In 2001, author Steve Kemper got a $250,000 advance to write about a forthcoming invention that, he said, "would sweep over the world and change lives, cities, and ways of thinking." The media went into a frenzy trying to predict what it might be. Some sort of miraculous Stirling engine that would run on hydrogen, perhaps?
The invention turned out to be the Segway, and it was more punchline than revolutionary transportation device. As you've probably noticed, the Segway never became a feasible alternative to cars in developing nations (as its inventor Dean Kamen predicted) and it didn't solve the problem of gridlock.
History is filled with examples of new inventions that supporters thought would be transformational — and then turned out to be minor fads. And these failures show how hard it is for inventors to anticipate society's needs. It's tough to predict what will change the world, because it's tough to predict how the world will change.
1) Daylight motion pictures: "Witness the shows sitting in a fully lighted auditorium"
Imagine going to a movie theater where the entire auditorium is completely lit. Back in the 1910s, some people thought this was the future of film.
When movie theaters opened in the early 1900s, many people disliked the darkly lit auditoriums. In Minneapolis, one theater owner said he preferred full lighting "to look after the wants of women and children" and to avoid "eye fatigue."
The idea caught on quickly and "daylight motion pictures" became a trend across the country. They worked through a combination of stronger projectors, darker screens, and wishful thinking. From New York, to Utah, to San Francisco, daylight projection brought relief from the "agitation" of dark movie theaters. Lobbying helped, too — in California, the statehouse passed a bill requiring theaters to be sufficiently lit so that patrons could see the features of other moviegoers.
But bright movie houses didn't stick around for long. From the beginning, movie projectionists complained that well-lit movie theaters lacked the quality picture found in a dark theater. It didn't help that the daylit pictures technology pushed by Samuel Rothafel and others were based more on hocus pocus than real innovation (Rothafel credited "a chemical substance found in the Dry Tortugas"). Eventually, women and children felt safe in the movie theater, eye fatigue was overcome, and movies went dark for good.
2) Electrified Water: "For the morning after...a sure cure for headaches"
In the early 1900s, "electrified water" was considered the next big thing. The idea was that people would run a charge through water and then — after they stopped — the liquid would acquire all sorts of wondrous new qualities.
As early as 1904, people pitched electrified water as a way of sterilizing and cleaning clothes without soap. A 1913 ad boasted that this "wonderful new invention applies electricity in a new way." Electrified water was also in vogue for drinking and sprinkling on plants. In the 1920s, one physician suggested dipping your hands in electrified water to cure your hangover.
Electrified water wasn't dangerous (the charge usually stopped before people came in contact with it). But it also proved ineffective — it doesn't work to wash your clothes without soap, and, for most practical circumstances, electrified water didn't sterilize much at all.
3) The Fiske Reading Machine: "To render obsolete printing presses"
Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske was a celebrity inventor with many inventions and accomplishments to his name, like adding telescopic sights to ship guns. That might be why people thought the Fiske Reading Machine, invented in 1922, would be the next big thing in literature.
The basic idea was that books would be printed onto small pages in really tiny letters, and readers would hold modified magnifying glasses up to their eyes to read. As inconvenient as it sounds, Scientific American ran a piece listing all the advantages that Fiske machines would supposedly have over over old-fashioned books:
- Cheaper manufacturing
- Better quality paper could be used and books would last longer
- Less paper needed
- Easy to send by mail (and cheap!)
- More free space in your house
- Smaller presses could be used
- Everything could be cheaper because everything was easier to do
- No more eye-glasses and spectacles
- Poor people could finally afford to learn!
In the end, Fiske's reading machine never took off. Mass-market paperbacks grew in the 1930s and 1940s, possibly negating one of the reading machine's key advantages. Realistically, however, people probably just didn't want to hold a magnifying glass up to their eyes for hours at a time.
4) The Welte-Mignon: "The master himself...his own fingers at your keyboard"
The Welte-Mignon was a twist on the player pianos that existed in the early 1900s — pianos that played pre-recorded music using automated cylinders. While most player pianos emphasized the music, Welte-Mignons emphasized the actual performance. Famous pianists could sit down at a Welte-Mignon and play songs, and then the piano would "record" their performance on rolls. People could then take the rolls, put them in their home Welte-Mignon, and listen to the exact same performance. A few similar inventions worked the same way, but the Welte-Mignon was the most famous.
It was supposed to be the future of music. In an ad, conductor and composer Walter Damrosch called it "without doubt the most remarkable musical invention of our age." And it's true that the rolls are amazing: the only extant recordings of Gustav Mahler are on Welte-Mignon rolls.
But the automated piano was eventually surpassed by the record player — which offered better options for listeners and artists alike. Recording of Welte rolls was finished by 1930 (you can read more about its history here).
5) The Submarine Tube: "Fish will play out before the human eye"
The submarine tube, invented by Charles Williamson in the 1910s, was once thought to be the future of underwater photography. The idea was simple: put a sphere underwater and connect it to the surface using a large waterproof tube.
Williamson originally wanted to use the device to find treasure and pearls underwater (the New York Times thought the "ingenious Scot" would find millions). Later, the device was touted as a way to see the ocean like never before. Submarine tube footage appeared in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, sketch artists used it to make amazing new drawings of undersea life, and one submarine tuber caught an epic picture of a diver right before he killed a shark.
But as wonderful as the submarine tube was, it didn't end up being the future of undersea exploration. The advent of small, waterproof cameras in the 1940s made it more practical to send a diver down to capture ocean life instead of an entire tube. Jacques Cousteau's work on SCUBA and underwater photography advanced the technology even further. With better options available, submarine tubes became a historical quirk.
6) Spring spokes for cars: "To obviate pneumatic tires"
As early as 1905, automobile manufacturers tried to create elaborate spring spoke wheels to make car rides smoother. In 1914, Popular Mechanics suggested that these new spring wheel would make pneumatic tires a thing of the past.
Granted, spring spokes weren't so crazy in an age when wooden wheels were still common. And, arguably, spring spoke tires were less a fad than a failed alternative (they were the Betamax to the pneumatic tire's VHS). But ultimately, there were just better ways to make a smooth ride, including superior tires and air suspension. Still, that doesn't mean the idea is totally dead yet — in 2013, an inventor tried a version of the spring spoke system for bikes.
7) The Helio-Motor: "Are Steam and Electricity Doomed?"
Invented by Dr. William Calver in the 1900, the Helio-Motor was inspired by an age-old desire to recreate the legend of Archimedes' heat ray — when the scientist supposedly lit a ship on fire using mirrors to concentrate sunlight.
Calver believed he had "solved the use of the sun's rays" by concentrating sunlight using mirrors. In his Helio-Motor, flat mirrors moved according to the sun's position in the sky, and then stored reflected heat in bricks or water. The goal was to heat the world and generate enough power to replace electricity. Commentators believed Calver's Helio-Motor was "Archimedes' Dream Realized," and rich investors lined up to help the effort. Leland Stanford, founder of the university that bears his name, told Calver, "The steam engine made a great revolution and this will make another."
Of course, the Helio-Motor didn't become the next big thing in electricity because it was too hard to convert and store all that energy. Even if it worked well, it wasn't better than the existing sources like coal.
But the Helio-Motor may not be dead yet. Thanks to more efficient ways for using that reflected heat, the Helio-Motor sounds a lot like modern-day concentrated solar power. It's entirely possible that Calver's invention could go from potentially world-changing, to unwanted device, to world-changing again. Part of the fun is figuring out what else might do the same.
Further Reading: 7 world-changing inventions people initially thought were dumb fads