2005-2006

Introduction of Dean Kamen as University Lecturer

I am delighted to join Provost Simpson in welcoming our guests to this inaugural University Lecture, the first in what we hope will be a continuing series of presentations by the scientific, technological, and humanistic leaders of our time.

As many of you know, WPI has a long tradition of enterprising and innovative leadership in technological education. Our pioneering approach, from its origins in the founding principle of balancing theory and practice, to the modern WPI Plan for Education, has produced exceptionally productive practitioners, entrepreneurs, and leaders who have made a real impact on our society and improved the lives of millions.

In recognition of this heritage I am delighted to have the opportunity this afternoon to introduce an individual who is truly the quintessential inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur. He is also an integral part of the WPI family - He is a former student, a recipient of an honorary doctorate, and the first recipient of WPI's Presidential Medal. So, it was very fitting that Dean Kamen was chosen to deliver our first University Lecture.

Smithsonian magazine called Dean Kamen "the Pied Piper of Technology," and there's probably no better way to describe a man who, as an undergraduate at WPI, began to forge a path that would lead millions to life-changing tools and resources they could use in their everyday lives.

Of course, nearly everyone knows that Dean invented what is perhaps today's coolest form of urban transportation - the Segway® Human Transporter. What not everyone realizes is how revealing this product is about Dean Kamen as a social entrepreneur. He invented the Segway to address the way we build communities-by making cities more efficient and more fun. "The next generation," he told CNN, "is going to need something for its pedestrians [in our cities] in the same way Henry Ford invented something for people moving out of the cities. The city needs a car like a fish needs a bicycle."

Dean is a master at turning "what ifs" into real workable products and solutions. One evening he was struck by the sight of a young man in a wheelchair unable to get over a curb at a shopping mall, and so he set out to rethink the chair. The Independence™ iBOT™ 3000 Mobility System, developed at his corporation, DEKA Research & Development, opens a new door to freedom for millions of wheelchair users. The iBOT™ steps over curbs, climbs stairs, and elevates the user to eye level with a standing person.

So we see, for Dean Kamen it is as important that the products of his work improve peoples' lives as it is that they find a market. "We shouldn't be asking what technology can do," he has said, "but what it should do. I think it should give people health, education, and sustainable transportation."

Dean Kamen has made a strong and consistent commitment to education, centered on his creative efforts to encourage teenagers and even pre-teens, to become interested in science and technology. He was among the first to champion the cause, now voiced by many, of improved science and mathematics education in this country, not only to produce the sophisticated labor force required to advance our high technology industries, but just as importantly to provide a path of upward mobility for the talented members of America's underclass.

Among his proudest accomplishments is the founding the FIRST and FIRST LEGO robotics competitions - or what Dean calls "the NCAA of Smarts." Through FIRST, high school students are matched with engineers from local companies, given a standard kit of parts, and challenged to build a working robot in six weeks.

Part of what I find so impressive about the structure of the FIRST competition is the game in which the robot must compete. Revised annually, the game drives the analysis of optimal design for both the robot itself and the strategies under which it competes, thus giving students a full and early experience with the essential, core principle of engineering design in much of its full complexity.

Perhaps FIRST is so meaningful to Dean because his creative mind was always at work from an early age. As a teenager, he built control systems for sound and light shows that were so good that Manhattan's Hayden Planetarium, the Four Seasons, and the Museum of the City of New York requested installations. In high school, he was asked to automate the ball that drops in Times Square on New Year's Eve. During breaks in his schoolwork at WPI, he continued inventing but found the basement in his parents' house too small. So, he sent them on a cruise and engaged an architect to expand the basement under a newer wing of the house.

It is no surprise that he has been honored often, by many, including

  • the National Medal of Technology in 2000 for inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide and for innovative and imaginative leadership in awakening America to the excitement of science and technology
  • the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002 for Invention and Innovation
  • 2002 Person of the Year by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
  • induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.
  • He holds more than 200 U.S. and foreign patents.

From inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide to innovative and imaginative leadership in awakening in America's youth the excitement of science and technology, Dean Kamen is truly an inspiration to all of us. We are proud to have him as a most distinguished member of the WPI family, and to welcome him home to deliver our first University Lecture.

November 3, 2005