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The Segway rolls along in D.C.
Heavily hyped a decade ago, it serves needs of police, tourists
Remember the Segway? The high-tech scooter that was supposed to change the world, and mostly ended up changing the life of Paul Blart in “Mall Cop”? Turns out the much-mocked machine was simply miscast.
Last week, the Smithsonian Institution began offering guided Segway tours of the Mall, smartly addressing the annoyances and discomforts than can make summer sightseeing in the heart of the nation’s capital borderline arduous for unsuspecting visitors.
There are the crowds, disembarking from tour buses like beach-stormers at Normandy, armed with fanny packs instead of bayonets.
There’s the surprisingly commonplace dust, kicked up by construction and rehabilitation projects.
There’s the sweltering, shadeless heat, the real reason Congress decamps in August.
There’s even the sheer physical distance between, say, the Capitol and the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum, the kind of long walks made necessary by scarce local parking.
Enter the Segway.
“If ever there was a place for it, it’s here in D.C.,” said Rick Tyson, manager for Smithsonian Tours by Segway.“As far as touring goes — the White House, the Capitol, the memorials — to see everything, it’s the best way. You can do it in three hours, and learn all the history.”
Shameless corporate cheerleading aside, Mr. Tyson is right: A Smithsonian Tours‘ ride-along reveals Washington to be a near-ideal location for the Segway — and also a perfect place to understand why the machine never lived up to its initial hype.
Meet George Jetson’s lawn mower
A Smithsonian Segway tour starts with a safety video. Followed by an injury waiver. The takeaway? Don’t fall down. That would be bad.
The video is shown on an iPad — a device designed to fill the space between too-small smartphones and too-clunky laptop computers, the way the Segway was designed to fill the space between too-long walks and too-short car rides. Both inventions were much ballyhooed; only Apple’s tablet became a world-beating consumer product.
Nobody has to watch a nine-minute safety video before turning on an iPad.
The brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen — a National Medal of Technology winner and creator of the portable insulin pump — the Segway first gained mass notoriety in early 2001, amid breathless media reports of a secret device code-named “Ginger.”
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was a fan. Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr reportedly said Ginger would be bigger than the Internet. Mr. Kamen said his invention would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Steve Jobs said entire cities would be redesigned to accommodate it. Others predicted the machine would reach $1 billion in sales faster than any product in history.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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