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Psst . . . So There's This Thing Called 'Ginger' . . .

Mysterious invention will change the world, they say. Or maybe not.

January 22, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This thing called "Ginger" has taken on a life of its own.

It's the code name for a project by one of the country's most famous--and richest--inventors, a hobnobber with pols and stars.

It's the topic of a book proposal that supposedly promises to chronicle the development of the hottest product ever made, something that will change the world.

It's been the subject of endless speculation. The Web site where the story of Ginger first appeared crashed because so many people were trying to find out about it. Some of the biggest names in the high-tech field--from Apple's Steve Jobs to high-rolling venture capitalist John Doerr to Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos--have been linked to Ginger.

It is the stuff of Hollywood, only the hard part is figuring out if the movie is farce or drama. And one more thing, there's no ending--yet.

So what is Ginger? The answer is that, except for a few insiders, no one knows. Speculation has ranged from a personal jet pack to a mini-Hovercraft to a scooter that needs little or no fuel to a personal helicopter to some kind of gyroscopic gizmo.

If this were a movie, the opening scene would probably feature P.J. Mark, a 30-year-old New Yorker who writes about the book industry for Inside.com, which chronicles entertainment, media and technology events.

Mark, a transplanted Arizonan, writes about the ebbs and flows of the publishing world, from insider gossip to book contracts. And in that capacity he heard an interesting tidbit a little more than two weeks back about a book featuring a fantastic new invention. That was on a Friday. The following Monday, he found out the inventor was none other than Dean Kamen.

Now Kamen, 49, is hardly a household word, but he is a legend in the world of invention. In the summer between high school and college, he invented an audiovisual control system that earned him $60,000. In his third year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, he developed the first portable infusion pump to dispense drugs--a landmark in the medical field. He's also done wonders improving the kidney dialysis machine and the insulin pump.

By 31, he was a millionaire many times over, having sold his medical equipment company to the huge Baxter Healthcare Corp. He moved his operation from Farmingdale, N.Y., to Manchester, N.H., built houses for himself and his parents, and renovated 500,000 feet of vacant textile buildings for his research and development corporation, DEKA. He bought a helicopter, then another, then an airplane, then the airplane manufacturer. He bought an island off Connecticut called North Dumpling and, as befits his sense of whimsy, declared it the world's "only 100% science-literate society."

He did other things as well, including building an automated wheelchair capable of traveling over uneven ground and climbing stairs, a major advancement for the disabled. He founded an organization devoted to reawakening young people to the wonders of science and technology. Last year, then-President Clinton presented him with the prestigious National Medal of Technology.

So when P.J. Mark saw who the inventor was, he knew he had an item worthy of Inside.com's Internet news wire. He used his publishing industry sources to obtain a copy of the book proposal, which turned out to be a series of e-mails between writer Steve Kemper, who has written for a number of major publications, and his agent, Dan Kois, of the reputable Maryland-based Sagalyn Literary Agency.

Mark said what he found, even factoring in the normal hype involved in peddling a book idea, was remarkable. And also vague.

The proposal quoted Kamen as saying Ginger would "have a big, broad impact not only on social institutions but some billion-dollar old-line companies." It went on to quote Kamen as saying the invention will "profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide. It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities."

Not only that, the proposal quoted Amazon.com's Bezos as saying Ginger was "a product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it. The question is, are people going to be allowed to use it?"

It quoted Apple's Jobs saying, "If enough people see the machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it. It'll just happen." Doerr, meanwhile, is named in the proposal as having invested in Ginger.

The only thing missing, however, was a description of what Ginger really does.

In his follow-up calls, Mark said he hit a brick wall, except to find out that the venerable Harvard Business School Press had paid $250,000 for the book, a staggering figure for the academic press. Inside.com ran the story Jan. 9.

Then, as Mark put it, "All hell breaks loose. Nothing could have prepared us for what this story became."

The story became an overnight sensation. The media bandwagon, particularly television, took off, as the question du jour became: What is Ginger?

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