Who was the lone genius inventor of the hoverboard?

I just heard Planet Money episode #666 on NPR, which was about the development of the “hoverboard” — those Segway-like things with no control stick, so they look more like a… two-wheeled skateboard or something. I’d just seen one in a production of the musical Wonder.land, ridden by the Cheshire Cat, and either he was pretty good at it, or they’re actually easier to control than I’d thought. But the PM episode is about where they come from, and who invented them. This is what they look like (image via fastcodesign.com):


At first I was interested to hear them air out the idea, which I’ve heard folks like Nadya Peek and Christina Xu mention, that folks in Shenzhen just sort of doesn’t bother with defending intellectual property, in part because it’s not worth it — I imagine for reasons of expense and enforcement — and also because it’s just not part of the culture there. I’m probably misrepresenting this idea, because I really don’t know what I’m talking about, which is why I’d really like to learn more about it from folks like Christina and Nadya. Unfortunately, listening to this Planet Money episode wasn’t going to help me in that regard…

…because then the PM folks said that they didn’t really believe that there wasn’t an inventor, and they tracked down some Kickstarter campaign from 2013 for what does in fact look like an early “hoverboard” (it’s called a “Hovertrax”) — and then basically turned the story into one about how the Shenzhen folks must’ve “stolen” or “ripped off” this design from this one true inventor.

This was really frustrating to hear. Even though they acknowledged in the episode that the patent system is “only a few hundred years old,” they insisted on fitting the whole story into a moral framework which assumes one person outright “owns” an idea in its entirety, and completely discounts collaborative development, let alone the much more nebulous process of open exchange and development of ideas which is basically how people had always “come up with” technologies before the patent system was invented.

Even more frustratingly, they also justified crowning the Hovertrax guy as the original inventor by “going into a bit of a YouTube wormhole on two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters” and asserting that “they do not exist before May 2013” — the date of the Kickstarter. Great research process. Well, I’m sorry, but a very cursory search led me to this page (among others) by a guy named Dale in 2008:



…describing, with instructions, circuit designs, and (gasp!) math, how to make things balance themselves, and I’m sure that’s not the first post on it because he cites others’ work. Now, these aren’t even just people who thought it up first (which is all you have to do to file a patent), or people who built the first ones, or even the first to post about it. It’s just a particularly thorough, (and notably open) documentation of one design. Who knows; maybe a hundred other people thought of it and decided to keep it secret so they could get rich someday. (?)

Really, after the Segway, tons of people were probably thinking of a version without a control stick — heck, I remember doodling stick-less “hoverboards” myself around that time. Partially because the Segway’s steering stick just looked dumb. But my point isn’t that the “real inventor” was one of these folks, but rather that this idea of searching for the “original inventor” is itself flawed. The lone-inventor-genius, like Iron Man, or Nikola Tesla in the Prestige (so help me if I can’t think of less ridiculous examples, but Hollywood really has caricatured this ad infinitum) is just fiction. People are never really working alone, or if they are, they can never achieve as much as those who collaborate and share their ideas. This is not to say I think the Shenzhen hoverboard makers shouldn’t credit prior examples upon which they based their work, but it’s not like Hovertrax did. And also, really, why isn’t Planet Money celebrating all the amazing work (design, manufacturing, distribution) of the folks in Shenzhen to actually get these made, at scale? Isn’t that just as much of an achievement?

Maybe this is also related to how today, if someone in tech says “I have this great idea I want to tell you about, but you have to sign this NDA first,” we kind of assume they must have a pretty crappy idea — whereas ten years ago, that mightn’t have been unusual to ask. I guess I feel that the rise of free and open source software, and its technical ubiquity, has really successfully sold the idea that you can achieve more by sharing, and that folks who are desperately clinging to their “secret, brilliant idea” are deluding themselves, or even trying to delude us. Not everyone believes this — there’s still a great big world of proprietary technology out there — but the way that this framework breaks down in favor of other models outside the US and Europe is something I’d really like to learn more about.

The open source mode of production is still fairly young here, and we could use other cultural (and legal) models to learn from, especially in the hardware space! Because it really is a better way, and it really does lead to more creativity and more interesting projects, as you can see by from the absolute blizzard of “self balancing” projects on Instructables

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Misconceptions about OSHWA’s Open Source Hardware Certification v1

In my role as an OSHWA board member (up for re-election! ::shameless::), I spent some time over the past year (but not as much as OSHWA board president Michael Weinberg!) reading over and commenting on the evolving drafts of the Open Source Hardware Certification.

I pushed hard for certain lines and clarifications, and I just want to quickly address a few possible misconceptions or even straw men I’ve seen on recent posts about it (mostly in the comments). There are valid reasons both to support or dislike the proposal, but I believe the following three are mostly based on misunderstandings:


Folks seem to be misconstruing the “penalties” mentioned. Just to be clear, the ONLY way you’d have to pay fees is if your work is not actually open source hardware as defined in the OSH Definition. And even then, you could simply remove the logo from your products instead of paying the fees. See Michael’s response in the comments of the Certification announcement.

The idea is that no truly open source hardware project could ever incur fees. Only the bad actors!

Certified projects vs Open Source Hardware projects

Q: If you don’t get your project certified, can it still be open source hardware?

A: YES. If it conforms to the Open Source Hardware Definition. See the end of paragraph 4:

While certification is not a condition for openness, obtaining certification is a way to make it clear to others that a given project is open source hardware.

Certification vs. Licensing

Are they redundant? Are they the same thing? Does OSHWA want me to certify instead of license? No.

Also, I saw a comment on the Cert announcement that commented:

I’m seeing a stark difference between this proposal and a free (libre) software license like the GPL.

Yes! Most definitely! The cert is NOT a license, and works on a different principle. But importantly, the certification relies on compliance with the Open Source Hardware Definition, which requires that designs be licensed!

The Definition uses the word license 34 times. Certification and licensing aren’t the same thing, but certification supports licensing, adds extra clarity, and adds the ability by OSHWA to call out bad actors.

Thanks! And especially thanks to Michael for his hard work on this initiative!

P.S. I’m also in agreement with Windell that to do this well, we’ll need to be really thorough and careful — and to have a really awesome cert logo!