Thomas Edison: The Edison Doll and Concrete Homes
Edison had over 2000 patents by the time he died, so it’s not really much of a surprise that among his innovations on the phonograph, the light bulb, the kinetoscope and the telephone, he also had some utter failures as well.
Interestingly, one of his worst failures was actually a great idea that was just too far ahead of its time for the current technology. The Edison Doll was the inventor’s attempt to bring the joy of the phonograph to children. While talking dolls are common place these days and widely loved by little girls around the globe, the problems with the Edison Talking Doll were many. For one thing, phonographs of the time still had to be manually cranked at the appropriate speed in order to play correctly. That’s asking a lot for a child to do with her toy. Another problem was that even when cranked at the proper speed, the doll sounded simply terrible because voice recording still wasn’t very good at the time. In fact, Edison himself admitted "the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear." As if those two issues weren’t bad enough, the mini phonograph inside the doll was incredibly fragile –meaning even if a little girl did manage to play the sound at the right speed and not run away from the shrieking abomination, she’d almost certainly destroy the wax record after only a short amount of play time.
Of course, all the new technology didn’t come cheap and the doll would cost between $10 and $25 depending on the outfit she came in. That’s the equivalent of between $240 and $600 these days, which is a whole lot to spend on a doll that terrifies your daughter and breaks without any effort. Of 2,500 made, only 500 were sold and most of the dolls were returned. With all of these failures, it’s no wonder the doll was only sold for a few short weeks in early 1890. Of course, the rarity of the failure has only increased the doll’s value over the last century. These days, an Edison doll in good condition can easily go for over $15,000 –and that’s without the original phonograph, since most of the excess inventory was sold off without a sound device inside.
The terrible toy doll wasn’t Edison’s only failure though. In fact, his best-known failure was in his push for concrete housing complete with concrete furniture, even concrete pianos. Edison believed these cheap creations would be a good way to solve the housing crisis and allow low-income families to enjoy the finer things in life without spending a fortune. In 1917, he and Charles Ingersoll offered 11 concrete homes (that's them above) up for sale for only $1,200 –a third of the cost of an average home. Even so, they didn’t manage to sell a single one.
In many ways, this suffered from the same problem as his doll –it was too ahead of its time. After all, concrete is a common element in modern architectural design. Of course, even if concrete homes have become more widely accepted in modern times, the idea of a concrete couch is still not very popular. To be fair, the furniture was constructed of special concrete foam, so it was as light as typical wood furniture and it was shaped and painted to look rather nice. Still, no one talks about the warm glow of concrete like they do about wood.
As for a concrete piano, well, only the outside would be made with his concrete foam, the rest would still be the typical wood and metal guts of ordinary pianos. While it might sound like a terrible idea, Judy Wearing, author of Edison’s Concrete Piano (if you like this article BTW, you really ought to check it out), actually encased her own home piano with concrete only to discover that the sound was actually improved, coming out clearer. As it turns out, maybe Edison was even more ahead of his time than we realize and concrete pianos have yet to find their hay day.
Sources: Neatorama, Edison Tin Foil, Sott
Leonardo Da Vinci: Water-Walking Shoes
Regardless of the functionality, the shoes have a serious problem, even when they do actually keep the water-walker afloat. Namely, it’s near impossible to actually walk across water on these things no matter how good your balance and even if you can get going, you’re still going to look pretty darn silly. The shoes certainly aren't silent or stealthy enough to be useful in a surprise invasion nor are they steady enough to use while fighting, rendering them useless as a military apparatus as Da Vinci intended.
Source: Museo di Leonardo Da Vinci
Gunpei Yokoi: The Virtual Boy
If you enjoyed mobile gaming back in the nineties, then you probably had a Game Boy and if you loved your portable Nintendo system, then you had one man to thank - Gunpei Yokoi, the Nintendo employee who created the device and helped Mario evolve from a lowly plumber to a fire-ball-shooting hero. Yokoi also worked on the beloved Metroid and Kid Icarus franchises.
While the game designer and inventor was responsible for some of the most legendary Nintendo creations, he was also at fault for what is still largely considered the company’s biggest failure to date –The Virtual Boy. The console was intended to be the first system that offered 3D graphics out of the box, but users were just not into the idea of strapping a screen to their face just to play their favorite game. The device was also considered to be utterly hideous and even after price cut after price cut, users still refused to buy the item. Nintendo blamed Yokoi for the failure and he left the company shortly after although some argue that it was unrelated to the Virtual Boy disaster.
Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2
Clive Sinclair: Mini Television
Sir Clive Sinclair may not be as famous as some of the other names on this list, but he actually had a huge impact on modern technology. He invented the first slim-line electronic pocket calculator, the first mass market computer sold in the UK for under £100, a fold-up bicycle and more. While his electronic vehicle released in 1985 was considered a commercial failure, it was at least an innovation in the right direction. His miniature television released in 1977 was a different story in failure.
The so-called “pocket television” was revolutionary for the time, given that ordinary televisions would often weigh more than 100 pounds. Upon announcement of its release, the public was thrilled about the concept of a portable television. Even so, Sinclair’s brick-sized invention was hardly practical and didn’t even fit in most people’s pockets. The screen was so tiny it was nearly impossible to see what was actually happening on your favorite show. As if that weren’t bad enough, reception for the tiny television set wasn’t exactly great, even when sitting in one place at your own home. Sure a lot of people still complain about the tiny screens on their smart phones, but at least the video looks clean and the reception generally is good and that’s more than anyone could say about their pocket TV.
Source: Wikipedia, BBC
There are plenty of bad inventions out there, but let’s face it, most of them aren’t exactly made by the top minds of their time. That being said, even the best inventors have to fail here and there and I certainly didn’t have enough room to include all the terrible inventions by clever innovators, so if you have any other stories of terrible inventions by people known for their great creations, feel free to share them in the comments.