IT and Us

The Segway and Human Balance

by Robert Rickover

Late in 2001, a great deal of media attention was focused on Ginger, a.k.a. "IT" - a secret invention that the brilliant and eccentric inventor Dean Kamen had been working on for over a decade. Some reports said it would be an even bigger deal than the PC!

What finally emerged in early December was the Segway, a self-balancing "human transporter". It uses a combination of gyroscopes, tilt sensors and high performance motors - and vast amounts of computing power - to produce a scooter-like device that lets you travel over virtually any kind of terrain without toppling over.

As Kamen explains, "The idea is to put a human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of your body. When you walk, you're really in what's called a controlled fall. You off-balance yourself, putting one foot in front of the other and falling onto them over and over again. When you use a Segway, there's a gyroscope that acts like your inner ear, a computer that acts like your brain, motors that act like your muscles, wheels that act like your feet."

Segway's performance has earned rave reviews, although its $3000 price tag may limit sales to industrial markets and the high-end consumer market.

The Segway is a wonderful reminder of our own ability to stand and move about with an upright posture. The Segway's design is impressive all right, but what's even more amazing is the design of our body that allows us to go about life without falling over. After all, we are tall, relatively thin creatures with a high center of gravity resting on two rather small feet.

Why on earth don't we just keep falling over? How do we stay upright?

A large part of the answer lies in the way our head is balanced on top of our spines and an ingenious structure that allows for stability - our heads don't easily detach from our bodies! - and for flexibility - our heads can move quickly and easily in response to changing circumstances.

As Joan Arnold, a teacher of the Alexander Technique in New York City writes: "... when the neck muscles do not overwork, the head balances lightly at the top of spine.  The relationship between the head and the spine is of utmost importance.  How we manage that relationship has ramifications throughout the rest of the body.  As the boss -- good or bad -- sets the tone for an organization, the head / spine relationship -- compressed or free -- determines the quality of the body's overall coordination.

"Our neuromuscular system is designed to work in concert with gravity.  Delicate poise of the head sparks the body's anti-gravity response: a natural oppositional force in the torso that easily guides us upward and invites the spine to lengthen, rather than compress, as we move.  Instead of slouching or holding ourselves in a rigid posture, we can learn to mobilize this support system and use it wherever we go -- in the car, at the computer, in the gym."

But this elegant design only works well if the muscles in our necks are free of excess tension. And unfortunately, as we go through life, many of us develop tension in our necks and other parts of our body, that interfere with both our upright posture and our ability to use our body as it was designed.

You can easily see this for yourself if you take a look at just about any group of adults running or jogging and compare what you see to children running about at play. More often than not, the adults will be tightening their faces shoulders, arms - and of course their necks. Most small children will be running about with ease and poise.

The harmful posture and movement habits many of us acquire as we grow up can come about for a variety of reasons: the unconscious imitation of adults in their lives who themselves carry excess tension, bad school furniture design or stressful family situations, to name but a few.

A machine like the Segway doesn't have to face these kinds of problems. If something happens to affect its functioning - perhaps a motor or computer failure - it's quickly fixed by repair or replacement.

For us, it's more complicated. We can't just go out and order a new neck when our old one becomes excessively tight. But we can use our intelligence to assess the situation and learn how to release the harmful posture and movement patterns that have crept into our lives.

There are a number of somatic teaching and therapeutic processes that can help us restore the grace and ease of movement we had as children. The one I'm most familiar with is the Alexander Technique. Taught for over a century, it has a well-deserved reputation for helping people improve the quality of their physical functioning.

Segway is an Anglicized version of the musical term “segue” which means transition. The Alexander Technique is really about learning how to adapt to changing circumstances - moment-by-moment transitions - in the most efficient way possible.


The quote from Joan Arnold comes from her excellent short introduction to the Alexander Technique at

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique

For more information about the Alexander Technique, click here:

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique