doerr, a venture capitalist who sits on the President’s Economic Advisory Board and is the 135th richest person alive with a worth of 4.1 billion U.S. dollars, predicted the invention would be “more important than the Internet.”***

You can’t always be right, and the Segway fell short, but Kamen hasn’t. He continues to generate cash, efficient products, and relevant solutions to pressing problems in the modern world. The majority of us have no idea that he designed a wheelchair that can travel smoothly and safely on any terrain, solving many issues of accessibility and mobility. Ironically, the gyroscopic balancing technology used in the recently popular hover-boards was first developed for the Segway. Maybe most importantly, he developed the drug infusion pump that is now used for chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and automated insulin pumps.

The list doesn’t stop there. Kamen owns more than 440 U.S. patents and is easily rich enough to buy his own country. Fun fact: He bought an island instead. It’s just off the coast of Connecticut and called “North Dumpling.”

Dean Kamen is the sort of man who just doesn’t quit. It wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes a household name in the next few years, and we can be part of his success. Watching the documentary and spreading the word about Slingshot and the important issues Kamen combats pressures Coca-Cola and other companies to work faster and more willingly on environmental and social justice issues. Use your next meal off campus as an excuse to try a new Coke Freestyle flavor mix and throw out the name “Dean Kamen.”

 

*http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/drugs-in-the-water

** http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/birth-control-in-water-supply/

***http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,186660-1,00.html

 

Image credits: giphy.com, arhp.org, blogspot.com