RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Boardman writes: "The excellent, multi-faceted documentary film 'SlingShot' (2014) opens with an image of dirty water in a flowing stream as an unseen speaker says: 'Here's something that should hurt your brain - we could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water.'"

Students at Pakro Methodist School in Ghana try out the Slingshot. (photo: Courtesy of the Hopkins Center)
Students at Pakro Methodist School in Ghana try out the Slingshot. (photo: Courtesy of the Hopkins Center)

Pure Water for the World Is a Pipe Dream Drifting Toward Reality

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

16 August 14

Documentary “SlingShot” explores one man’s effort to change the world

he excellent, multi-faceted documentary film “SlingShot” (2014) opens with an image of dirty water in a flowing stream as an unseen speaker says: “Here’s something that should hurt your brain – we could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water.”

That speaker is inventor Dean Kamen, whose water purification system, called Slingshot, is on the verge, perhaps, of providing clean water to millions of people in Africa in the next few years. Kamen, who was born on Long Island in 1951, started work on Slingshot technology a decade and a half ago at his DEKA Research & Development Corp. in re-purposed woolen mills in Manchester, New Hampshire.

In “SlingShot,” director Paul Lazarus tells the story-so-far not only of the water purification technology but also, with remarkable intimacy, of the life of a lone inventor driven to try to change the world for the better. In that sense, the movie is something of a work in progress – it’s not yet commercially available – that explores other, inter-related works in progress: a single life still being lived and the continuing quest for global health. The result is a moving montage of cinéma vérité techniques, found footage, animation and news clips that was warmly received by a packed audience at Dartmouth College in early August. After the 90-minute film, Lazarus, who is Dartmouth class of 1976, spent almost as much time answering questions.

A short version of “SlingShot,” distilled down from the same course material to three minutes, was a 3rd place winner in General Electric’s 2013 Focus Forward short film competition, in which there were 95 semi-finalists from 69 countries. The five winners were announced at Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. In its longer version, “SlingShot” has been on the festival circuit since March 2014 and is entered into more competitions for the fall.

Hollywood clapboards are not useful for siding your house

When Dean Kamen first appears in “SlingShot” he’s playfully engaging with the movie tech slapping the clapboard and it’s apparent that the inventor has no clear idea what the clapboard is for. In a quick, funny sequence, Kamen first figures out the clapboard’s purpose, then takes over its function by clapping his hands (he’s listed in the credits as “Clapper”). At the same time we’re watching Kamen’s curiosity at play, we’re also hearing his voice describing rumors of his death in 2010 that upset mother until he called home. It’s a deft introduction to an engineer who has succeeded in solving a number of serious problems in the real world, even as he maintains some Peter Pan personality qualities into his seventh decade. As he says:

From a very early age, I both wanted to know more and more about the rules by which this universe of ours operates and, through the world of engineering, I wanted to start applying those rules to create inventions that would give people a better quality of life if those inventions work.

Most kids when they grow up develop what’s called ‘good judgment’ – that’s what we as adults call it – when we actually lose our sense of fun, our imagination, and a whole lot of things that I didn’t want to give up.

When I was a kid, I thought: I’m going to have a house where I can get up in the morning and go down stairs and open up a giant glass wall and take a helicopter out of my house and take off right from my own lawn and go any place I want to go….

As Kamen says this, “SlingShot” shows us the man coming down stairs in his house, opening a giant glass wall, and taking off in his helicopter (he has three, and a private jet). We hear him talk about wanting secret passages as a kid, while the movie shows him going through a secret passage in his house. We hear him talk about how people display great art in their foyers, while “SlingShot” shows him crawling around the gigantic old tugboat engine from the HMS Oscar (circa 1850) featured in his foyer. “That engine is a work of art,” he says, “and a great achievement that took hundreds of years to develop and understand.”

Much of Kamen’s work has centered on children, and still does

One of Kamen’s earliest inventions was for children. When he was in his twenties and his older brother Bart was a pediatrician treating babies with leukemia, they worked together to develop a small enough delivery system for cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs. This collaboration produced “the first wearable infusion pump, which rapidly gained acceptance from such diverse medical specialties as chemotherapy, neonatology, and endocrinology,” according to the DEKA website. One of the earliest of Kamen’s 440-plus patents, it enabled him to found his first medical device company in 1976, AutoSyringe, Inc. He was 25. Four years later he sold the company to Baxter Healthcare Corporation, which enabled him to establish DEKA. The invention also led to Kamen’s induction into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2005, where his citation says in part:

Dean Kamen's first major innovation was the AutoSyringe®, a class of automatic, self-contained ambulatory infusion pumps designed to free patients from round-the-clock injections and, in some cases, from their hospital beds. The wearable device delivered precise doses of medication to diabetics and other patients with a variety of medical conditions. Using an AutoSyringe® to reliably dispense medication (such as insulin) gave patients greater freedom and control over their disease, dramatically improving their quality of life, while reducing complications and painful daily injections.

Among the many medical projects DEKA developed was a home peritoneal dialysis system that gave patients with kidney disease the choice of having dialysis treatment at home rather than in a hospital (the product continues to be available from Baxter). The system required about five gallons of pure water to function, water that Baxter put a lot of effort into shipping to patients. That situation led Kamen to think about making pure water available where it was needed, by distilling tap water. He solved this problem by building a portable distiller that runs on less power than a hair dryer. This, in time, would become an essential part of trying to purify the world’s water.

Dean Kamen is probably best known for inventing the Segway

But first, a segue to the Segway, the two-wheeled, self-propelled riding gizmo that’s better known than its inventor (and that was the source of rumors of Kamen’s death). After much corporate secrecy, the Segway debuted in December 2001 and was immediately a media success, but not much else. The machine cost $5,000 and about 30,000 were sold during 2001-2007. Kamen saw it as an alternative to urban traffic, “because people shouldn’t use a 4000 pound machine to move their ass around.” The world and the weather are not inherently Segway-friendly. In 2009, Kamen sold the company to a group headed by James Heselden, who died in a Segway accident the following year (hence the premature rumors of Kamen’s death).

In the mid-1980s, Kamen opened a local science center on the ground floor of DEKA. Seeing children enjoying playing with the various exhibits pleased him, but he was surprised that none of them seemed to know the names of any scientists, in contrast to the athletes and teams they celebrated on their tee shirts. So he started a non-profit project called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989, designed to engage kids in science through a robot-building team competition. Kamen remains immersed in FIRST, which is one of his proudest accomplishments. The program currently involves more than 300,000 students in 50 countries.

In “SlingShot,” Kamen admits he’s been a fierce promoter of FIRST, saying it should be in every school in the country. Then, suggesting that he’s become a gentler version of himself, he says, “I no longer say we need FIRST in every school in the country. We only need FIRST in the schools when you care about the kids.” And he waits for that to sink in.

Then a moving passage in “SlingShot” reveals that Kamen has chosen never to have children. He explains that he feels he couldn’t be as good a parent as his parents were to him and still do all the other things that he feels compelled to do. His parents had four children, and just one grandchild.

“Inventions really are, I think, a lot like children. You make them – and generally you’re surprised at what you did – but after 17 or 20 years, they both sort of go off to the world and never look back,” he said in 2005 at his National Inventors Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

After years in development, Slingshot faced its first field test

By 2006, Kamen had been working for years on figuring out a way to deliver pure water to people where they needed it. It was more than 20 years since he’d figured out how to distill water for dialysis patients. Now he had a Shingshot prototype, but it was still living at home in New Hampshire. So in June 2006, Kamen took this prototype – large, heavy, handmade, and fragile – to rural Honduras for a test. The machine performed well. The people appreciated the water. But they collected it in dirty vessels, they put their hands and dirty utensils in it, they didn’t understand that to have clean water they needed to keep it clean.

For Slingshot to work as a global source of clean water, it had to be delivered with training and support. DEKA was a small research and development company (300-plus employees) with no marketing division, no sales force, no distribution network. Kamen recognized his need for one or more partners to achieve a global innovation. As “SlingShot” shows, he went to medical companies he had worked with before, but they couldn’t help; he went to governments and NGOs, but they couldn’t help; he went to the United Nations, but they couldn’t help. Everyone was very positive and encouraging, Kamen recalled, but they all said, essentially, “we don’t do that.”

And then he happened to go to Atlanta for a FIRST competition and he noticed the skyline that was dominated by the Coca-Cola building, and the penny dropped. Coke had everything he needed: global marketing, global sales, global distribution. But would they be interested?

Turns out Kamen’s little water distiller was a godsend of sorts to this giant corporation. In 2005, Coke faced near-riots in India because its bottling plants were depleting scarce Indian water. Coke was taking three liters of clean water for every liter of a Coke product it made. So Coke, with no certain plan in mind, promised to change its ways, promised to become “water neutral,” promised to return as much water to the water supply as it took out, and to do that by 2020.

In April 2011, as “SlingShot” shows, Kamen flew his own plane to Atlanta to meet with Coke’s board of directors. The board didn’t let the cameras into the meeting, but we see Kamen afterwards, pretty optimistic, saying that no one spoke against his proposal. And in time, DEKA and Coke became partners. But Coke’s first order of business was to get DEKA to re-design their antique soda fountain technology, a purely commercial project with no apparent altruistic aspect. But that was the deal. And once that was done, the partners moved on with the next stage of saving the world. DEKA built 15 smaller, lighter versions of Slingshot, suitable for further field testing.

Dean Kamen has been a frequent guest on the Colbert Report

“How about: 50% of all human disease on this planet today is the result of water-borne pathogens,” Kamen told Stephen Colbert on March 20, 2008. “Ten years from today there’ll be lots of replacements for oil…. What are we going to do when you can’t get water?”

Turning to the Slingshot array that appeared on the show with him, Kamen said: “We thought we’d put these in production, figure out how to get them placed around the world, and we’d wipe out 50% of human disease.” The audience cheered. Coca-Cola had not been mentioned. Wired reported the buzz.

In October 2011, the first Coke-partnered trials were held at five schools in rural locations in Ghana, where Slingshot met all expectations. As Dean Kamen wrote in September 2012 on Coke’s “Unbottled” blog:

We provided 140,000 liters of clean drinking water to 1,500 school children during a six-month trial. The Slingshot systems experienced very few technical issues and were able to operate despite the frequent power outages in the villages in which they were located.

These field trials were determined to be a success, and today we can proudly announce that The Coca-Cola Company is our flagship partner to help bring the Slingshot technology into volume production and, by leveraging their worldwide, best-in-class distribution capabilities, install and maintain thousands of units around the world.

But the machines used in Ghana were still too heavy and too expensive to be practical for mass distribution, and DEKA set about re-engineering them again. At the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2012, Bill Clinton told his pat anecdote about drinking Slingshot water and surviving. On the stage with him was “featured attendee” Muhtar Kent, executive chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, who commented about the Slingshot water: “I drink it all the time, and it works – it is just an amazing piece of equipment.”

Dean Kamen was in the audience. Clinton had him take a bow.

According to the Coke website in September 2013: “The Coca-Cola Company announced a partnership with DEKA R&D in September 2012 to install and operate 1,500 Slingshot water purification systems in rural communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America with pilots starting in South Africa, Mexico and Paraguay in 2013.”

As “SlingShot” winds down, we see this slate: “DEKA and Coca-Cola commit to produce 500 million liters of clean, safe water by 2015. Neither company will take a profit from this venture.” The movie ends on a note of hope that Kamen’s idealism will be realized in the real world.

Coke had installed the first Slingshot a month earlier, in South Africa, on the grounds of the Coke bottling plant in Heidelberg. The installation was part of what Coke calls an EKOCENTER, which is essentially a kiosk-sized convenience store, stocked with Coke products and other amenities, a Coke franchise operated by a local woman (and pitched for Coke by Condoleezza Rice), or as Coke describes it:

EKOCENTER is a modularly designed kiosk with Slingshot at its core, transformed from a 20-foot shipping container into a hub of community activity, offering clean, safe drinking water, alongside other services, such as access to wireless communication, electricity, vaccination storage, and more tailored to address community needs. EKOCENTER strives to help communities thrive – each and every community member – from the people using EKOCENTER to the local entrepreneur operating it.

From the promotional material, it is not clear whether the water is free or not. Neither Coke nor DEKA responded to inquiries for this article.

“I think in less than 20 years, they’re going to be an overnight success,” Kamen says, speculating that bringing clean water to the world could be a catalyst for changing American priorities from weapons of mass destruction to “weapons of mass construction” and the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace.

“SlingShot” makes it all seem possible, despite the odds.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+8 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2014-08-16 22:18
A U.S.Department of Peace. WOW! Earl Nightengale: When a man is on his death bed, he needs to ask himself, "when I could, did I pursue the good and the beautiful?"
+7 # Nominae 2014-08-16 22:29
Overlooking (for now) the evaded question regarding cost of the water, it is widely known that distilled water lacks all of the minerals so important to the human body that are contained in clean natural water.

If, of course, the local natural water is dangerously polluted, one simply hopes that people will be able to get their minerals from some other source.

However, if crops were irrigated the polluted local water, the minerals in leafy greens will also come with some serious toxins, and, of course, crops irrigated with distilled water will die.

Any possibility of "re-mineralizin g" the distilled water produced by the Slingshots?

Coke could definitely handle that application if the company were so inclined.
+6 # itchyvet 2014-08-17 00:23
Quote ;" we could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water.” Unquote.
Sure we could, but then what would the medical INDUSTRY do for a living, they'd all be out of a job wouldn't they ?
Can't have that now can we ?
+5 # itchyvet 2014-08-17 00:30
Quiet frankly, any contraption that is built outside of Africa is useless.
Watching a documentary a few years back, where scientists were attempting to work out a LOCALY EASILY MANUFACTURED METHOD of purifying available water that locals could understand and replicate themselves with materials available ANYWHERE in Africa. No patent required, and FREE to everyone.
Turns out the humble cow manure mixed with clay and baked was the best option, after firing the manure burnt leaving minute hollows within the clay which acted as a filtering medium, container was topped up with dirty water, allowed to stand overnight and in the morning excellent pure water ready for use. Over time and use the hollows would become blocked, but a quick re-firing would simply burn clear the blockages and the device was ready for re-use.
IMHO, that's afar better prospect then any mass produced, patent protected device we in the Western World can come up with.
+2 # pbbrodie 2014-08-17 11:28
You can not clear heavy metals by re-firing to burn clear passages. Their are many other toxins that can't be "cleared" this way. If this option is as good as you claim, where is it?
+4 # pres 2014-08-17 06:24
Mineralization of distilled water is rather easily done with tablets or mineral discs.
Distilled water is what Mother Nature provides us with on a daily basis. It is dropped through the cloud produced rain. Minerals are adsorbed when the rain water flows over and through the ground. Being able to select which minerals are added is preferable to random added minerals that might be undesirable when rain falls to the ground... such as arsenic, lead, etc.
+2 # Nominae 2014-08-17 18:37
Quoting pres:
Mineralization of distilled water is rather easily done with tablets or mineral discs.
Distilled water is what Mother Nature provides us with on a daily basis. It is dropped through the cloud produced rain. Minerals are adsorbed when the rain water flows over and through the ground. Being able to select which minerals are added is preferable to random added minerals that might be undesirable when rain falls to the ground... such as arsenic, lead, etc.

Great comment ! News we can use.

Thank you.
+2 # fredboy 2014-08-17 09:18
Water will divide the world and incite the biggest war of all time. Guarantee it.
+3 # Nominae 2014-08-17 19:00
Quoting fredboy:
Water will divide the world and incite the biggest war of all time. Guarantee it.

Not if we can come up with a solution first.

On a planet two thirds covered with water, I can't believe that a "Moon Project" approach to discovering methods of cheap and easy desalination could not be accomplished.

While undergoing Navy Survival training for airmen, we were taught to dig a flight helmet sized hole in the ground out in direct sunlight, place our inverted flight helmets into the bottom, cover the hole about halfway up with stretched nylon from our parachutes, and then pour salt water in onto the nylon, and wait.

It was called a "Solar Still". In the sunlight, the warming water eventually seeps thru the nylon into the helmet, leaving the salt itself to accumulate and dry on the piece of nylon.

Scaling this process up to industrial proportions cannot be "rocket science".

The only hold up so far, is that the warming of large volumes of sea water
to separate the salt from the water has been expensive.

In this day of WAY improved solar technology, and the modern use of very large mirror arrays to reflect sunlight directly onto water conduits, desalination could easily become both easy an economical.

Getting humans to address a problem *before* it becomes a devastating crisis, of course, is a totally different question.

Witness our "ostrich" approach to Global Climate Change.
+3 # Eliza D 2014-08-17 13:27
Sounds great. I'm just a little nervous about Kamen partnering with Coke. They are huge players in the anti-GMO labeling movement and make a fortune on bottled water,something which is so polluting and so unnecessary. Get a stainless steel bottle and a water filter and make your own. Isn't there any socially responsible company with the money to manufacture and market this invention?

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.