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Spinning through Cambridge on a Segway tour

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 18, 2011 10:12 AM

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segwaytour.jpgThis past Friday, the Museum of Science began offering an hour-long Segway tour of Cambridge. I had a chance to take a "sneak preview" tour a few days earlier, with guide Evan O'Brien (pictured at right), who collaborated with museum staff to create the tour itinerary.

The tours cost $65 ($60 if you're a Museum of Science member), and they leave from the plaza in front of the museum.

First, I was issued a helmet, a headset, and a two-way radio, which clipped to my waist and allowed me to hear the guide. (You can also push a button to ask questions.) A short video introduction to the Segway explains how you mount the vehicle and steer, but mainly enumerates the myriad ways you might fall off it, complete with animated figures conking their heads. (Important tip for newbies: don't try to turn while you're going backwards.) Then, I got a hands-on orientation to the vehicle. Though I've been on Segways before, it was nice to get a refresher on getting on and off, and to spend a few minutes in "turtle mode" (the Segway's speed is limited to five miles per hour), before shifting into regular mode (up to 12.5 miles per hour.) It doesn't take long to get comfortable on a Segway, but the tour can be a little nerve-wracking, as you navigate through the construction zone in front of the museum and close to fast-moving traffic. Stopping quickly is paramount.

The tour presents a melange of natural history, the Revolution, architecture, and MIT campus highlights. A few things I learned:

- Lechmere was once a marshy area; the name is French for "sea of leeches." (Really?)
- The canal next to the CambridgeSide Galleria mall is a remnant of a short-lived effort by Cambridge to compete with the port of Boston for shipping business.
- EF Education, located right near the museum, owns a four-ton section of the Berlin Wall, said to be the biggest piece in a private collection in the U.S.
- Oysters have been imported to the Charles River to help clean it up.
- Architect I.M. Pei built the tallest building in Cambridge, Building 54 on MIT's campus (which students once turned into a soundmeter for a Fourth of July "hack.")
- The retail price of the Segway I was riding on is $6235 (perhaps one reason Segways haven't been widely adopted).

We also happened to see a solar-powered car — presumably built by students — rolling down Vassar Street, which was neat.

At a few different stops, O'Brien whipped out an iPad to show some historic pictures of Boston and Cambridge. It's a fun, tech-y idea, but the screen glare even on a cloudy day made the images almost impossible to see.

Of course, being a know-it-all, I had to point out a few things to O'Brien, like the Microsoft NERD building on Memorial Drive (I explained to him that Microsoft corporate wasn't initially crazy about having their New England R&D Center known as "NERD")... and the fact that I.M. Pei's other building on the MIT campus, the original Media Lab building, was dubbed the "Pei Toilet" by students, because of the white tiles that cover its exterior. We also debated the location of MIT's on-campus nuclear reactor; O'Brien pointed to a building on Mass. Ave that's actually occupied by Novartis, the Swiss pharma company.

One other thing that would be worth mentioning on the tour: Doug Field, who originally led the design and engineering team at Segway, is an MIT alum.

The tour offers a nice (but condensed) spin through of a slice of Cambridge and the MIT campus that's easily reachable from the museum; a longer ramble might go through Kendall Square (passing Akamai, Google Cambridge, the Broad Institute, the Cambridge Innovation Center, and Genzyme) or even out to Harvard. But I'm all for tourist activities that spotlight innovation and what's happening now, as opposed to marinating visitors in Boston's 18th and 19th century history.

More info about the tours, and when they're offered, is available on the museum's Web site.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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