Check it out, Dean Kamen: Forty years before the Segway, in 1959, a young student at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, developed a strikingly prophetic design — a stylish, motorized scooter for lightweight local transportation. Invented by Louis Richards to “motorize pedestrians,” it was designed for one standing rider and steerable by simple leaning. In fact, Richards built four complete Skeeter prototypes; the lightest weighed in at 12 pounds and was propelled by a model-airplane engine; the largest used a 0.5-hp industrial engine capable of speeds to 20 mph. In addition, the handlebars folded down to allow easier carrying.
“It's fabulous to see that some really creative minds were thinking of a Segway-type vehicle back in 1959,” says Kevin G. Lowery of Alcoa Inc., headquarters in New York. “We looked back into our archives and here's what we found: In 1955, a new design department was headed by a Samual L. Fahnstock — Industrial Designers Society of America. Three years later, Fahnstock sponsored leading designers, and then our company published a series of advertisements featuring their futuristic creations.” The first was a sun-powered machine by none other than celebrated furniture designer Charles Eames. In 1959, Fahnstock initiated annual awards for students and professionals; Richards was one of the inaugural year's recipients. These awards continued annually through 1972.
“The awards were not to develop new product ideas; they were more to spur the imagination of what was possible with aluminum,” says Lowery. “They showed creative thinking on realistic approaches to what is possible from a design standpoint.” Today, Alcoa awards a similar Innovation in Aluminum Prize to students and industrial professionals in Brazil, where the company has mining, refining, and smelting operations.