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The World of Failed Inventions

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Thousands of people toil away in their workshops trying to invent something that will make them rich and famous. They want to put to the test the phrase attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

It didn’t work for the inventor of the cigarette umbrella, a little hood that kept your smokes dry in the rain. The mighty McDonald’s empire developed a clunker when it launched what it called pizza.

The patent offices of the world are littered with the broken dreams of riches, but sometimes an inventor hits gold.

The wheel wasn't much use without the invention of the axle.

The wheel wasn't much use without the invention of the axle.

Helmets and Other Gizmos

Step aside the mud pack here comes The Glamour Bonnet. In 1941, a Mrs. D. M. Ackerman, of Hollywood, California unleashed this device on the world. Basically, it was a plastic bag that the customer/victim put over her head. Of course, we all know we shouldn’t do that.

Anyway, the air pressure was reduced and this stimulated the circulation of blood bringing the natural glow of youth to the face. You don’t see a lot of these devices in use anymore.

Nobody really likes walking into a snowstorm so someone in Montreal, Canada came up with the plastic face protector in 1939. It was a clear, 18-inch, pointed pyramid that projected out from the face. Very stylish.

Hugo Gernsback’s Isolator isn’t seen around much anymore either. It looks like a large fabric watermelon with eye holes that fits over the head and rests on the shoulders. It is entirely soundproof and oxygen is fed in at about where the nose would be.

Gernsback was the editor of Science and Invention magazine and said his invention helped the wearer concentrate and focus. One possible downside would be the inability to hear a fire alarm if it went off.

The Isolator.

The Isolator.

Time for Some Invention Trivia

American Joseph C. Gayety is credited with inventing the first toilet paper roll in 1857. It wasn’t until 1890 that the product could be advertised as “splinter free.” Argghh. “Honey, get the tweezers.”

The Darlington Football (soccer) Club in England had to deal with a waterlogged pitch. In 1999, management brought in 50,000 worms to irrigate the ground. All the worms drowned.

Earl Tupper sold chickens from his family farm in New Hampshire before he went on to invent Tupperware. It’s a curious and almost totally unrelated fact that Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his eighth symphony in a hen house.

Thomas Edison held more than 1,000 patents, one of which was for a tattooing machine. Until recently, this was only used to inscribe “Mom” on the biceps of sailors.

British engineer Edwin Beard Budding patented the world’s first lawn mower in 1830. He tested his design at night because he thought that if anyone saw him pushing his machine across grass they would think he was mad.

The reel mower has changed little since its invention.

The reel mower has changed little since its invention.

Food Failures

More than 20,000 new food products are launched each year and almost all of them crash and burn in the marketplace. Marlboro ice cream anyone? Yup, from the ciggy butt people.

Do you remember New Coke? In 1985, Coca-Cola had a master plan to fend off its rival Pepsi – change the 99-year-old recipe. Millions of pop drinkers demanded a return of old Coke. It reappeared after two months re-branded as Classic Coke.

Purple and green ketchup flew off store shelves straight into the dumpster, followed quickly by skids of Celery-flavoured JELL-O.

And, here comes the Florida-based Original Pet Drink Corporation. In 1994, the company launched carbonated bottle water for pets, flavoured with beef for dogs and seafood for cats. Pet owners love their animals, but they couldn’t see the point of dropping coin on a special water product for Rover who seems perfectly content to drink from the toilet bowl.

Accidental Genius

Corporations spend billions looking for “The Next Big Thing,” but it sometimes turns up unexpectedly as a side-effect of other research. Mark Twain spotted that when he observed that the “Name of the greatest of all inventors. Accident.”

People toiling away with calculators and chemicals sometimes stumble on something unexpected.

Wilson Greatbatch was an American engineer who held more than 150 patents. He was working on designing a gizmo to record human heart beats. However, he attached the wrong resistor and thereby created the heart pacemaker by accident.

Spencer Silver was a 3M chemist working on adhesives. He made one that seemed like a flop because it created a weak bond. Then, a colleague, Art Fry, had one of those Aha! moments and the Post-it note was born.

In 1928, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming was working with staphylococcus bacteria cultures. He spread some on Petri dishes and went on vacation. When he returned he found his staph cultures had not grown but had been killed by an invading mold. Dr. Fleming didn’t invent penicillin so much as discover it.

Bonus Factoids

Play Doh was first sold as a product to clean dirty wallpaper.

Quelle horreur! The British invented champagne.

The New Phantom bustle was turned loose on the British public in 1884 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It contained a music box that played “God Save the Queen” when the wearer sat down.

Blibber-Blubber was invented by the American confectioner Frank H. Fleer. It was a first, and unsuccessful, attempt at creating bubble gum. The serious drawback that prevented it from becoming a hit was that the bubble splattered a gooey substance over the face that had to be removed with a solvent and vigorous scrubbing. However, an accountant at Fleer’s company, Walter Diemer, reformulated the stuff and added latex to create Double Bubble.

Sources

  • “The Isolator, a Bizarre Helmet Invented in 1925 Used to Help Increase Focus and Concentration.” E.D.W. Lynch, Laughing Squid, October 12, 2011
  • Museum of Failure.
  • “6 of the Worst Product Failures in the Food and Beverage Industry’s History.” Christopher Doering, Food Dive, June 19, 2017.
  • “The 11 Biggest Food Flops Of All Time.” Dina Spector, Business Insider, January 12, 2012.
  • “Quite Interesting.” BBC, undated.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 26, 2018:

Hi, Nir, this is funny! Are you going to write about all the failing efforts or something else? Thanks for dropping in and commenting.

Nir Dvash on September 26, 2018:

Dear Rupert,

It was great reading your article, as i'm an inventor my self, and for the past 25 years have mostly been failing so I can relate. I have even started my own blog just a few weeks ago - failedinventor.com

Nir.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 10, 2018:

Hi, Rupert, Isay a big thank you. I thought every step to the invention was a reality. I had not noted the negative aspect. Edison and the lamp, that is very famous.

Recently, I was reading the story of penicillin and Dr. A. Flenning. I thought he actually invented it as I had been told as a boy in my school days. But why was he given a British knighthood if he had not invented penicillin in the first place? Thank you again.