Ingenious misses
© Getty
December 2020

Ingenious misses

The history books of technology are full of misunderstood inventions. Not all of them were bad, but some of them just hit the market at the wrong time.

Inventors are like gamblers. They keep hoping to hit a jackpot even though the odds are against them. “At least 85 percent of the development time invested in products ends in nothing,” says someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about: Professor Reinhold Bauer, Head of the History of Impact of Technology Department at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of History. The history of failure is his favorite topic. In this context, he defines “innovation” as the “first economic exploitation of a new solution to a problem, which may be a process or product” and measures success in terms of “having succeeded in recovering the development costs.” Bauer has identified five reasons for failure: “technical issues, superior competition, misjudgment of potential users, excessively radical novelty and/or an unstable development environment.”

Normally, the general public is oblivious to inventions that have been for the birds because, arguably, no company is inclined to open its typically overflowing archives of failures. The situation is different in the case of products and ideas that actually attempted a market launch. We’ve selected a few examples to illustrate the point.

AT&T Picturephone

Now look at this

AT&T’s Picturephone is another example of a good, albeit failed idea that technology historian Reinhold Bauer likes to use. Or more precisely: an idea that initially failed because, today, video telephony has become as commonplace as television, thanks to Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and the like. The dream of being able to look into each other’s eyes while talking on the phone has been an essential feature even of early science fiction movies. American multinational conglomerate AT&T turns it into a reality in 1964 by launching the Picturephone. Both the professional world and the general public are thrilled because this novelty promises to spare its users extensive travel when all they’d like to do is talk to someone face to face. But that’s not all: AT&T is already thinking about the transmission of class room content, advertisements, stock market prices or weather reports. Even flights are supposed to be bookable using the wonder box at some point in time. But this plan never materializes – albeit not because of the technology that works amazingly well. The service is just too expensive. In the Picturephone booths AT&T installs in 1964, the costs for the first three minutes of a call run up to a horrendous 27 U.S. dollars. Only 71 connections are made in the first six months. In 1970, after a year of having been totally ignored by potential clients, the booths are dismantled. An attempt to sell private subscriptions fails due to the costs as well. Only a scattered group of techies is willing to accept a monthly charge of 160 U.S. dollars (equating to nearly 1,000 dollars in terms of today’s purchasing power). Even when the price is reduced by 50 percent, the clientele hardly grows. In 1973, AT&T pulls the Picturephone’s plug once and for all.

In 1927

AT&T takes its first tentative steps in the field of video telephony. However, with a resolution of 50 lines, the parties to the conversation are only able to see blurred images of each other.

Ford Edsel

Disappointment included

In 1957, with Edsel, Ford Motor Company demonstrates how not to launch a product. To poise itself against GM’s multi-brand market presence, Ford plans to establish Edsel as a sub-brand for more discriminating uptown demands. The company, cost what it may, invests ten years of development in Edsel and the outcome is: an absolutely average automobile. Its potential clientele, having been sounded out with in-depth interviews and psychological tests in an unparalleled pre-launch market research campaign, is disappointed. Where’s the “technological breakthrough” that has been so highly touted? The greatest innovations on “Never before a car like it” are a hood with an electric opening mechanism and self-adjusting brakes. During a CBS show dedicated to Edsel, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong sing the praises of a brilliant future, but cannot prevent the car’s demise either. Besides exaggerated expectations inspired among potential customers, the worldwide recession puts an end to the marketing ploy in 1958. The car’s failed design, especially the radiator grille reminding many straightlaced Americans of female private parts, does the rest. The model – named after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, who died of stomach cancer in 1943, is regarded as the greatest automobile flop ever.

110,847

units of Edsel are produced by Ford from September 1957 to November 1959 before the painful story is over. As many as 500,000 were originally planned – per year!

$ 250 mn.

This is the amount of money Ford loses with Edsel, the equivalent of 2.4 billion U.S. dollars today.

Segway

Spinning off the streets

It’s meant to mark no less than a revolution in the mobility market: the one-person stand-up scooter Segway launched by its inventor, Dean Kamen, in 2001. The rider of the electric vehicle (38 kilometers/24 miles range, 20 km/h/12 mph top speed) stands on a platform between the wheels, each driven by one motor, holds on to a handle bar and, thanks to gyroscopic sensors, should actually not be able to fall down (only former U.S. President George W. Bush is said to have managed that). Tilt sensors always cause the Segway to travel in the direction desired by its rider. Accelerating and braking are done exclusively by forward or rearward shifting of the rider’s weight. The whole thing is as easy as child’s play and even fun. It’s just that the fun is too expensive (available in Europe to the tune of some 8,000 euros, plus 1,400 for a spare battery) while its uses are a lot more limited than those of a much cheaper e-bike. Of the forecast 100,000 units per year, only 140,000 are built by the time production ceases in the summer of 2020.

100,000

kilometers (62,000 miles) and more were reeled off by some Segways. Due to their durability, customers owning a Segway never needed to replace it. Good for them, but bad for business.

In 2009

Segway’s CEO Jimi Heselden has a fatal accident with a Segway – a tragic event and publicity downer.

Video 2000 and Betamax

A battle of systems

In the 1970s, videocassette recorders provide TV viewers with independence from TV schedules. For the first time ever, they’re able to record their favorite programs and watch them as often as they like. Three systems are primarily vying for the customers’ business: Betamax (Sony), Video 2000 (Philips, Grundig) and VHS (JVC, Sharp, Panasonic, etc.). Amazingly, VHS, the system with the poorest picture quality, wins out in the end, but for good reason: While Betamax offers top picture quality, it comes at the expense of recording time. 60 minutes per cassette isn’t fit for consumer use. Video 2000, including turning of the cassette, can even tape 16 hours, and picture quality is good, too. But the technology is expensive and never truly matures. What’s more, Philips, like Sony, refuses to grant a user license to the profitable porn market. Hence VHS gets the spoils of victory in the video rental store business and – in spite of inferior technology – wins the battle of the systems.

In 1979

Philips and Sony present the compact disc. The former video market competitors have learned from their setback there and team up in the segment of sound storage media. The CD becomes a resounding success, displacing both cassettes and LPs, and even conquering computers. Today, though, the CD itself has become a niche product. 2019 even saw more money being made with LPs than with CDs. Nearly 90 percent of today’s music and video market is served by streaming services. VHS and CDs prove that innovation is ephemeral.

A 45th anniversary

is celebrated in the summer of 2020 by the world’s first and now oldest video rental store. The “Film-Shop” in the German city of Kassel seems to have fallen out of time. A club has even been founded to keep this relic alive.

Cargolifter

Air(ship) castle

The history of aviation is full of adventures – and, unfortunately, of crashes, too. Among the biggest ones is that of the Cargolifter. The plan is for a huge airship to haul bulky cargo of up to 160 metric tons (176 short tons) from continent to continent. In September 1996, Cargolifter AG is established for this purpose. The behemoth named CL 160, measuring 260 meters (853 ft) in length and 82 meters (269 ft) in height, is planned to be built at a new aircraft production facility on a former Soviet military airfield out in the middle of nowhere in Brandenburg: as an East German lighthouse project in the first decade after German reunification. With all the prevailing euphoria, no one wants to listen to experts voicing early doubts about the feasibility of such a means of transportation. In May 2000, Cargolifter goes public, hoping for Airbus to acquire interest in the company. But the aircraft maker declines with thanks – two years later, Cargolifter is insolvent. What has remained? An indoor water park in the former factory hall with a length of 360 meters (1,118 ft), a width of 210 meters (689 ft) and a height of 107 meters (351 ft).

36 people

die in 1937 when, following a successful Atlantic crossing, the 245 meter (804 ft) long airship “Hindenburg” bursts into flames at Lakehurst/USA. The disaster is broadcast live on radio. It marks the death blow for scheduled airship service, the end of which is close anyhow due to the emergence of commercial passenger aircraft.

In 2024

production of the next major airship project, the British “Airlander” is planned to start. In 2016, a full-scale prototype performed initial test flights. Time will tell whether or not this “great British innovation” will actually turn out to be a success.

Stirling engine

A different approach

In 1816, Robert Stirling invents the Stirling engine that’s named after him (pictured r.) Its principle: A working fluid (air, helium or hydrogen) is heated inside a cylinder and expands before being cooled and compressed in a second cylinder. The constantly varying pressure caused by the fluid cycling in a closed system drives the piston to perform mechanical work. The advantages of this continuously external combustion: extremely low-noise operation and very low emissions. The Stirling engine keeps being brought into play also as an engine for automobiles. But the major carmakers always reject the idea, most recently when U.S. systems specialist Mechanical Technology Inc. presents a production-ready Stirling engine for a passenger car. Departing from engine concepts that have stood the test of time over decades entails too many risks and the supposed benefits (fuel economy, emissions, noise) are too small, especially since these advantages keep shrinking due to catalytic converter technology and advanced TDI diesel engines. These technologies make it possible for automakers to meet increasingly strict emission standards without fundamental conceptual changes. Plus, they don’t have to wrack their brains about a design-related disadvantage of the Stirling engine: it has a weakness when starting from rest and requires consistent engine speeds for efficient performance. Outside automobiles, though, the Stirling engine is alive and well. For instance, in the conversion of solar energy (which is used for heating the working fluid), in thermal power stations (use of waste heat), in submarines and in aerospace applications.

The passenger-car Stirling engine is a good example showing that even a technically viable product doesn’t automatically gain access to the market

Professor Reinhold Bauer,
technology historian

Propeller car

Not for flying

Before something flies, it has to travel on the ground to pick up speed. So why not drive on the ground using the means of an aircraft? In a prop-driven car, the engine doesn’t act on the wheels but on a propeller. There’s no need for a transmission, clutch and drive shaft, which makes the vehicle very lightweight. Marcel Leyat is the first to translate this idea into action. In 1913, the Frenchman constructs the three-wheeled Héliocycle. From 1919 on, he produces a small series of the four-wheeled Hélica. In 1927, his Hélica Montlhéry sets the 171 km/h (106 mph) speed record. But even the Hélicron from 1932 (pictured above) fails to achieve the technology’s breakthrough. The disadvantages of the propeller drive outweigh its advantages: Because the car doesn’t have a starter, the propeller and motor have to be started by a cable system before the driver can get in. That’s deafeningly noisy, poses a danger to all pedestrians and animals, and completely lacks comfort – all passengers sit in the middle of

1,500 rpm

That’s the speed of the rotors in wind-powered vehicles without engines. The propeller’s rotation drives the rear axles of the lightweight vehicles competing in the Racing Aeolus event in Den Helder in the Netherlands. The craft that was most recently victorious converted the wind energy so efficiently that it was nearly 15 percent faster than the headwinds it was facing.

Ingenious misses© Racing Aeolus

Flettner rotor

Gone with the wind
Ingenious misses

The gentleman on the left is Anton Flettner. In the 1920s, he equips two ships with a novel type of wind-powered drive, the Flettner rotors that are named after him. The upright-mounted cylinders on deck are caused to rotate by an electric motor. The energy applied there is magnified by the wind using the Magnus effect: When the wind is blowing against the rotating cylinder, the air on one side of the cylinder is swept along and flows faster. On the other side, where the surface faces the opposite direction of the wind, the air flow is slowed down. Like in the case of an aircraft wing, this produces a vacuum on one side and overpressure on the other, resulting in powerful thrust that’s ten times stronger than in classic sailing. Although Flettner’s ships navigate the high seas for a few years, oil subsequently gains traction as a fuel – it’s cheaper, so the technology disappears. Up until a few years ago: In 2010, Enercon, a German wind turbine manufacturer, presents E-Ship 1 (below) using Flettner column-type rotors. Four aluminum rotors assist the ship’s engine. Since 2014, Finnish rotor sail specialist Norsepower has been using lightweight rotors on several ships. The costs are supposed to amortize after four to eight years. The disadvantage of Flettner’s idea: of all the seagoing vessels, the huge container ships, where the rotors would make particular energetic sense, can’t use them – because there’s no space on deck.

90 kW

of electricity for the electric motors in Norsepower’s lightweight Flettner rotors multiply into an equivalent of 3 MW of conventional propulsion force in good wind conditions, according to the operator.

Ingenious misses© Norsepower
Conclusion

The list of failed inventions could be extended at will – Reinhold Bauer, for instance, mentions the huge wind turbine Growian, the fast-breeder reactor, the Wankel engine or the Transrapid high-speed monorail train. But there are some current examples as well. Bauer: “I tend to be depressed by futuristic anachronisms like the Volocopter, with which, in my opinion, obsolete models of personal mobility (the flying car) are carried forward into the future of mobility, for which we’d actually need different, more sustainable solutions.” Be that as it may – one thing, says Bauer, is certain: “Failure – rather than success – is the rule when it comes to technical innovations.”

Roland Löwisch
Author Roland Löwisch
While author Roland Löwisch has no personal history of technical failure, he does have one in a classic sense: His first thesis in business administration was rejected by the supervising professor as being “too journalistic.” There could hardly be a nicer way to fail when you’re aspiring to become an editor …