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Dean Kamen is one of the world’s most prolific inventors with over 440 patents to his name – including the Segway, the Luke Arm (robotic prosthesis), a programmable insulin pump and portable water purifier for Third World Countries. He also created the FIRST LEGO league to encourage young people to build and engineer, and he considers that his most important accomplishment.

Dean’s father was an illustrator for MAD magazine and Weird Science and his mother was a teacher. Precocious at a young age, he remembers inventing a way to make his bed without having to cross to the other side when he was just 5 years old.

He did not do well in school though and he often found himself at odds with his teachers. He was a slow learner, or as he says it, “A slooow learner. I’m the slowest, dumbest genius you’ll ever meet.” He had dyslexia and was interminably slow compared to his brother Bart, the medical doctor. He understands the dyslexia as the flip side of his prodigious talent—part and parcel of it.”

Dean even remembered being unpopular at camp. His parents kept a letter that was signed, “Your woeful and outcast son, me. Have to go to volleyball now.”

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Things have really changed.

One of his latest inventions is Slingshot, a sun-powered vapor compression distiller that boils, distills, and vaporizes heavily contaminated water, turning it into perfectly clean water…not a trivial thing, because more than 3.5 million people die from water-related diseases every year. Almost 900 million people on the planet don’t have access to clean water.

A breakthrough in distribution came when Coca-Cola agreed to partner with him to distribute Slingshots to poor countries. Slingshot was named after David and Goliath.

   

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“We’re working with a couple of pretty big companies right now…We used to make (SlingShot machines) at a million bucks a piece back when I was hand-making them and designing them,” he said. “Then we made 15 of them at $100,000 a piece for the first trials. Then we got Coke to help us, and after they spent tens of millions of dollars on tooling, we got them down to the size they are now and got them down from $100,000 a machine to less than $10,000 a machine. And we made like 100 that way.”

Now he aims to cut the cost of his most recent one by two-thirds.

The device took him over 10 years to develop and can take sewage water and turn it into clean drinking water. It started out as a huge device that filled an airplane hangar and now is the size of a mini refrigerator.

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STEP 1. Put hose into dirty water source. Use sunlight to create first boil.

STEP 2. Steam rises, squeezing the compressor. Vapor has a higher boiling point which allows it to condense at a higher temperature.

STEP 3. Counterflow heat exchanger runs super heated water across dirty water. Distilled water is ready to drink while the dirty water repeats the process.

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Dean Kamen

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