When good Segways go bad

I can’t stop laughing.

Remember the Segway? Remember how, back in the fall of 2001, it was supposed to launch a new high-tech boom, revitalize the economy, and even — according to Jeff Bezos — “revolutionize the way cities are designed”? How it was the hush-hush secret subject of a book that got a quarter-million-dollar contract from the Harvard Business School Press? And remember how the inventor Dean Kamen boasted that the gyroscopic controls were so brilliant and precise that “it is virtually impossible to fall off the Segway”, as he told Wired News?

Well, President Bush took one for a ride yesterday — and did a total face-plant. According to ITV:

US President George Bush has been photographed falling off a high-tech scooter near his family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

A sequence of photos show President Bush stepping onto a two-wheeled high-tech scooter and then lurching forward before recovering his balance.

Bush’s mishap may not be surprising, considering Segways have proven to be sufficiently unstable that they were recently banned by the city of San Francisco. An Atlanta police officer also went flying when he tried to ride one. So, as a matter of fact, did Gina Ghershon.

But we’re being too harsh here. Though the Segway was undoubtedly subject to far too much hype — which includes Bezos desperately shilling them on Amazon.com — Kamen is a brilliant guy, and the device is a really neat piece of engineering. Dig the schematics he’s put online, which include this lovely bit of detail:

Our engineers were so obsessed with the details on the Segway HT that they designed the meshes in the gearbox to produce sound exactly two musical octaves apart—when the Segway HT moves, it makes music, not noise.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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