Dean Kamen Talks Engineering, Inventions

is an engineering hero. Among our readers, he ranks as one of the
most respected and accomplished engineers. His name is associated with highly
visible innovations such as the Segway, the portable infusion pump and more
recently innovative devices to serve impoverished areas of the world. He is also
a fierce advocate for attracting more students into engineering through organizations
such as the FIRST Robotics Competition
for high-school students.
Design News
Editor-in-Chief John Dodge recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with
Kamen at his sprawling hilltop home in New
Hampshire. Dodge also shot an extensive
photo gallery
of machines, scientific gear and industrial antiques in Kamen's

DN: What is the inspiration for this house?

Kamen: I just
wanted a really cool place that I could fill with really cool technologies, old
and new.

DN: How many pieces do you have?

Kamen: I've got a
lot. They are all my favorites.

DN: How long have you been collecting pieces?

Kamen: As long as
I can remember.

DN: Do you find it on the Web? Where do you get this stuff?

Kamen: I don't
think I found any single piece on the web. People know me and send me stuff. I
travel around the world and a lot of it is stuff made for me by DEKA engineers.
Once a year, I have a holiday party. They always come up with some beautiful
piece of technology that has some relevance to something we have been doing.

DN: You have a huge antique
steam engine
in the lobby. What did it take to get it in here?

Kamen: It's about
150 years old (built for the British
towboat Oscar
). It came out of the Ford Museum in Greenfield
Village (MI) and we started working on it years before I moved into this house.
I designed the house with that space available for it. When they finished
pouring the floor underneath it while there was still no roof, I had the two
core pieces of the engine brought in and we covered them with tarps. As the
house got finished, we started building the rest of the engine. Each spoke of
the six flywheel segments we brought in through the front door with 10 really
strong guys.

DN: How long did it take from the time you acquired it to get
it into this finished state?

Kamen: It's not
done yet. We're still doing work on it. Every year, I say this is the year it
will actually run.

DN: Do you have to get steam permits?

Kamen: No. We're
converting it to a Stirling
cycle engine
. The floor beneath that one (pointing) is where we're building
the cylinders for the displacers and then they will feed up through the floor
through a six-inch pipe to the working pistons in the main engine. The original
steam cylinders will be the working
of a Stirling
cycle engine
. So there will be no exhaust steam or noise - just this giant
beautiful piece of kinetic sculpture spinning away.

DN: How much does it weigh?

Kamen: About 40

DN: Was it a Ford
Museum surplus item?

Kamen: Every 20
years or so, the museum goes through a big process of redefining itself. When
they were doing that in the early or mid-80s, they (offered) this and I was
lucky enough to bid and get it. I had it disassembled out there and moved to a
big warehouse here. I did a lot of work disassembling it and taking each piece apart
with a forklift. Then we sand blasted and refinishing it and made the bright
metal shafts with stainless steel. All the castings we
refinished and painted
. We remade the bronze bushings and started
reassembling it piece by piece in the house.

DN: Is your company DEKA Research for profit and
privately held?

Kamen: Yes and yes.

DN: There's not a lot of information about your activities on
the website. Is that deliberate?

Kamen: A little
of each. The kind of stuff we put on the website is (information) about the
technology we are proud of and vectors to send people to FIRST where I want to get
information out. But there's not a lot of information I want to put out about DEKA.
We greatly value our privacy.

DN: How do these innovations find their way into market? Does
DEKA sell them?

Kamen: We are not
selling them because we have no production capability. The design is not ready
for production. When it is, we hope to find partners to do that because DEKA is
not in the business of making and selling products. We are in the business of
designing products and letting the rest of the world, typically our corporate
clients, go out and build and sell them so we can move on to designing the next

DN: Who makes the Segway?

Kamen: The
company Segway does.

DN: Do you own Segway or part of it?

Kamen: I retain
the technology and various companies have licenses to our technologies. Medical
companies have licenses to medical
and Segway
has a license for the consumer products.

DN: How many Segways
are out there?

Kamen: I don't
think they like giving out that information, but it's in the tens of thousands.

DN: What's some other news out of DEKA in terms of products?

Kamen: We're
working on lots of stuff. Most of the stuff I can't talk about because it's for
clients. The stuff I can talk about is a water project and a Stirling engine for
electricity for the developing world, the next generation of drug systems.
That's our day job. We're also working on prosthetic

DN: How far along are you on the advanced prosthetic

Kamen: Hopefully about
a year from today, we'll have them to take home and use in clinical trials.

DN: I understand with your water purifier, you can turn filthy
water into clean. Put in sewerage and out comes potable water. Is that true?

Kamen: The water
purified is a very robust system in terms of what it can take as input.
Literally, you can put in sewerage water and get out absolutely pure drinking
water. You can put in water with biological and chemical toxins. There's very little
concern about anything getting through that device.

DN: What is the filtering technology?

Kamen: It's a vapor compression distiller
and does a very good job of getting rid of most of the stuff that would be
problematic for filters or chemical devices.

DN: Is it ready for production?

Kamen: Nope.
Again, we are working as hard we can to make those things ready for production.
Our goal will be to find partners once we are done with the design that will
put it in production and as with the generator find some developed world
applications for it that can justify putting it in production and selling it in
the for-profit world. Hopefully that'll leave us with the capability to build
more of them (for the) developing world as a means of supplying desperately
needed clean potable water to over a billion people.

DN: How did you and DEKA end up in New Hampshire?

Kamen: I grew up
in New York.
As my business started growing, I needed more and more engineers and
scientists. I realized that getting people who were graduating from engineering
schools from around the country - young enthusiastic kids to move to New York - was a bit of
a stretch. You want to be in New York
if you are in finance, advertising, publishing or the fashion business. Getting
young enthusiastic inventors and engineers to move to New York would be hard. And I wanted to be
close to the Boston
area, skiing, the ocean, mountains and where there is a lot more open land.

There's a young kind of attitude and environment (here).
Being in New Hampshire
has a lot of the really neat advantages of being away from things that are
really big but close enough to access them. To me, it represented a perfect

I said let's give it try. People told me "You'll be back in
a year." When we moved up here, it was one of the best business decisions we
ever made. Look at us out here. You're up on a hill. You can't see a single
house. Yet, we're less than an hour drive from a major city like Boston and its
universities. We're right near other major universities like Dartmouth
and the University
of New Hampshire. It's a
place where you can be far enough from the big downtown and not feel isolated
from the world.

DN: How does one individual get 440 patents?

Kamen: Well, I
share them with a lot of my brilliant engineers. I am not sure the raw count is
the appropriate thing to do. We specialize in looking at the world's problems
and trying to find ways to apply technologies in new ways to solve old
problems. When you go about doing that, you do a lot of inventing. And so I
have a lot very creative inventive people. Since the only thing our company
does is create new solutions to problems, the only thing we really create is
intellectual property so we have to protect what we do.

DN: What are the most significant patents?

Significant is a bad term. We have classes of patents mostly around medical
products. But we also have patents around energy and transportation. We are working
in more areas.

DN: How important is energy in terms of projects at DEKA?

Kamen: It's
getting more important all the time. If you asked me that question a year ago,
we had one or two projects directly related to energy and others that are sort
of related in the sense like a Segway saves you energy when you're getting

Now we have a lot more projects related directly and
indirectly such as our Stirling engine, wind
technology, hybrid vehicles and a whole lot of technologies that collectively
would be considered energy.

DN: What is the status the Stirling

Kamen: The Stirling engine has been around since 1816 when it was
patented by Reverend
Robert Stirling
. As he did it, it wasn't very practical or competitive to
things like steam. Today it would not be very competitive to things like gas
turbines or diesels. But there are plenty of places where you need some form of
heat engine for which a gas turbine or diesel are not very practical today,
which is why they're not used.

DN: How is your Stirling engine
different from Reverend Stirling's engine?

Kamen: That's a
really good question because the core thermodynamic cycle and the brilliance of
his idea are identical. But in terms of implementation, today there are so many
better materials that you can run much hotter than he could. There are things
like sensors to control it better. We can get power in and out of the engine
without having any shaft that penetrates the pressure vessel because we have a
pure electric drive inside. In many, many ways, he would not even recognize
what we are doing as a Stirling engine, but the thermodynamics of it are all
pure Stirling.

DN: What are you doing in hybrids?

Kamen: We have
not talked much about hybrids. I have one out in the garage (After the
interview, we trekked to his garage and he showed me a THINK hybrid whose
engine was being converted to a Stirling).

DN: You and I were just at a conference where a guy said
conservation is a sham and that we are "chromosomally" incapable of it.

Kamen: I heard
him say that. I heard him say that. I think he was trying to make an
intellectual point as opposed to a factual point. I would agree in some ways
with what he's saying. It's unrealistic to expect people are going to be
disciplined enough to do that until the cost of not doing it is very high,
which is happening with the price of fuel. But I think he was saying, "Let's
use our creativity so we do not have to choose between quality of life and
quality of the environment. Let's find a way to use technology that will allow
us to do all the things we want to do...but do it using less energy and (without)
using energy in detrimental ways to the environment." And I think that's a
realistic goal.

DN: We heard another speaker who is a venture capitalist
criticize the Department of Energy, saying little comes out of it relative to
what taxpayers pony up to support it. He also said federal and corporate labs
are marginally productive. As a hyper-productive inventor and innovator, what
do you think?

Kamen: Well, I
think any entrepreneur sees any big organization as sub-optimal. The
entrepreneur has to do more with less and is competing with guys who have lots
and lots of resources and typically multiples of what's available to the
entrepreneur in terms of resources and times. So every entrepreneur measures
their relative capability against these big guys and says, "They're not doing
as much." And relatively speaking that might be true, but the economies of
scale tend to be better in terms of productivity for the little guy. If that
wasn't true, big organizations would have all the advantages if scale also made
them more capable of fundamentally being more effective. There would be no
little companies out there because they'd have no advantages. So I don't think
it's surprising that he and most people believe that little organizations are
more effective relative to their resources versus big organizations. That's an
ongoing debate and it's not going to be settled here or anytime soon by anybody

DN: What are you doing with wind energy? I notice you have a
turbine in your yard.

Kamen: We have a
wind turbine here and we are working hard now to make some changes in it from a
structural point of view.

DN: Is it homemade?

Kamen: That was
originally from a company no longer in business in the U.S., taken
over by a Canadian group, and we are making changes and improvements to make it
significantly better in terms of efficiency and reliability. And we're also on
a couple of other wind-related ideas that are totally different from that.

DN: What kind of output does that one have?

Kamen: That'll do
about 50,000W in a 24 mph wind.

DN: So my 7-kW Generac
generator will produce about one seventh of the wind turbine, right?

Kamen: The
trouble is the Generac
will give 7,000 kWs whenever you ask for it and I'll make 50 kW when the wind
blows at 24 mph.

DN: Won't that fuel development of storage technologies when it
comes to renewable energy?

Kamen: Storage is
either an unsung issue or opportunity, depending on where you sit in the world
of energy. You can't store electrons in the grid very well so a lot of the
magic will be unleashed when there are cost-effective, reliable, easily
integrated storage systems. But that will take awhile.

DN: We did some research among our readers about which
engineering hero they'd most like to have dinner with. You would sit at a table
with Ford, Tesla and Edison.

Kamen: (Laughs) Holy
mackerel. You know, if you said I was third out of three guys at that meeting
we went to, I'd be depressed.

DN: I think politicians were the group with most responses as a
group and businessmen were second.

Kamen: That's
disappointing. Who was the audience?

DN: The survey drew from 1,800 engineers who responded.

Comments (0)

Please log in or to post comments.
  • Oldest First
  • Newest First
Loading Comments...