Good idea or bad idea? At the end of the day, an invention’s fate may simply be what people and circumstances make of it.
Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Bright guy. Mostly.
The Kinetophone was an early attempt at marrying moving pictures with sound. Viewers stood over a modified version of Edison’s Kinetoscope while listening to a badly synchronised soundtrack through headphones. One viewer, one machine. Not an obvious winner, but for Edison the exclusivity was everything. When one investor suggested screen projection – i.e. the modern cinema – might be the way to go, Edison declined on economic grounds.
“If we put out a screen machine there will be a use for maybe about ten of them in the whole United States. With that many screen machines you could show the pictures to everybody in the country – and then it would be done. Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”
– Thomas Edison
The Space Shuttle
They only built five and two blew up before the surviving models were retired last year, after 30 years and approximately 135 missions. Meanwhile, the Russians are still using the same baked bean tin (Russian: Soyuz) they’ve been firing into space since the mid-1960s. The Americans’ dream of a reusable spacecraft was not even remotely the equal of Russian pragmatism and a capsule that can be flown either manned or unmanned.
Twenty years ago this list would have included the Sinclair C5. Today’s list includes the Segway, for precisely the same reasons. In much of Australia, as in much of the rest of the world, they are effectively illegal – “In simple terms, riders are way too exposed to mix with general traffic on a road and too fast, heavy and consequently dangerous to other users on footpaths or cycle paths,” says the RTA. In the UK, the owner of the company that produces Segways died after driving one off a cliff, which says a lot, really.
Perhaps the Segway’s best contribution to society is the fact that it offers a clue to the correct pronunciation of the word ‘segue’.
The Pocket Calculator
What? Surely this is one of the most useful inventions of all time?!
Let me introduce you to the soroban. You thought it was an abacus, didn’t you? It sort of is. A Japanese one, developed out of an older Chinese equivalent known as the suanpan. The difference with the soroban is that it’s still in use today. In fact, many Japanese prefer it to the calculator. In the hands of an experienced user, the soroban is actually faster.
And that’s the point. Inventions are only as brilliant or as stupid as they are useful and used. Often, that’s decided more by human nature – laziness, curiosity, habit and personal preference – than by the design of any particular invention.