Without inventors, we wouldn’t really have anything but ourselves and our basic behaviors. Invention is the backbone of progress; it’s how culture evolves in the place of our now mostly superfluous biological evolution. But for all the inventions that made it into popular use, hundreds of times more failed along the way.
The whole process of invention, creation, and distribution is just one checkpoint after another—one potential failure after another. It could be a faulty idea, a great idea in the wrong era, a great idea that someone else beats you to, an idea no one will sell, or an idea beat out by a competing concept. There’s no shortage of ways in which inventors can flounder, even—sometimes especially—the greats.
Here are ten times the world’s best inventors utterly failed.
10 Alexander Graham Bell—The Cygnet
Alexander Graham Bell is most famous for creating the first working telephone as well as the first telephone company, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). But the inventor also tried his hand at a number of different fields, with mixed results. One of the most… mixed… is his giant tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet.
The Cygnet, meaning little swan in French, was a 40-foot long plane built from thousands of tetrahedral cells meant to catch and trap the breeze. At 2,000 pounds, it seemed destined to fail. Although it did actually manage to take a pilot off the ground, it was nearly impossible to maneuver and ended up crashing. Bell later developed better designs, culminating in the famous Silver Dart.
9 Thomas Edison—The Kinetophone
Thomas Edison was a brilliant inventor who gave the world the lightbulb and the phonograph, and much of our motion picture technology (more on this a little later). He also helped systematize invention by applying the scientific method and collaboration to the process, which helped change commercial inventing forever. He double also thought movies would be watched alone, standing, bent over, and peering into a dark, clanking machine.
Yes, Edison. How logical.
The first machine, called the Kinetoscope, was one of the first motion picture viewing devices. It essentially wound meters of film images next to each other and flashed them at the viewer in rapid succession. However, the film was stored in a large box that the viewer had to bend over and stare into—uncomfortably. The Kinetophone added a phonograph which was built in the unit to combine sound and moving pictures. A very cool idea, but one that projection systems completely defeated.
8 The Soviet Union—Flying Tanks
During World War II, every major nation took its shot at advancing military technology. Some, like the Jeep and duct tape, were clear successes. And some, like the Soviet Union-created Antonov A-40, were not. The A-40, or Krylya Tanka (“winged tank”), was a Soviet tank with detachable glider wings so the tank could fly, towed by another plane, and then glide onto the field of battle, ready to go.
Or not ready, as the tank was just too heavy for any wings they could design.
To compensate, the Soviets stripped the tank of any weight they could, which meant ammunition, fuel, guns, and even headlights. The tanks, now not so deadly, were still too heavy. The project underwent only one flight, and it was not quite successful enough to warrant the program’s continued existence.
7 Nintendo—The Famicom
Nintendo is one of, if not the, most recognizable names in video games today. They’ve created countless hit games and systems, and since their smash hit, the Super Nintendo, even their ‘flop’ consoles have still sold millions. It’s hard to believe, then, that before the NES, they put their first home console, the Famicom, on the market, and it failed miserably.
The Famicom was meant to compete with the popular Atari 2600 and ColecoVision, and in theory, could have done it. The problem was that the chipset inside the Famicom was broken; a faulty circuit caused games to freeze often, and Nintendo was forced to recall all Famicoms during the critical holiday season.
Luckily, after a few tweaks (as well as brief forays into home computing and arcade machine), Nintendo released a reworked version of the Famicom, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
6 AT&T—The Picturephone
Skype, Zoom, Facetime, and dozens of other audio/video calling services exist, and many see habitual use from millions of people each day. The idea of video calling to talk to another person as face-to-face as possible seems like a no-brainer. That’s why it’s so odd that AT&T succeeded in releasing a working picturephone as far back as 1964, and no one really cared.
AT&T debuted their Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, NY, and even installed three public video phones in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City’s Grand Central Station. The technology was about 50 years ahead of its time. It was, however, extremely expensive, at $16 to $27 per minute, and that was for low-resolution video, so it didn’t catch on.
5 Bill Gates—The Tablet
Apple tends to dominate the tablet world with its line of iPads. They’re thin, attractive, and functional. But oddly enough, Bill Gates invented a tablet a full decade before the first iPad. It looks and functions much the same, just worse.
In 2011, Bill Gates showed off the new Microsoft Tablet PC, and it initially seemed great. It ran Windows XP and, compared to desktop PCs, was light, slim, and portable. But that was its fatal flaw; it simply tried to be a smaller PC.
Because of that, it forced in the far-too-bulky operating system and was therefore wildly expensive—$2,000 on launch. Needless to say, the iPad took its time, found the right niche use for tablets, and won the war. As Gates said about his loss, “(Jobs) did some things better than I did. His timing in terms of when it came out, the engineering work, just the package that was put together.”
4 Sir James Dyson—Vacuums
Sir James Dyson is one of the richest men in the world and one of its most famous inventors. He owns Dyson Ltd., which is built on his technology for bagless vacuums. The technology was revolutionary; built on cyclonic separation, it allowed consumers to buy a vacuum without needing to buy any replacement bags.
It didn’t work overnight, though.
It actually took Dyson an unbelievable 5,127 failed prototypes before he landed on a design that worked. During this period of successive failures, Dyson was lucky to be inventing full time, supported by his wife’s salary. But luck played no part in his refusal to give up, despite overwhelming failure.
3 Steve Jobs—NeXT
Though Steve Jobs founded Apple, the company fired him within a decade. He was at odds with other company heads and was prone to interpersonal snafus. When he left, he used $7 million of his own money to found a company called NeXT Inc., which completely bombed.
The first product NexT unveiled was the NeXT workstation, an advanced computing system meant for schools and universities. Its $10,000 price tag, however, made it an infeasible purchase, and the system flopped. Jobs tried again with the NeXTcube, and though not an utter failure, it was still well below the success that Jobs was known for. Luckily, Apple bought NeXT Inc., and Jobs returned to his most fruitful home.
2 Nikola Tesla—Thought Camera
Nikola Tesla was not only one of the great geniuses of his time but of our time as well. He invented prolifically, securing over 300 patents throughout his lifetime. His most well-known inventions are the Tesla coil and alternating current. Tesla also dabbled in, well, every field imaginable, from the strictly scientific to the paranormal. One of his inventions of the latter variety was the “Gedankenprojektor,” or “thought projector.”
Tesla said of his idea: “I became convinced that a definite image formed in thought, must by reflex action, produce a corresponding image on the retina, which might be read by a suitable apparatus.” Tesla’s idea was to record the inside of the human retina, which was certain to contain a replica of the person’s thoughts and project the image to see a person’s thoughts on screen in real-time. If it had worked, you’d know it.
1 Louis Le Prince—Movie Camera
Although we know Thomas Edison as the inventor of the motion picture, Louis Le Prince may actually have that honor himself. There is a great debate over which man invented which technology first, and the two men fought legal battles to prevent the other from gaining a clear lead in their race to pioneer motion picture technology. But Le Prince is generally considered the loser in that battle, and one reason why is his mysterious disappearance.
On September 16, 1890, Le Prince boarded a train to Paris and was never seen again. Naturally, rumors began to spread as to what happened to the inventor. One intriguing, though unlikely, theory is that Edison had Le Prince assassinated to remove his competition.