Invention At An Early Age

Kamen Recalls His First Creations

Dean Kamen was not an ordinary kid: He tells Correspondent Carol Marin in a Web-exclusive interview that although he didn't do too well in school, as a teen-ager he began building inventions that earned him thousands of dollars.

Your joy and your recreation all come out of your invention and your work?

"The sad part would be if...I was so jaded that when I got into that helicopter, or walked around this place, I took it for granted. I don't."

"Life is not about what's done, what's finished. It's not the destination. It's the route. And now that this stuff is here, you go on and you do other things."

Do you ever go for a long walk?

"I'm not a smell the flowers kind of guy. There are no flowers in this house."

"I ha(d) a lot of big trees planted when I put this house up because they'll get bigger and stronger."

"Flowers to me are prissy little things that take lots of effort....People deliver them to you after they cut them off....They're now in the process of having an accelerated death and somebody hands them to somebody else who then puts them in their house, just past the peak of their beauty to watch them wither away. That's not my idea of an intelligent gift."

"My father...would refer to me as a human irritant. He used to tell me, 'From the time you were 4 years old, once you got an idea in your head, we learned that it didn't pay to argue with you, because nobody was going to change your mind'"

"And as I filled up the basement (with tools and equipment), out went my mother's washing machine, dryer, her extra pantry, her freezer. And so now, her kitchen, which was upstairs, was full of all this other stuff. And her basement was full of my electronics. And now I needed a machine shop, well, a lathe and a milling machine....They're much too heavy to bring into a house."

"I had still been making a lot of money,...tens of thousands of dollars in these summers."

"So I had this great idea because I knew my mother wanted a bigger kitchen. And I said, 'If her kitchen got bigger by expanding the footprint of the house into the back yard, it would also make the basement bigger.'"

"Before they build the kitchen on there, they dig the hole, and pour the foundation,...I could have a crane drop big equipment in this hole, and then build the kitchen on top. I wasn't sure my parents would go for the idea."

"One of their neighbors was a wonderful guy, an architect...and he said, 'Dean, that process is called underpinning. If you want to (make) a building larger after it's foundation's poured, it's very expensive. It isn't worth doing in most cases.'"

"I kept telling him, 'No,...I need all this equipment.' And he said, 'Well, I can draw you some plans.'"

Were your parents consulted?

"Not at this point....But my mother was going to end up with this beautiful new addition, a sun room and a kitchen."

That she would discover when se came home?

"It was a gift from me. So I finally got the plans, and I explained to my parents that I'm going to give them a nice vacation. And I hired a guy with a bulldozer. And the next thing you know they're in the back yard, and they tore up the back yard, and they bash through the back wall of the house."

"Except there was so much dirt from the hole that it was taking much longer to get trucks into this residential neighborhood on Long Island, N.Y., to...get it out that the job didn't go as fast as I thought."

They came home?

"They came home. And you could see a pile of dirt in the back yard that was literally up to their bedroom window, and a bulldozer sitting there. But I have to say, they took it all in stride."

"My father looked at it and looked at me, and...looked at my mother. 'What's for dinner?' That's what he said."

"And within a couple of weeks, all of it was poured; it was finished. I had bought a little machine shop from a guy that was retiring....And I got all of his equipment slung over the house from the street into this new basement, covered it with a deck, built the new, expanded kitchen onto the house."

"My mother was very happy. My father was very happy. I had a full machine shop the size of the back yard extending out under their house. And for the next couple of years it kept my business going."

"One of the things I was working on in that basement was this drug delivery system that my brother wanted for delivering very, very small amounts of drugs to neonates. My brother was studying to be a pediatric hematologist oncologist."

"I built him some machines to use....He (was) invited to spend a little time at Harvard Medical School, where I guess because he was proud of this little machine, he shows it to some of the very senior docs."

"He calls me up: 'Dean, some very famous doctors here at Harvard would like to use this machine.'"

"I was making them by hand. I was etching the circuit boards in ferrite chloride in my mother's oven at night."

"I was building his stuff out of the profits I was making from my other business."

"I said, 'Fine, Bart, but we've got to charge them. And we've got to get exposure for this thing.'"

"And I said, 'If you'll write papers about it, if you'll get the word out that they're available, I will be able to build enough of them...at a price that you can afford them buy.'"

"Within months, there was an article in New England Journal of Medicine about some of the pumps that I had built, as they were being used up at Harvard. And suddenly, I was getting orders from all over the place."

How old were you when you knew you were going to fly something?

"I, from a very young age, wanted to hover around. To defy gravity. When all my friends when I was in grade school were talking about jet planes and rocket ships and super-sonic. I thought, 'What are you gointo do out there?'"

"To be able to go into your backyard and get into something and just hover just a few feet above everybody. Not be in outer space. To just be going at running speed and...able to pick an apple off the top of a tree."

You smile about those times, like right now, when you can...do something by yourself that sort of transports you.

"The helicopter is as much a mental trip as it is a physical one. It is the most liberating way to get around."

"You don't get the sense of cheating gravity when you're in a fixed-wing airplane. I love to fly fixed wing, too, but that's just because it's such a fast efficient way to get around."

"But being in a helicopter is telling nature that, nature's got gravity but I've got a helicopter."

Where you work?

"That's where I spend most of my time."

"When you're enjoying the work, and you know...people that haven't been able to look you in the eye for maybe their whole life,...or since they got multiple sclerosis are going to be able to do it, or when you get letters from people that say, 'Now that I have this little machine in my house I don't need to go to dialysis centers anymore,' that's pretty cool. And that makes work fun, so it's not work."

"It's only work if you'd rather be doing something else."