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The Hoverboard Mystery: Where Did The Holidays' Hot Product Come From?
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The Hoverboard Mystery: Where Did The Holidays' Hot Product Come From?

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The Hoverboard Mystery: Where Did The Holidays' Hot Product Come From?

The Hoverboard Mystery: Where Did The Holidays' Hot Product Come From?
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This holiday season, one item has been gathering popularity: Called "hoverboards," they're two-wheeled scooters that look like Segways with no handles. Audrey Quinn of Planet Money reports these hoverboards emerged not so much from an inventor but from a manufacturing system.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's a new hot toy this holiday season. It looks like a sideways skateboard with two big wheels and motors to balance itself. Deshawn Boston got his last month.

DESHAWN BOSTON: I take it everywhere I go. I feel like I'm on a hoverboard. (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Hoverboard is what a lot of people are calling them, but they have other names too.

BOSTON: The name on it is really a Swagway. That's the actual name of it, but it's called a skywalker.

SIEGEL: The reason it has so many names is that this toy appeared out of nowhere with hundreds, possibly thousands, of different Chinese manufacturers. Audrey Quinn, of our Planet Money team, set out to find who invented it.

AUDREY QUINN, BYLINE: I started out by looking up who was making hoverboards. I reached out to some sales reps in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CHIMING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello?

QUINN: Hello, can you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello?

QUINN: Hi, can you hear me?

They didn't know who came up with the hoverboard first, but there are two basic theories. Theory number one - maybe there is no inventor. Maybe it really did just appear, in a city called Shenzhen, China, a place where manufacturing is happening so fast that new things can materialize overnight. Bunnie Huang's a hardware engineer based in Singapore. He gets a lot of his stuff made in these factories in Shenzhen. He said there's something unique about the way some of the generics factories in Shenzhen do business.

BUNNIE HUANG: These guys started out as line engineers, right, who learned more about this stuff. They were maybe working for Western companies like (unintelligible) and they say, my boss is an idiot, I quit, right, I'm going to start my own company because I can do it better than they can.

QUINN: They do it better by being super specialized. There are hundreds of these factories just for circuit boards, hundreds just for motors, hundreds just for molded plastic casings, and they operate through an extremely collaborative network.

HUANG: You can tell some guys are probably just sitting around in a bar and saying, wouldn't it be great if we had, like, a cell phone that had a cigarette lighter in it because, like, who wants to carry two things in their pocket, right? And so they'll build a cell phone with a cigarette lighter in it (laughter).

QUINN: This is how a hoverboard may have happened, and Bunnie Huang says the key thing here is that these improvements they think up, they just do them. No one's waiting around to get permission to use each other's ideas, and the people making the parts you need? They're all in your network. And it's possible that if everyone was just gradually improving the parts they made and kept putting them together in new ways, they may have just arrived at a hoverboard.

But then there's theory number two - maybe one person is the inventor. I kept chatting with those hoverboard sales reps.

Any idea who was first?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There's (unintelligible). He's an American now. I know his Chinese name, but I'm not sure of his English name.

QUINN: She messaged me later. His English name is Shane Chen. Chen runs a small equipment company outside Portland, Ore., and in May 2013, he had this Kickstarter video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The Hovertrax is built for fun and transport. You can use it at the park, to get around school...

QUINN: It's the earliest trace of a hoverboard kind of thing you'll see online. And Chen claims the Chinese manufacturers copied from this video. They managed to build basically the same product before he even got his to market.

SHANE CHEN: I'm not a very good business person, not very good at marketing.

QUINN: He tried suing some of the manufacturers, but there's just too many of them. And this season, there's going to be more people riding generic hoverboards, Swagways, skywalkers then Chen's Hovertrax. People we talked to about Chinese manufacturing say this kind of generic production is happening so fast, so collaboratively that whether or not there even is an inventor, you may never know it. This notion about who's the inventor and who's the knockoff may not even matter. Audrey Quinn, NPR News.

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