Dean Kamen is a throwback to the era of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse, when a charismatic engineer- entrepreneur could be famous. And when Kamen [right], the multi millionaire inventor of the Segway, wants to escape the limelight, he flies his helicopter to his private island off the coast of Connecticut.
Kamen has allowed few journalists to see that retreat, Dumpling Island. But he did invite IEEE Spectrum’s Sally Adee and Francesco Ferorelli, along with two photographers [above], for a weekend in May. They got an exclusive preview of Kamen’s amazing digs—documented in ”Empire Off the Grid,” in this issue—which were then in the middle of a high-tech renovation.
The backstory behind this Back Story: Kamen’s lair includes a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse. Last year, when the Coast Guard cut the cable that supplied power to his island, Kamen decided to revamp the compound as a superefficient, LED-lit, zero-net-energy nation.
But when Adee, Ferorelli, and company got their preview, the road to renovation was definitely going through a bumpy stretch. The boathouse in which the four stayed was so cold that Ferorelli and Adee slept, teeth chattering, in every layer of clothing they’d brought with them. In the main house the next morning, they found electrical engineer and LED specialist Fritz Morgan, an IEEE member, flinging towels onto the stove, mopping up a flash flood that had poured through the kitchen ceiling.
Kamen hadn’t done a thing to his island’s mansion since he bought the place in 1986. The walls of his bedroom suite were covered with ’70s-era paneling, and the bathroom shower featured a floor-to- ceiling one-way mirror like the ones used to shield the identities of police witnesses. The idea is that you can shower unabashedly while taking in the stunning views of Fishers Island Sound.
But the island’s delights more than made up for its privations, Adee asserts. At sunset, Kamen gave her a personal tour in his helicopter. ”He might have done a couple of extra steep loops when she was in there,” Ferorelli says.