These days, Dan Kois is a writer and editor at Slate, after having previously written for Vulture and New York magazine. 20 years ago, though, he was an up-and-coming literary agent who had just landed a writer named Steve Kemper a deal for a book about an invention that was supposed to change the world, force architects to completely reimagine modern cities, and effectively eliminate the need for cars (and, while they were at it, fossil fuels). That invention was the Segway, and for the decades since trying to get that book published, Kois has wondered if it’s his fault that the revolutionary self-balancing scooter thing was an enormous flop.
Kois has already detailed this saga for Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast, but now he’s written it up with words you can read. The story is fascinating, both because it seems silly to blame anyone but the Segway for the Segway being a failure and because, yeah, it kind of does seem like it might be his fault. At the risk of reducing the story down too much (you should read the whole thing), a lot of the core issue with Segway came from the hype that surrounded it, since Steve Jobs famously claimed it would be “as significant as the personal computer,” and when the general public heard claims like that surrounding the Segway—then codenamed “IT,” which certainly didn’t do IT any favors—it was hard not to get excited. But then, of course, it turned out to be a self-balancing scooter thing that was prohibitively expensive and so carefully engineered that the tiniest bit of repair would be impossible for the average user.
If you follow the paper trail, as Kois does in his piece, it seems like it’s pretty much his fault that the hype got out of control. He started to reach out to scouts for international publishing rights after securing the deal for the Segway book for his client, and in what he sees as a preview of what the media would become in the 2000s, they all seemed to have blabbed about the existence of a book about a revolutionary invention that very few people had seen at that point. One could argue that people like Steve Jobs making outsized promises about the potential impact of the Segway are more responsible than Kois, but either way, it makes for a good story.