Skip to Content

Data Sheet—Why Most Wheelchairs Can’t Climb Stairs

This is the web version of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

The history of technology is filled with great inventions that changed the world and many more that did not, at least not yet. There’s a heat wave on the East Coast and I’m cooling off pondering the past.

Ernesto Blanco was born in Cuba, got a mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and later taught at MIT. The shortages in his home country during his childhood cultivated an inventive spirit. In the early 1960s, his attention was captured by something called the National Inventors Council, a government agency dreamed up during World War II to promote citizen innovations.

In 1962, the council offered a $5,000 prize for the best design of a wheelchair that could climb stairs. As recounted by University of South Carolina history professor Allison Marsh in an article last week, Blanco came up with a design for a chair with rubber-tipped spokes that could pop out of the wheel rims and climb stairs. He even built a working, quarter-scale model. Though he later invented many more devices to help disabled people, nothing ever became of the wheelchair.

In the 1990s, a different design using tank-like treads emerged in Japan and entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen (later famous for building the Segway scooter) came up with a multi-wheeled chair dubbed the iBot. Discontinued in 2009 due to its high cost, the iBot may be making a comeback in a partnership between Kamen and Toyota. Marsh notes that none of the designs became financially viable and the arrival of the Americans with Disabilities Act required accommodations for people in wheelchairs, lessening the need for a stair climber.

But they still could be the seeds of a future invention. A crude steam engine was invented in the Roman Empire, scientists spent much of the 19th century messing around with radio waves, and touch screens were developed decades before the iPhone. It’s a messy, sweaty, sometimes slowly crawling process to change world. Makes you wonder what else might be out and about right now that will blossom into the big innovation of the 22nd Century.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Paperback writer. Speaking of invention, Microsoft may be formulating a new computing device under the code name Andromeda, The Verge reported on Friday. The company is reportedly working on a book-shaped portable with a folding screen and a stylus. No comment from the Redmond crew.

Yesterday. Though Facebook’s user data sharing via apps was supposed to end in 2015, the company disclosed numerous examples of access that extended after that deadline. The admissions came in a massive 747-page filing to Congress seeking to address the slew of inquires that CEO Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t answer in person during his two days of testimony in April.

Twist and shout. Michael Dell’s baby is headed back to the stock market. After going private in a $24 billion leveraged buyout five years ago, Dell’s return to public trading will come via a transaction to buy back its VMware tracking stock. Eventually, that could lead to Dell fully acquiring VMware, too. The unusual first step of the deal likely wouldn’t count as an initial public offering, but IPOs have been booming this year, making the return to the stock market a welcome development.

I am the walrus. Forget about VC deals that value startups at $1 billion. E-cigarette maker Juul Labs is raising $1.2 billion in a single capital funding deal. Currently selling its vaping devices in the United States and Israel, the massive cash stash will fuel a global sales push.

We can work it out. Maybe forget about VC deal altogether? Despite threats of a crackdown from securities regulators, the initial coin offering financing scene is still going strong, the Wall Street Journal reports. Crypto startups raised $11.8 billion though the end of May via ICOs, more than double the amount raised in all of 2017.

All you need is love. Everyone knows smartphone addiction is a big problem, right? Maybe not, or at least the situation may be less dire than some fear. A new study by researchers at McGill University found that smartphone usage largely taps into the human desire to be connected with other people. “There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic,” cognitive anthropologist and study co-author Samuel Veissière tells Neuroscience News. “We’re trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this.”

(Today’s headline references in honor of Sir Paul’s tearjerking episode of Carpool Karaoke.)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Employees at Google, Amazon, and Salesforce, to name just a few, have been getting more political—and more vocal—about opposing their employers’ work for the government. Wired writer Nitasha Tiku spent some time exploring what’s fueling the new movement to inject more ethics into tech projects. While finding a variety of possible causes, the status of the workers involved is part of the story, she writes:

Tech workers may feel freer to challenge their employers in part because they have marketable skills at a time of great demand, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. “Why don’t you find this among the people wiring the circuit boards together in China? Because there they are much more vulnerable,” he says.

Lichtenstein compares the tech workers to recent activism by teachers in several states seeking better funding for schools. “The teacher strikes of the last few months were about re-funding public education in austerity states, a political as well as financial shift,” he says. “That has very large consequences for public policy as well as corporate policy.” One Google employee says tech workers benefited from the momentum of the teacher strikes.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Comcast Blames Massive Outage on Cut Wires By Lisa Marie Segarra

Apple Maps Is Undergoing a Major Overhaul to Improve Its Accuracy By Jonathan Vanian

Ride-Hailing Apps May Benefit Poor and Minority Communities the Most By David Z. Morris

Netflix Is Taking Over Hollywood, One Billboard at a Time By Natasha Bach

Tesla Seems to Have Finally Hit Its Goal of Producing 5,000 Model 3s in a Week By David Z. Morris

FBI Arrests Man Who Threatened to Kill FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s Children By Glenn Fleishman

BEFORE YOU GO

In a happy day for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, and a sad day for much of the rest of NBA fandom, LeBron James reportedly decided to skip Cleveland and sign with Magic Johnson’s crew. But the quants are already cranking out scenarios about how the move may pan out. According to Chris Herring at Fivethirtyeight.com, even with LeBron, the Lakers have only an 11% chance to win it all.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.