Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mr. Edison’s Kindle: Fifteen Amazing Gadget Ideas That Were Way, Way Ahead of Their Time

From Technologizer.com:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So said legendary tech visionary Alan Kay. He was absolutely correct. But he might have added that inventing the future is anything but a cakewalk. Even though everyone who does it has the luxury of learning from predecessors who tried and failed.

The brightest inventors on the planet keep coming up with ideas that never amount to much–even when they set out to solve real problems, and even when their brainchildren foreshadow later breakthroughs. And professional tech watchers have long proven themselves prone to getting irrationally exuberant about stuff that just isn’t ready for prime time.

Thanks to Google Books’ archives of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, LIFE, and other magazines that frequently reported on futuristic gizmos, we have a readily accessible record of technology that failed to live up to the initial hype–including random notions that never got off the drawing board, startlingly advanced products that didn’t find a market, and very rough drafts of concepts that eventually became a big deal. The best of them are fascinating, even when it’s not the least bit surprising that they flopped.

Herewith, fifteen inventions–not that all of them ever got built–that were at least a decade ahead of their time. They’re in chronological order, starting with the inspiration that gave this article its title.

1. Thomas Edison’s Metal Books

As described in: Cosmopolitan, February 1911.

What it was: Among the numerous brainstorms and predictions that Thomas Alva Edison shared with Cosmopolitan readers in an exclusive interview was his vision of 40,000-page books that would be two inches thick and weigh a pound–because their pages would be made of metal, not paper:

Even the pages of books may be made of steel, though Edison regards nickel as a better substitute for paper…”Why not?” asks Edison. “Nickel will absorb printer’s ink. A sheet of nickel one twenty-thousandth of an inch thick is cheaper, tougher, and more flexible than an ordinary sheet of book-paper. A nickel book, two inches thick, would contain 40,000 pages. Such a book would weigh only a pound. I can make a pound of nickel sheets for a dollar and a quarter.”

Here…is a prospect of real culture for the masses Forty thousand pages in a volume! A single volume the equivalent in printing space of two hundred paper-leaved books of two hundred pages each! What a library might be placed between two steel covers and sold for, perhaps, two dollars!

That’s a lot of exclamation points!

Flies in the ointment: I feel disrespectful expressing skepticism about an idea pitched by the greatest inventor of all time, but…I’m skeptical that it would have worked. Also, wouldn’t it have been tough to flip ahead to, say, page 17,356?

When did the basic idea become practical? I know of no evidence that Edison or anyone else ever printed a single book on nickel. (A Google search for “books printed on nickel” returns one result–a Publisher’s Weekly story referencing the Edison interview.) The first time anyone crammed massive numbers of books into one booklike device that real people could buy may have been when the Rocketbook and Softbook were released in 1999–not that very many people bought either of them.

Modern counterpart: The Kindle, the Nook, Sony’s Readers, and every other current gadget for reading digital tomes…even though they all cost a lot more than $2. And is it going too far to say that Edison had a 1911 version of the upcoming Apple tablet in mind?

2. The Automobile Wireless Telephone

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, February 1913.

What it was: An brainchild of Los Angeles inventor E.C. Hanson, who successfully made wireless calls over a distance of 35 miles from a phone installed in his roundabout.

Flies in the ointment: You thought the telescoping antennae on early brick phones are comically archaic? Hanson’s car phone required that the car in question be outfitted with telephone poles fore and aft, supporting “aerial wires and high-voltage insulators.”

When did the basic idea become practical? Experimentation with mobile phones continued for decades, but they only started to make sense in 1983 when Motorola shipped its DynaTAC, the first true cell phone–a full seven decades after Hanson’s experiments.

Modern counterpart: Your iPhone, BlackBerry, Nexus One, or Pre. Or even your humble flip phone.

3. The Telenewspaper and Electric Writer

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, June 1928.

What they were: Items in a “home of the future” depicting the typical house of 2000, designed by architect R.A. Duncan and exhibited in London. Besides the expected flying car in the garage, the place had a high-tech study with:

…a built-in radio and loud speakers, a built-in television set to see the day’s events and a built-in telenewspaper for visible radio projection of the day’s news. An electric writer, to transmit by radio similar messages, and an elaborate lighting-control panel, were also included.

That’s as far as the magazine’s explanation goes. If the room already has a TV, I’m assuming that the telenewspaper would have presented news in words and pictures displayed on a screen. The electric writer, meanwhile, appears to involve an in-wall display and some sort of box with buttons. I can’t see any evidence of QWERTY capability–maybe there was a wireless keyboard.

Flies in the ointment: The illustration in the magazine shows a house dwarfed by a huge honkin’ antenna, looking a bit like the ones at the top of San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. With experimental television broadcasts barely underway, it was awfully premature to be talking about homes with multiple displays built into the walls. Also, shouldn’t the telenewspaper and the electric writer be one device, or at least share one display?

When did the basic ideas become practical? In the 1980s and 1990s, more and more people began using electric screens to read news and transmit messages, although the screens usually weren’t built into walls and the transmissions used telephone wires rather than radio waves.

Modern counterparts: Google News and Gmail.

4. The Watch-Case Phonograph

As seen in: Popular Science, June 1936.

What it was: A bizarrely small phonograph built into a watch case. You wound it up like a mechanical timepiece, whereupon a “midget record” played music through a “diminutive horn.”

Flies in the ointment: It would have required the world to accept a new media format: midget records. (Their running time is unknown–wonder if you could fit an entire song onto one side?) Also, holding the player up to your ear would have gotten old fast.

When did the basic idea become practical? The introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979 kicked off the era of pervasive, portable prerecorded music.

Modern counterpart: The iPod, of course.

5. Magic Lantern Talkies

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, October 1937.

What it was: A projector technology that permitted businesses to create presentations consisting of color slides synchronized with an audio track. Popular Mechanics’ article provides an example in which a New York City marketing company creates a 15-minute presentation (with 75 slides) and dispatches it to offices in Dallas, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The projection equipment fit into a jumbo-sized briefcase–which, back then, sounded impressively compact.

Flies in the ointment: The theory was that businesses would hire scriptwriters, actors, and radio announcers to create these shows, making them a pricey proposition. The story says that a high-end magic lantern talkie might cost $1500–or around $23,000 in current dollars. The projector cost under $100.

When did the basic idea become practical? Businesses began using overhead projectors as a presentation aid in the late 1950s, and presentation software such as Harvard Graphics in the mid 1980s.

Modern counterpart: The unavoidable communications tool known as PowerPoint.

6. Talking Newspapers

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, June, 1938.

What it was: I’m just going to quote the article, which discusses an invention by W.G.H. Finch:

“Hurry to Police Headquarters with the sound box. Get every word of that murderer’s confession so our readers will be able to play it tonight when they see the pictures!”

Such assignments may become routine to the newspaper reporter and photographer of the future who will carry a portable recording device when he covers an important story. Every word of sound will be recorded on a film track which will be rushed to the newspaper office to be developed and printed. When the newspaper is bought that evening, it will have not only pictures and type matter but also a series of wavy lines constituting sound tracks, along the margin and, in some cases, on the page itself.

Cutting these sound tracks apart and pasting them together in a continuous strip, the reader will put them in an inexpensive reproducing device attached to his loud speaker. Then he will hear the murderer’s confession–his children will hear the comic characters in the funny section talk, bark, quack, and mew, and his wife, reading a travel article about Hawaii, will hear the soft accompaniment of guitars and ukuleles providing appropriate atmosphere.

Flies in the ointment: Sounds like a lotta work–and a predecessor of much later ill-fated attempts to encode information on periodical pages, such as Cauzin Softstrip and the CueCat. I’m not sure why Popular Mechanics, which had already reported extensively on experimental TV broadcasts, thought that anyone would prefer to cut up the evening paper to get the news in words and pictures.

When did the basic idea become practical? Depends on how you look at it–this day, newspapers don’t talk. But audio synchronized with images became real when commercial TV broadcasting really got rolling in the the late 1940s. And newspaper Web sites began to supplement their words and pictures with audio in the 1990s.

Modern counterpart: How about newspaper podcasts?

7. Newspapers by Radio

As seen in: The Rotarian, September 1939.

What it was: A system that sent newspapers over ultra-high frequency radio waves to early fax machines in the home, eliminating the need to print and distribute them through traditional means. The Rotarian piece reports that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the first paper to try the technology; that Transradio Press Service was planning to launch 25 radio papers; and that the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit News, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer had all obtained licenses to broadcast papers.

“The coming of the facsimile broadcast marks not merely a milestone,” says the story portentously. “It is also the dawn of a new epoch of deep importance to all of us.” It speculates that the new medium will throw newspaper employees out of work; that news stories will need to get shorter; and that the industry will have to figure out how to make advertising pay for facsimile newspapers so they’re self-sustaining. Any of this sound familiar?

Flies in the ointment: Mostly speed–or lack thereof. It took fifteen minutes to broadcast one page of content, which was why the Post-Dispatch’s electronic paper was only nine pages long. Color was also out, eliminating the possibility of a traditional Sunday comics section–but the article muses that it might not be that far off.

When did the basic idea become practical? Newspapers began to establish electronic presences on services such as CompuServe in the 1980s, then really ramped things up when the Web went mainstream in the mid-1990s.

Modern counterpart: The notion of scheduled digital delivery of a newspaper reminds me of the Kindle’s newspaper service.

By Harry McCracken | Posted at 11:04 pm on Sunday, January 24, 2010

See all: Features

8. Colorfax

As seen in: Popular Science, November 1947.

What it was: An improvement on monochrome fax machines (which had already been around for a couple of decades by this point even though they didn’t find widespread usage until the 1980s). Coinvented by W.G.H. Finch–the same guy behind 1938’s talking newspapers–Colorfax was a $150 box that plugged into an FM radio. It recreated incoming documents on paper by drawing them with red, blue, yellow, and black merchanical pencils. The article envisions the technology being used not only for business purposes but also to deliver color images associated with radio broadcasts–and to transmit the Sunday comics.

Flies in the ointment: For one thing, the $150 gadget could only receive faxes, not send them. The process was also sluggish, taking fifteen minutes to transmit an 8-by-10 picture. At this late date, it’s hard to judge Colorfax’s image quality, but it’s hard to imagine that photos looked very good given they were being rendered with pencils. (The Popular Science cover shown as an example looks okay, I guess–considering that it was 1947.)

When did the basic idea become practical? Depends on how you look at it. Good color printing at affordable prices didn’t come along until technologies such as inkjet, laser, and solid ink started to do it in the 1990s. (Solid ink, in particular, is vaguely similar to Finch’s colored pencil setup.) In the 1990s, a standard called ITU-T30e enabled color faxing, but it never became all that popular. It’s the sending and printing of colored images across the Internet that comes closest to the scenarios the article outlined.

Modern counterpart: Even the most humble all-in-one printer now lets anyone scan, send, and print color pictures.

9. Highway Hi-Fi

As seen in: Popular Science, November 1955.

What it was: An option for 1956 model-year Chrysler automobiles that put a phonograph player in your dashboard–one that played special 7-inch LPs from Columbia that played at 16 2/3rpm and contained between 45 minutes and an hour of music. The player itself rested on cushions, was allegedly skip-proof, and cost about the same as a car radio.

Flies in the ointment: Here’s how Popular Science described the experience of using Highway Hi-Fi:

You play records with no more fuss than it takes to work the radio–an obvious safety requirement. Press a button and the door flops open. Pull out the turntable as far as it will go, pick a record from the stack underneath, and push it against stops on the turntable–it drops right over the spindle. Press a lever on the tone arm and move the arm until it stops. When you let go, the needle drops into the first groove and the music starts.

Sounds complicated to me, at least if you’re trying to do it on the freeway with one hand, without taking your eyes off the road. And this account seems to leave out at least two steps: pushing the turntable back in, and performing the whole process a second time to listen to the flipside of the record. Also, who’d want to buy new copies of all their favorite music–or at least everything that was available–in a format that only worked in cars? (The article says there were no plans to build home players compatible with the discs.)

Another fly in the ointment, possibly the one that proved fatal: The players were apparently notoriously unreliable and complicated to repair.

When did the basic idea become practical? Highway Hi-Fi only lasted a couple of years; Chrysler tried again for 1960 with an RCA player that could take standard 45s, and failed again. A few years later, 8-track cartridges and cassettes put music in a much more car-friendly form that could also be played at home.

Modern counterpart: Until recently, I would have said the in-dash CD player. These days, though, it’s just as likely to be an AUX port that lets you plug in your iPod or music-capable smartphone.

10. The Punch-Card Picture Phone

As seen in: LIFE, September 1961.

What it was: An AT&T project–although LIFE didn’t make clear how much of it was working in labs, and how much of it was sheer visionary speculation about the “fantastic everyday world of the future” that Ma Bell expected to show up by 2000 or so. The article described was a multi-line videophone with built-in document sharing features: It could be used for business conferences, online grocery shopping, banking, and maybe even to “use the Vatican Library, or see the Louvre’s art treasures without leaving home.” LIFE theorized that the whole idea might lead to everyone being assigned permanent phone numbers at birth.

Flies in the ointment: The user interface apparently involved inserting punched cards in a reader. Sounds more like 1961 than 2001!

When did the basic idea become practical? If you want to be literal and only count any of this stuff as coming true when it can be done on a telephone, it’s only been in the past half-decade or so that much of it has been doable. AT&T’s big mistake–understandable for a phone company–was assuming that the gadget in question would be a phone, not a computer.

Modern counterpart: It sounds like a lot like the Web, really.

11. The Microlibrary

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, November 1962.

What it was: A next-generation advance on microfilm, which had been around for decades by 1962. A technology called Photo-Chromic Micro-Image (PCMI), developed by NCR, was allegedly capable of reducing printed materials by a factor of 40,000. The result was supposed to be crisp, clear images that could be projected from cards–permitting an entire year’s worth of Popular Mechanics to fit onto one 3-by-5 card. It was all a response to what Popular Mechanics deemed a “crisis”: the sheer amount of information in the world, and how difficult it was becoming to store and find it. The magazine thought that innovations such as PCMI might render libraries obsolete. It also said that the entire holdings of the U.S. Patent Office could fit on a 72-inch stack of PCMI cards, and that consumers would install PCMI readers in their homes.

Flies in the ointment: Popular Mechanicals explained that NCR hadn’t figured out how to make it possible to index and retrieve the millions of pieces of information that could fit in a shoebox’s worth of PCMI. Also, the whole process sounds decidedly expensive–the article mentions that a similar system from Kodak cost $2.5 million or more.

When did the basic idea become practical? In the late 1960s and early 1970s, libraries got excited about PCMI and similar technologies–collectively known as “ultrafiche”–and began using them to cram massive amounts of information into small spaces. But the trend lasted only a few years. By then, I assume, it became clear that the future was digitization, not miniaturization.

Modern counterpart: Betcha that the inventors of PCMI would go gaga over Google Books and Google Patents.

12. The Neck-Strap TV

As seen in: Popular Science, February 1965.

What it was: A Sony portable TV with a 4-inch screen that–unlike most of the gizmos I cover here–actually reached the market, for $200. (That’s around $1400 in 2010 dollars.) It used flashlight batteries and came with an earphone and sunshade; a car adapter cost extra.

Flies in the ointment: It weighed six pounds, and you wore it strapped around your neck. The gent in the photo looks hideously uncomfortable, and you gotta think that extended use would leave anyone a hunchback for life.

When did the basic idea become practical? I’d say that all CRT-based teensy TVs were doomed to be unwieldy. The breakthrough was the introduction of LCD-based ones in the early 1980s.

Modern counterpart: Today’s FloTV is what Sony would have built in 1965 if it could have.

13. The DIY Home TV Tape-Recorder Kit

As seen in: Popular Science, August 1965.

What it was: Wesgrove’s VTR-500, a build-it-yourself video tape recorder. It had no timer, but the article’s author cheerfully explained that you could tell your wife to record the ball game so it would be ready for you when you got home from playing golf. The cost? $400, or about $2700 in 2010 dollars–a fraction of the price of the first store-bought models, which were already on the market.

Flies in the ointment: Well, for starters it that took Popular Science’s author 150 hours to build the recorder and get ir working. It recorded on 11 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tapes that could hold only ten minutes of video, sounded “like a runaway lawnmower” and had a tendency to chew up tapes and send reels flying across the room. Also, it couldn’t rewind tapes.

When did the basic idea become practical? The first home VCRs that were cheap, easy, and useful enough to catch on appeared in 1975 (Betamax) and 1976 (VHS).

Modern counterparts: TiVo and/or DVD recorders–neither of which ever spit anything across the room.

14. Computer Tutors

As seen in: LIFE, January 1967.

What it was: A pilot program in which first graders in troubled East Palo Alto, California learned English and math via computer terminals hooked up to an IBM 1500 mainframe. The educational system, designed by IBM at a cost of $30 million, included both a CRT and a projection screen, 3D graphics, voice synthesis, and a touch-screen interface that let kids tap a pen to to the screen to answer questions.

Flies in the ointment: Actually, it still sounds pretty cool. Except for the cost: The East Palo Alto school system spent $1.5 million in mid-1960s dollars to educate 100 kids via computer for one year, or fifteen grand per child. That’s close to a hundred grand a kid in 2010 dollars.

When did the basic idea become practical? Within a few years of LIFE’s article, relatively affordable minicomputers started to show up in schools. And education was a major application of personal computers from the time they arrived in the mid-1970s.

Modern counterpart: One Laptop Per Child’s “$100″ XO computer. Even it only plans to add a touch interface with its next version, though.

15. The Home Teletypewriter

As seen in: Popular Science, May 1967.

What it was: PopSci asked its writer, C.P. Gilmore, to use “a real computer at home”–which in this pre-PC era meant using a Teletype machine to connect to a GE 235 mainframe via dial-up. He used it to calculate heating costs for his home and play tic-tac-toe. And he helpfully explains in the story that while people once thought there would someday be inexpensive home computers, “now we know it won’t be like that at all.” Connecting to mainframes was just going to be too cost-effective.

Side note: Popular Science used the article to introduce a service in which readers could get access to mainframe programs by filling out forms with input data and mailing them to PopSci, which would then run them program and send the results back in a S.A.S.E. the reader had supplied. It may have been the least real-time approach to computing in the history of the universe.

Flies in the ointment: Gilmore had to write most of his own programs in BASIC and feed them into the Teletype via its built-in punch-tape reader. Output was on paper, so there were no fancy graphics. And renting the Teletype and paying for timesharing service didn’t come cheap: It was about $180 a month, or $1300 in current dollars.

When did the basic idea become practical? Within a dozen years of Gilmore’s piece, a meaningful number of computer hobbyists were using PCs to dial into the Source, CompuServe, and BBSes. They engaged in activities that were only a little more advanced than his experiments, but at a much lower cost.

Modern counterpart: Cloud computing!

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