HOW FAULTY CONCEPTS AND BAD TIMING LED TO THESE 10 MAJOR INVENTION FAILURES
Too bad McDonald’s didn’t come up with the Arch Deluxe burger 11 years earlier. You could have ordered it with a New Coke.
BY REID CREAGER
“I have not failed,” Thomas Edison said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
And he wasn’t exaggerating.
If the prospect or reality of failure is too much for an inventor, he or she should take up another pursuit. The anticipation of failure and having a healthy attitude about it are essential traits for anyone trying to bring a new idea or product to the masses.
However, it’s true that some inventing failures get added notoriety—whether due to their unconventional nature, excess hype, or number of dollars invested. Among the more notable ones of recent vintage, in no particular order:
OK, strike that claim to randomness. There’s a reason we list this invention first. The name ”Edsel” has become synonymous with failure.
No disrespect intended for Henry Ford’s only child, for whom the car was named, but Ford Motor Co. executives known as the “Whiz Kids” could have chosen a more exciting name. The car raced downhill from there.
Various automotive history sources cite a litany of reasons for the Edsel’s failure: With so many execs working on developing and promoting the car, the project had no direction. Production problems caused problems with dealers. A recession around the time of the car’s Sept. 4, 1957, launch was classic bad timing.
The 1958 Edsel made Time magazine’s list of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time. It said the car was “the first victim of Madison Avenue hyper-hype. Ford’s marketing mavens had led the public to expect some plutonium-powered, pancake-making wondercar; what they got was a Mercury.”
And let’s not forget the butt-ugly factor—never a plus in a vehicle that was supposed to be a status symbol. Throw in the then-pricey window sticker reading $2,500 to $3,800 that most found more certifiable than justifiable, and Ford was happy to throw out the Edsel by the end of 1959.
The Bell Rocket Belt
A cool kind of U.S. Army-Meets-“The Jetsons” creation by Bell Aerosystems in the early 1960s, this low-power, rocket-propulsion device could carry a person over 29.6-feet-high obstacles and reach speeds of 6 mph to 9 mph.
For a short while, the military was so high on the rocket pack’s potential that it gave President John F. Kennedy a personal demonstration. The device was patented in 1962.
But figuratively, it never got off the ground.
Two major problems: The hydrogen peroxide-fueled pack only stayed airborne for about 20 seconds and 393 feet. The rocket belt also was not conducive to controlled landings, posing a huge safety risk.
But remember what we said about the importance of failure in inventing? National Air and Space Museum curator Thomas Lassman told Smithsonian magazine that the Bell Rocket Belt experiment has much historic value “because it illustrates so clearly a technological dead end and shows us how technological enthusiasm can fail to meet expectations. Such failures are frequent in technological innovation.”
McDonald’s Arch Deluxe
If Lassman’s words are food for thought, this 1996 McDonald’s burger was food for naught.
Apparently willing to ignore the basic premise of a multi-billion-dollar business built on inexpensive sandwiches, McDonald’s spent an estimated $300 million on research, production and marketing on an upscale product it marketed as “The burger with the grown-up taste.”
But customers have never come to Mickey D’s for a culinary experience. They come for convenience and the burgers that have been the company’s staples since its founding in 1940.
They also come for simplicity, as Dave Miller noted in a November 2001 Brand Week article: “McDonald’s is not cognitive, it is reflexive. We treasure not having to think about it. It just ‘is.’”
So the Arch Deluxe—also burdened with even higher caloric content than the restaurant’s old standbys—was discontinued within a few years.
Too bad the company didn’t come up with this brainstorm 11 years earlier. You could have ordered an Arch Deluxe with a New Coke.
A video console released in 1979 to compete with the Atari 2600, Intellivision was always a distant second to a rival that many remember as the market standard. Mattel’s product all but bankrupted the iconic company best known for the Barbie doll as Intellivision went into freefall in 1983.
But unlike some of the failures on this list, the console was an innovation with many special features. In fact, the words “console game system” and “legacy” may seem mutually exclusive, but they were the subject of an Intellivision case history by Stanford University student Jeffrey Tam.
According to Tam, Intellivision had more memory, more powerful graphics and a built-in operating system that made it a “catalyst” in the industry. It was the first 16-bit game console, two generations before it became the industry standard. Aided by an aggressive marketing campaign, “Major League Baseball,” the series of baseball games that Intellivision created in 1979-83, was deemed clearly superior to Atari’s “Homerun.”
Market oversaturation was a key factor in the demise of Intellivision and ultimately Atari consoles as well—not to mention inevitable tech improvements that led to other gaming formats. In 1984, NTV Corp. bought Intellivision’s rights from Mattel and made its own version of the product, the INTV System III.
A viable format from the days of recording TV shows using analog tape, Sony Betamax was to VHS what Intellivision was to Atari.
Yet unlike upstart Intellivision vs. Atari, Betamax actually preceded VHS. At one point, it had 100 percent of the market after its May 1975 launch.
It has been said that Betamax was overtaken in the market because RCA-owned VHS (launched in America in August 1977) offered a bigger choice of hardware at a lower cost; the tapes were cheaper and more easily available; and that there were a lot more VHS movies to rent. The movies factor is key here.
The original VHS could record up to two hours of tape, Betamax only one. So you couldn’t record a full movie unattended using Betamax—a major deficiency. Recording times eventually increased for both formats, but VHS still held the edge in that category and surpassed Beta in the market after about a decade.
Some have contended that Betamax failed because it would not agree to license to pornography companies. But its demise was due to a simple lack of convenience and availability.
Although Betamax recorders were not discontinued until 2002, their obituary had been written decades earlier.
A computer monitor for your face! What took them so long?
Google Glass—lightweight augmented reality glasses that could access the internet, take photographs and film short snippets from the bridge of your nose with just a touch or your voice—officially launched in 2013 as one of the most blatant recent examples of technology that wasn’t well thought out.
A pair of this experimental technology with a projector that sits in front of one eye retailed for $1,500. Even before Google Glass was made available to the public, the New York Times wrote:
“The glasses-like device … has been pre-emptively banned by a Seattle bar. Large parts of Las Vegas will not welcome wearers. West Virginia legislators tried to make it illegal to use the gadget … while driving.”
That pesky safety and privacy stuff can be a bear, can’t it? Google Glass was discontinued in January 2015.
Google hasn’t totally given up on the idea, though. Last year it unveiled Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2, a new model catered specifically to business uses by supporting mobile device management.
Nintendo 1995 Virtual Boy
For starters, the video game behemoth should have been honest with the name of the product. The first three-dimensional stereo immersive 32-bit video game system wasn’t virtual reality; it was 3D.
The system used a pair of oscillating mirrors to turn a single line of LED pixels into a 3D projection, made of red pixels against a black background. The headset had to be attached to its stand in order to protect Nintendo from liability issues of users moving around while they played the game. This could cause back discomfort.
There were also reports of eye strain and a company warning that kids 7 and younger shouldn’t play Virtual Boy, because eyesight is still developing at that age and playing it could result in a lazy eye. Nintendo also warned about headaches, nausea and dizziness.
But the big-picture reason for the most spectacular game console failure in Nintendo’s history was that the company was reportedly more preoccupied with its impending Nintendo 64 system. So Virtual Boy was slightly rushed to the public, contributing to its somewhat unfinished state.
The system originally retailed for $177.99. By the following May, Nintendo dropped the price to $99 in a last-ditch effort to generate interest. The system was discontinued by July, less than a year after its debut, with only 22 games released.
Hey, at least the cutesy handheld barcode reader ranked high on Time’s list of the 50 worst inventions (No. 5; the Segway was No. 1).
CueCat‘s purpose was to direct its user to a web page containing information without having to enter a URL—although simply typing a link would seem just as easy. It connected to computers using the PS/2 keyboard port and USB, and communicated to desktop CRQ software running on Windows 32-bit and Mac OS 9 operating systems.
Millions of CueCats were given away free to internet users starting in 2000 by the now-defunct Digital Convergence Corp., with codes printed in Wired and Business Week in an effort to get traction for the product.
The Wall Street Journal reported that $185 million was invested in CueCat. Reporter Walter Mossberg wrote: “In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That’s unnatural and ridiculous.” The device “fails miserably.”
By the end of 2001, codes could no longer be generated for the device or scanned with it.
What’s a little cramps, gas and loose bowels in the name of better nutrition? Apparently, a lot.
It sure sounded promising when the Food and Drug Administration approved olestra as a food additive in January 1996: zero calories, zero grams of cholesterol and zero grams of fat.
Butter, shortening, cooking oil and more were on their way to being minimized or eliminated in kitchens around the world, right? Fat chance.
Olestra was found to negate the body’s ability to absorb essential vitamins. And those aforementioned uncomfortable side effects were not imaginary. The website WebMD is among those that have warned about potential problems.
Nonetheless, the FDA has kept olestra as a legal food additive. It has been used as a fat substitute in the preparation of traditionally high-fat foods, including potato chips.
Ford Pinto and the AVE Mizar
The smallest American Ford vehicle since 1907, unveiled in 1971, was right down there with the Edsel as one of the company’s less-distinguished efforts. A series of deadly fires resulting from rear-end collisions stigmatized the Pinto forever, even though the model continued through 1980 and its overall safety record was reportedly comparable to other subcompact models.
Fires resulting from rear-end Pinto collisions spawned a number of lawsuits and much-debated, often sensationalized data relating to the crashes. GM and Chrysler have since had their own fuel tank issues, but the Pinto has a reputation that won’t go away.
As if the model didn’t have enough perception problems, two men, Henry Smolinski and Harold Blake, invented a flying Ford Pinto that they called the AVE Mizar. It could fly up to 12,000 feet at speeds reaching 130 mph.
On Sept. 11, 1973, during a test flight at Camarillo, California, the right wing strut detached from the Pinto (after doing the same in an earlier test run). Smolinksi and Blake both died in the crash.