Celebrating the independent kiwi spirit of invention.

Research Topic: Ginger - What is IT?

This is probably what Ginger really is

The mystery invention code-named "Ginger" that has set the U.S. technology world abuzz may be little more than a morotized mini-scooter, judging from a recent patent application that came to light on January 12, 2001. A December 14, 2000 filing with the "World Intellectual Property Organization" describes a "class of transportation vehicles for carrying an individual over ground...that is unstable with respect to tipping when...not powered." The "personal mobility vehicle" pictures what appears to be a young girl balanced on a two-wheeled scooter. The Patent application by millionaire inventor Dean Kamen and six co-inventors fits descriptions made in broadcast reports by people claiming to have seen prototypes of the vehicle. REUTERS/HO

At this point I'll state that Ginger is probably some form of scooter (maybe not quite like the above diagram), and IT may be the Stirling engine powering it. But what is a Stirling Engine? In 1816 a Scottish Reverend named Robert Stirling patented an engine that was powered by the expansion of a gas when heated, followed by the compression of the gas when cooled. They use a heat differential, and are very efficient. Models apparently show up at science fairs, powered by the heat of a coffee cup or such-like (add ice to the top of the model engine to improve performance). So far there have been no really practical models of the Stirling engine - their power-to-weight ratio just hasn't been high enough.

Enter our inventor-extraordinaire, Dean Kamen. He has a patent for a Stirling engine, and may have succeeded in getting a practical version working. If so, Dr Kamen's Stirling engine won't win him friends in the Middle East.

A commercially viable Stirling engine would be a non-polluting, cheap power source that could completely change the dynamics of the dependency upon the Middle East's oil producing regions and cause fuel prices to tumble.

But back to the scooter iodea. In a statement from Dean Kamen himself:

"The leaked proposal quoted several prominent technology leaders out of context, without their doubts, risks and maybes included. This, together with spirited speculation about the unknown, has led to expectations that are beyond whimsical. We have a promising project, but nothing of the earth-shattering nature that people are conjuring up."

In other sources we get this analysis:

"Dean's two-wheel balancing device is really cool," said Dr. Wise Young, director of the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University. "It zooms around like lightning just by standing on it and leaning forward or backwards. The battery is the platform. Using it is totally intuitive."

Since he's talking about a battery, he hasn't been sworn to secrecy about that particular scooter, so I presume that IT - the engine - is the "big" invention.

UPDATE 3 December 2001

IT, as predicted, is a two wheel scooter, similar to the patent drawing at the top of the screen. The main difference is that the wheels are somewhat larger.

The scooter is battery powered and is moved forward or backward simply by leaning in that direction. Turning is achieved by using the two brake levers in the handle bars. It seems very easy to use, with even reporters able to make it move forward or backward under control without holding the handle bars. It moves up to three times walking speed and can stop on a 45 degree slope.

Three models will be available, designed for slightly different purposes, such as carrrying extra cargo.

Oh yeah. IT is called Segway. Cost is US$3,000 to US$8,000 depending on model.

Time has an interesting little graphic explaining the various parts, and an article about a reporter's first go on one. "It can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity." (That's US cents.)


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