He began his rowing career as a walk-on at Yale and eventually found a spot in the varsity boat. And better yet, he used that experience to help create one of the most interesting recent inventions -- the Segway.
Could the design of the Segway -- the computer-controlled two-wheeled transportation device that was so noteworthy when it was introduced in 2001 -- been influenced by what happened in a Yale crew shell years before?
According to John Morrell, who played a major role in designing the Segway, that's just what happened. "I have been involved in a lot of watercraft-based sports," says Morrell. "All of these balance-based sports exploit the sense of muscle control/movement. These same senses are particularly important in thinking about machines that are in direct contact with or control by humans, like the Segway."
Morrell found rowing soon after arriving at Yale, a fortunate discovery that continues to shape his thinking as a researcher. "I first started rowing freshman year at Yale," remembers Morrell. "For me, one big attraction was the ability to try a sport starting on equal terms with other people." He rowed in the junior varsity boats until senior year, when he made lightweight varsity and lettered -- a feat that surprised even him.
"It still is remarkable to me that an average athlete like myself would make it into a varsity boat and row at the top of the collegiate ranks," he says. Team expectations were high. "Dave [Vogel, the lightweight program coach] had incredibly high standards. [He] expected us to win and that mindset is something I carried with me a lot of places afterward," says Morrell.
He certainly has. He carried it through Yale, where he graduated with a BSME degree in mechanical engineering and was named outstanding senior by his department; though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received a PhD, also in mechanical engineering; and into his career at DEKA and Segway LLC, where he garnered 29 patents while working on elements of the Segway and its cousin, the iBOT "mobility system," more commonly known as the wheelchair that can traverse stairs.
Even getting hired at DEKA involved meeting high standards. At MIT Morrell worked in a robotics lab, "where I developed a reputation for having anthropomorphic expertise in understanding machines and a sense of how people move," he explains. In other words, a deep understanding of how human motion can be expressed in machines.
DEKA needed such expertise in its Segway project. But "the interview was intimidating," recalls Morrell. "You stand in front of eight people who throw questions at you. But the people they got were very, very good."
Starting at DEKA "was like walking into Willy Wonka's factory. Many preliminary prototypes already existed," so the challenge was "how to make a product out of it, to build in utility, reliability, and safety."
Morrell sees many parallels between the Segway design team and his Yale crew team. "It was analogous to rowing," he says. "Everybody was highly optimized to the job they were given. Like in rowing, it was sometimes hard to know who's doing what, but over time trust becomes high and the team develops great competence."
If the Segway team was like a rowing team, then the coach was none other than Dean Kamen, the legendary inventor of the Segway who holds 440 patents and invented the first wearable medical infusion pump while still an undergraduate. "Dean is unique, has incredibly high standards, and is incredibly inspiring," Morrell remembers. "He's a very high energy person, but being around him a lot can be tiring."
Recently Morrell left Segway in July 2006 to accept an assistant professorship at Yale. He is just settling in but his interests still lie in probing the human-machine interface. "I want to stay actively involved in how humans connect to machines," he explains. "For example, what would it be like if the steering mechanism in a car was replaced by servomotors? What sensations would the driver need to feel to sense correctly?" He's also thinking about "computer-controlled protheses," and "replacing physical therapists with repeatable machinery."
Morrell's rowing experience explains his urge to be on the cutting edge. He recalls one race in particular. "The weather was gorgeous, we were out in front solidly with 500 meters to go," he recalls. "The 6-man in front of me, Chris Osburn, said to our 7-man "Savor this, Tim.' Chris knew that rowing in front in a big race was rare. I overheard the comment and made sure to take a look around."
He's still looking around, and a new generation of Yale students will benefit from his vision.
— Stephen Eschenbach