Flops of Famous Inventors (Dec, 1930)
Flops of Famous Inventors
Edison, Ford, De Forest, and Bell Patented Strange and Useless Things
By GEORGE LEE DOWD, Jr.
DROPPING gently to the ground like a giant autumn leaf, a Pitcairn autogiro, or “windmill plane,” landed at the Newark, N. J., airport one afternoon a few weeks ago. More than 8,000 persons saw it descend almost vertically and then touch the field without rolling a foot.
The crowd, however, had not come merely to see the autogiro perform. It was attracted chiefly by the presence on the field of Thomas A. Edison, who visited the airport for his first sight of a “flying windmill.”
After expressing his admiration of the machine and his amazement at what it could do, Edison told airport officials that he once had invented a helicopter.
That was in 1908, long before the first measurably successful vertical flying machine had been designed, and just twenty-two years before a prominent aircraft concern built its first helicopter. In 1910, a U. S. patent was issued on the invention.
But Edison’s device never flew and it never will. It consisted of a number of box kites, attached, fore and aft, by two strands of piano wire to a disk around a central pole. Piano wire also connected the rear of each kite to a lower platform on which was mounted a gasoline engine. In theory, this motor was supposed to rotate the upper disk and the lower platform as a unit, swinging the kites about the central axis as a boy swings a tin can on a string. The wires running from the rear of the kites to the lower platform were adjustable so the angle of the kites in their passage through the air could be changed and, in that way, govern the helicopter’s lifting power.
Queer though it would have looked, this flying merry-go-round might have ascended skyward like a lark, had not Edison missed two vital features. He neglected to provide a means of preventing the motor from turning itself instead of rotating the kites. Secondly, he forgot to include a rigid member by which the rotating force could be transferred to the kites. Hence, if the motor started, the shaft would rotate and immediately wind the wires around itself, thus pulling in the kites and reducing the whole contraption to a tangled mass of wire and fabric.
THE fact that the man who gave the world electric light, motion pictures, talking machines, and the Edison storage battery was responsible for this utterly useless device should encourage inventors whose first attempts have failed. It furnishes convincing proof that even outstanding genius is not infallible. Nor was the helicopter Edison’s worst fiasco. For sheer inutility and misdirected effort, his “vocal engine” is easily last on the list of his 1,100 patents.
About the time he devised this strange apparatus, which was patented in 1878, Edison must have been appalled by the vast amount of energy going to waste in the flood of oratory unleashed daily in this talkative world. At any rate, it was an attempt to harness the energy of our vocal sound vibrations, thus:
A DIAPHRAGM behind a mouthpiece was connected by a small link with a ratchet so constructed that the motions of the diaphragm, caused by the voice vibrations, would turn a wheel. To this was attached a grooved pulley, around which a belt could be placed. The belt could be applied to the driving of a small machine.
The device never worked for the simple reason that the vibrations created by one human voice do not possess sufficient energy to set in motion anything worth moving. A radio loudspeaker, working at full capacity, produces sound waves with an energy of approximately one watt. A brass band playing as loudly as the lungs of its members will permit would generate about an equally negligible quantity of power. Now, an ordinary electric light bulb is rated at forty watts. Imagine how many persons, shouting at the top of their voices, it would take to drown out forty brass bands and you have an idea of the number of men who would have to yell into Edison’s vocal engine to light a single lamp!
But Edison is not the only famous inventor who, at times, has descended from the pinnacle of genius to become, for the nonce, a fallible mortal. A search I recently made of the records of the U. S. Patent Office, in Washington, D. C, revealed that the names of some of the men who have patented useless, impracticable, unmarketable, trivial, and even downright silly inventions virtually constitute a bluebook of America’s greatest inventors.
Inventors who have devoted endless labor and much time and money to devices that later proved impracticable or unpopular may well take comfort from these random examples of failures, near-failures, and trivialities which, in addition to Edison’s two “flops,” I found filed at the Patent Office under illustrious names:
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL. inventor of the telephone, in 1904 patented a piece of aircraft, somewhat in the shape of a flying beehive that could fly as a kite but was without value as an airplane. Emile Berliner, whose invention of the microphone lifted the telephone out of the toy stage, and whose lateral wave groove record did the same for the phonograph, took out several patents on parquet flooring, the squares of which had matting on top! So far as is known, no floor ever has been covered with this material. Hudson Maxim, famous for his smokeless powder, ordnance, gun silencers, range finders, and automobile torpedoes, patented an unsuccessful steam cooker and a game of skill, resembling chess, which nobody plays.
Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube and “father of radio,” only five years ago patented an automobile gas tank gage that blows a whistle like a peanut roaster when the gas gets low. The shrill voice of this contraption has not been heard in the land. C. Francis Jenkins, a prolific inventor, responsible for one of the systems of television broadcasting, in 1919 unsuccessfully attempted to revive an antiquated type of automobile tire casing patch. He also is the inventor of a lawn mower and of an airplane that never has flown.
ELIHU THOMSON, one of the world’s foremost inventors, perhaps most famous for his induction motor, patented a device to take the unpleasant odor out of automobile exhaust gases. That was thirty-three years ago, and our roads and streets still are filled with noxious fumes. Henry Ford in 1921 took out a patent on a tilting device for hospital beds which showed no appreciable improvement over existing apparatus. John Hays Hammond, Jr., noted chiefly for his work in radio, is the inventor of a combination cigarette case and lighter, a toy locomotive, and a windshield wiper that have added nothing to his fame. But perhaps . the greatest drop from the sublime to the ridiculous was that of Tolbert Lanston, inventor of the monotype, the almost miraculous typesetting machine that casts and composes single letters in lines of the required length, automatically arranging the words to fit each line. Lanston, in 1871, patentedâ€”a combination hairbrush and comb!
Why did most of these inventions “flop” despite the fact that their creators were men of outstanding mechanical ingenuity? In some of the cases, notably the Edison helicopter and vocal engine, the devices were faulty, and the only explanation seems to be that even the smartest of men have their “off days.” This also was the trouble with Bell’s flying beehive, which consisted mainly of a large number of small kite units cleverly fitted together. In its construction, however, the inventor did not take into account several of the most important factors since proved essential to airplanes, such as the proper curving of the wing surface. Jenkins’ tire patch was another example of imperfect design. It was a steel-studded leather boot to repair tire blow-outs. The studs were put in the leather to take out the wear, but Jenkins forgot that they also would take the smoothness out of automobile riding.
Structural defects are by no means the only reason why inventions fail. An inventor of any versatility who never made a worthless or impracticable invention, who never misread the public pulse or misgaged popular demand, would have to be a man endowed not only with inventive genius but with the commercial ability of a merchant prince and the foresight of a prophet.
AN INVENTION, for instance, may be perfectly sound and useful and yet fail to catch the public’s fancy. That was the fate of De Forest’s whistling gasoline gage, Lanston’s curious comb-and-brush combination, and Berliner’s matting-covered parquet floor. On the face of it, it would seem that there must be a demand for a gas tank gage giving audible warning when the tank is getting empty instead of the usual visible indication by means of a dial that so often is not watched. Still, motorists did not want it. Lanston’s innovation in toilet articles might have proved a timesaving device to many men, but they laughed at it, and I, for one, don’t blame them. Berliner’s parquet floor also may have had mechanical merit and might have proved a boon to the housewife. However, she did not like its looks, and that was the end of it.
Berliner, incidentally, made two disastrous excursions into the field of aeronautics. At one time he, too, invented a helicopter that never left the ground. Later, he “improved” it by building it around an umbrellalike parachute. Since it never rose, there was scant danger of its falling, and this contraption, too, found a niche in the inventors’ gallery of “busts.” Berliner’s son, Henry, redeemed the family name so far as helicopters were concerned.
His machine, the most successful helicopter to date, is on exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In 1923, it rose twenty-live feet vertically and moved 400 feet horizontally.
Another reason why inventions fail is that, though sound, they are impractical. Take, for example, Thomson’s deodorizing machine for automobile fumes. In principle it might have worked, but it was so large and cumbersome that it would have necessitated doubling the usual size of motor cars. Maxim’s steam cooker is another case in point. Mechanically, there was nothing whatever wrong with it, but it had all the complications of a full-fledged steam power plant, which most housewives are unwilling or unable to master.
THEN there is the question of marketing an invention. This may be impossible because the same thing already has been done as well or better by someone else, or because the article cannot be made cheaply enough. Ford’s bed-tilting device was not a success because there were several satisfactory appliances of the same kind in existence. Maxim’s game of skill struck a similar commercial snag. It was an elaboration of chess, which most devotees of the game consider sufficiently complicated as it is.
Many inventions, though impractical and unprofitable in themselves, often are the forerunners of extremely valuable apparatus. A classical instance is a phenomenon discovered by Edison in 1884 and known as the “Edison effect.” It brought him no money and added little to his fame, but its principle was used by Fleming in his two electrode vacuum tube. Still, the discovery did not amount to much until De Forest added a third electrode and thus evolved the modern radio tube which is responsible for today’s enormous radio development.
A number of prominent inventors have racked their brains in an effort to devise a practical hydraulic drive for automobiles. Elihu Thomson, as early as forty-one years ago, designed such an engine. It proved impracticable and this problem has not been solved yet, and perhaps it never will be.
In order not to be a “flop,” an invention not only must do the work it is meant to do, and do it well, but it must perform its task better or more cheaply than anyone else’s, or both. In addition it must be wanted by the public; that is to say, the people of the inventor’s own day and generation. But it need not be an “important” or complicated machine.