Jane Wakefield: The mother of all invention

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's a... scooter

When I heard that someone had a new invention codenamed Ginger, my first thought was of Chris Evans. Had someone found a way of allowing us all to enjoy the japes of the redheaded prankster?

Perhaps this invention was a sophisticated human version of a Tamagotchi, and the world about to be overrun with tiny ginger TV presenters.

My second thought was that Ginger was the much sought after cure for the scourge of ginger hair, a way of finally getting rid of redheads from the gene pool. Now this would really be a breakthrough. (And before the ginger community start writing letters of complaint, remember I am not alone in my prejudice -- ex-punk rockers the Anti Nowhere League famously banned ginger-haired people from their gigs and nobody, with the possible exception of Billie, actually likes Chris Evans.)

So when I saw the first pictures of Ginger/IT I was a little disappointed to discover it may be nothing more exciting than a scooter. Surely the greatest invention of the 21st century was going to be better than that? After all, we have far too many scooters in the world already and those little silver things that everybody from grannies to businessmen are riding are the most annoying method of transport currently on the highways.

Speculation about the Ginger puzzle was frenzied, but most people seemed to agree that it was some method of transportation. The only other theory I have heard is that it is some sort of personal central heating device, but I think this is just wishful thinking, given that it is the middle of January and very, very cold. And everybody knows that personal heating has already been invented -- I refer to the 70s adverts with the glowing kid proving that the only central heating we need on cold winter days is a bowl of Ready Brek.

The transport idea seems much more likely and as one of the victims of the non-existent train service we have to endure in the UK, anything which ends commuter hell has got to be a good thing. The history of transport invention however has not always been a glowing one. Remember the Sinclair C5 or those transparant giant hamster wheels shown off on Tomorrow's World?.

The sketches submitted with the patent for the device revealed it might well be another Tomorrow's World duff, although perhaps a little more exciting than a scooter -- more like a Stannah Stairlift. The thing that amused me about these drawings was how unsophisicated they looked considering this invention was about to change history. They reminded me of sketches from the 1940s explaining the correct procedure for putting on gasmasks. (But then I guess Leonardo Da Vinci got a similar response when he showed his mates drawings of a prototype helicopter.)

For a tech industry fed up with bad luck stories, Ginger has been something of a saviour -- renewing a faith in invention which the Internet is currently unable to muster. And there was no lack of hyperbole about Ginger from an industry in which hyperbole has become as fashionable as putting a dot in your name.

According to those in the know Ginger is life-changing, Ginger is of huge importance both socially and economically, Ginger will transform cities. It is, in short, bigger than the World Wide Web. And just to add a peppering of gravitas to this enormous claim it apparently also had the backing of high profile tech leaders such as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.

This has to be treated with a good dose of cynicism considering that very few inventions -- the Internet included -- are recognised as ground-breaking before they are launched. Go ask Mr Dyson who wanted to buy his vacuum cleaner in the early days. Or the man who invented moving pictures.

Like a fine wine, inventions take a while to be appreciated and people are just no good at predicting the future. So almost as famous as inventions themselves are the people who stuck their necks out to diss them. Remember the legendary quote on the future of the PC: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," said IBM's chairman Thomas J Watson somewhat foolishly back in 1947. And the equally daft comment from US president Rutherford B Hayes, who on seeing the first public demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone replied: "It's an amazing invention but who would ever want to use one?"

So too the Internet took a good few years to realise its potential, from the academic world to the ubiquitous technology of today. In fact, when people finally realised the power of the Web the hype went over the top and it became impossible for any dotcom, no matter how small and how ill-fitting the suit on the young man charged with selling it, to mention its product without banging on about how revolutionary the Internet was going to be and how dramatically and completely it was going to change our lives.

As the Internet has found out to its cost, hype is not always a good thing. The higher you go, the harder you fall and I personally put at least some of the blame on the fall from grace of dot-coms on the stupidly high expectations put on them from the business community.

People just don't much care for success and seeing Martha Lane Fox and her cronies smugly proclaiming how great it was working for a dot-com was enough to make anyone wish a dramatic fall in their share price.

Individuals should never attempt to be bigger than the invention so Dean Kamen had better watch out. Although to be fair to him, it was the author of a forecoming book on the invention that really set the Ginger train off and running. Poor old Kamen is not quite sure what all the fuss is about and came out publicly to warn people that his invention was good but not that good. It is perhaps indicative of the nature of a post-Internet world that we chose to ignore him and continue to inflate and speculate wildly about his tech baby.

Nobody wants to see Dean Kamen fall from grace in such a dramatic way as those enterpreneurs who climbed aboard the Internet bandwagon. Especially when his invention hasn't even been made yet. He sounds like a genuinely clever bloke, who has already given the world two useful inventions -- the portable insulin pump and a wheelchair capable of climbing stairs. His knack for ideas has been recognised by the White House which has awarded him the dubious honour of a National Medal of Technology.

Let's just hope Kamen's invention is never featured on Tomorrow's World. Now that really would be the kiss of death.

No news spreads as fast as a good secret. The latest secret is an invention by Dean Kamen that some tech heavyweights say is bigger than the PC and likely to change the world. Jesse will tell you what he knows and give you a chance to sound off. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

See the strange pictures that appeared on what is alleged to be the patent application for Ginger.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.