Officially unveiled on national television in December 2001, Ginger turned out to be a two-wheeled, self-balancing, electric-powered standing scooter that resembled nothing so much as George Jetson’s lawn mower. The device was a technological marvel, packed with stabilizing gyroscopes and microchips, battery-powered and environmentally friendly, with a price tag of about $5,000 and a top speed of 16 miles per hour.
Strike one: What was Ginger, exactly? Like a bike? Like a car? The device weighed more than 100 pounds. Should it be allowed on sidewalks? What if it hit a pedestrian? What if the driver was drunk?
Cities such as Boston and San Francisco banned Segway use on public sidewalks. Two years ago, Segway Inc. owner Jimi Heselden — who purchased the company from Mr. Kamen — died after the Segway he was riding plunged off a cliff.
Strike two: Price. Mr. Kamen once said the Segway was the biggest personal transportation breakthrough since the tennis shoe. Yet even tennis shoes designed by Kanye West don’t cost $5,000. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the sport of Segway polo — which really exists — was invented by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who just happens to be an eccentric billionaire.
Strike three: The Segway filled a need that doesn’t exist. Shoes have worked for thousands of years; bicycles for a century-and-a-half.By contrast, you can’t take a Segway to get groceries, nor use it to ferry around a toddler.
As a postal carrier once asked an MSNBC reporter: “What if it rains?”
In its first four years of existence, Segway Inc. reportedly sold 23,500 units — making the device not quite the next Air Jordan, let alone the next Model T.
Still, the company slowly has found niches: first with more than 1,300 police and security agencies and more recently with tourism.
Independently-operated Segway tours have sprung up in Bangkok, Berlin, Maui and New Delhi, as well as the District. Two years ago, Segway Inc. started its own touring business, offering historical jaunts through its headquarters city of Manchester, N.H.
Magical history tour
Prepared with input from Smithsonian staffers, the Mall tour is both scenic and illuminating, a mix of awe-inspiring sights — the Washington Monument never fails to impress — and fun facts: 1) President Garfield’s inaugural ball was held in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries building, the cheapest building per square foot ever constructed by the federal government; 2) The Capitol building served as a troop hospital during the Civil War; 3) The National Museum of the American Indian has a Zagat-rated cafeteria that Mr. Tyson says is “arguably the best” on the Mall.
Tours are limited to about a half-dozen riders, which is good: Anything larger becomes a potential traffic jam, while small sizes mean personal attention from tour guides. Riders disembark at sites such as the Lincoln Memorial, but not at museums — otherwise, the tour couldn’t possibly cover its roughly 7 1/2-mile route in less than three hours.
“I’ve heard from other tour guides that a walking tour covering the same route could take more than a day,” Mr. Tyson said.
On the Smithsonian tour, the Segway’s vices are nullified: Cost is no object. The guides emphasize safety, taking great care to help customers avoid accidents. The Mall’s extra-wide sidewalks are plenty accommodating.