Sunday, 26 July 2015


Retro Fails: 10 Brilliantly Unsuccessful Designs from Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 24 July 2015.

When it comes to inventors who changed the world, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison are up there with the most famous innovators of them all. Few rivals provoke stronger feelings, either, with the two going head-to-head during their careers to champion their own forms of electricity. This edition of Retro Fails pits the two against each other in a different way, examining a selection of the competitors’ less successful designs in a bid to understand whose ideas failed more dramatically.

1. Edison’s Vote Recorder

Image: via

Patented on June 1, 1869, Thomas Edison’s electronic vote recorder was never even used. According to his patent, his goal had been a machine that would count votes instantly and accurately, without the possibility of failure or the wasting of valuable man-hours.

It was a pretty simple idea, in retrospect; the voter would move the switch on his own voting machine to either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ position, and it would be counted. All the machines were connected to one central one, which had two columns of metal type. One column listed everyone’s names, which would then be matched to their vote and, when chemically treated paper was applied, the instant result was a paper hard-copy of just how everyone had voted.

Unfortunately for Edison, making the whole process of voting on the floor of the various government bodies faster and more efficient was exactly what they didn’t want. The slow voting process gave members a chance to filibuster, to talk, and to talk some more, and to filibuster some more….you get the idea. The slow process was essential to voting in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, and since they didn’t want anything that would take that away, Edison’s device was never used.

2. Tesla’s Death Ray

Image: via Wired

Nikola Tesla, who once worked for Edison, had lofty plans for his death ray, and contrary to the kind of images it might conjure up, it was meant to be an end to human deaths in wartime. Tesla envisioned war that was fought with machines rather than human lives, and in 1934, the headlines of the New York Times heralded the advent of his death beam.

He optimistically called it a ‘Peace Beam’, but Tesla was ultimately unable to convince anyone of his invention’s usefulness. The beam incorporated a vacuum chamber that was open at one end and used a turbine to direct air flow to maintain the vacuum and direct the flow of particles. It had a distance of about 250 miles, and was advertised as being able to take planes out of the sky.

He first approached J.P. Morgan, who wasn’t interested. Neither was Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, but the Soviets were incredibly interested. Telsa presented the idea to the Amtorg Trading Company, who was allegedly working with the Soviets, and at one point the idea was tested in the Soviet Union.

No one’s really sure how seriously the idea was taken, but Tesla seemed determined that it was going to be the end of war. So determined, in fact, that he had a series of non-military uses for the particle beam, including the transmission of wireless energy. Needless to say, Tesla’s Death Ray - and the string of power plants that would have been needed to run it - was never built.

3. Edison’s Tinfoil Phonograph

Image: Daderot

At first, this one had all the hallmarks of success. It was revolutionary, it was interesting, and people lauded it as one of the age’s great technological marvels.

In 1877, Thomas Edison was working on his telephone transmitter, and was also playing around with the idea of capturing sound in order to play it back again. He first noticed that his telephone, equipped with a diaphragm rigged up to create indentations on paraffin paper, could be used to create impressions of sound. Within a few months, he had devised a system of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder that he used to create the recording surface. He had his daughter, then 5-years-old, recite Mary Had a Little Lamb, and replayed it.

Edison took the invention to Scientific American, and it cemented his reputation as one of the era’s greatest inventors. It sparked his nickname, ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’, once word got out he was the toast of the town and the subject for countless reporters. There were some naysayers, of course, who not only called it  ridiculous, but advised him to forget about it and save his reputation.

In the end, though, the tinfoil phonograph never took off. The tinfoil turned out to be not the best medium for recording, and while it toured the United States and Europe and astounded people across the globe, it wouldn’t be for another decade that Edison would replace the tinfoil with wax for a successful design.

4. Tesla’s Thought Photography Machine

Image: via Wikipedia

Tesla didn’t get too far on making this one, but we thought the idea was way too cool to pass up putting on the list.

In 1933, an article was published in the Kansas City Journal-Post in which Tesla discussed his ideas for a camera that could photograph thoughts. He’d had the idea for decades, and the basics involved the idea that thoughts produced pictures in the brain, which then must have made a corresponding image on the retina of the eye. Tesla was convinced that he could come up with some kind of machine that was capable of reading the images that were imprinted on a person’s retina, which was the hardest part of photographing thoughts. The rest of the technology we already had, and he proposed using that existing technology to project the image onto a screen.

The apparatus would function in real time, and as the person thought, pictures would be captured and relayed onto the screen. While he never got as far as actually creating such a thing, we’re on our way to finally doing just what he proposed, using artificial retinas and computers that can interpret brain waves.

5. Edison’s Attempts at Fuel Cell Technology

Image: via Rutgers

In 1882, Edison began work on a project that would allow for the direct conversion of coal into energy - in other words, an early form of fuel cell technology.

His earliest attempts at creating a workable fuel cell technology involved the use of a carbon electrode reacting with a fusible metal in a heated iron container. By 1883, he had filed several patents for methods of producing electricity this way, and, in 1884, his notes suggest that he believed he’d come up with the most efficient, revolutionary way of doing just that.

Using metal and manganese in sulphuric acid to start the reaction with the carbon, he had planned to take his discovery to the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition. If it sounds more than a little dangerous, it absolutely was. Edison’s plans for fuel cell technology came to an end when an explosion blew out all the windows in his laboratory. Edison found himself stumped.

Interviews he gave at the time revealed that he was aware of something clearly missing from the equation - something just beyond reach, something that he was determined to find. After the accident, though, his efforts to continue the project fell by the wayside.

6. Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

Image: via Wikipedia

Created by Tesla and financed by J.P. Morgan, the Wardenclyffe Tower would have changed the world forever, if it had been finished. The 187-foot-tall tower in Shoreham, New York was topped by a large conductive dome and anchored with an iron foundation that went 300 feet beneath the ground.

It was at the centre of Tesla’s attempts to transmit electricity wirelessly, and he had already claimed to have figured out the principles of transmitting not only power but information over the entire planet. The article that had attracted Morgan - and his money - spoke of a tower that would be at the centre of everything from image relays to controlling the weather.

Only a few months after work started on Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower, Guglielmo Marconi stole some of his thunder by being the first to transmit a wireless telegraph signal across the Atlantic. Tesla kept at it, though, knowing that his plans to pump electricity into the air, which would then move with the natural currents of the earth, was on a much larger scale than Marconi had dreamed of.

By 1905, though, the project was abandoned. A stock market crash four years earlier had forced a number of his backers to pull out, and Tesla, who wasn’t happy about the end of his Wardenclyffe Tower, wrote: “Humanity is not yet sufficiently advanced to be willingly led by the discoverer’s keen searching sense.” The tower stood for another 12 years, finally demolished in 1917 for scrap.

7. Edison’s Mining Efforts


When Thomas Edison left his electric company, he wanted to do something completely different. So he sank about US$2 million of his own money into his new project - ore mining and refining. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of more than US$51 million, all invested in a project that would ultimately fail, and fail hard.

Edison started in the ore refining business around 1892, and saw potential right in his own backyard. Rocks across the east coast contained ore, but not enough of it to make mining profitable. He was determined to change that, by using magnets to separate every last bit of ore from rock and, in theory, turn a profit. After his original Edison Ore Mining Company went out of business, he set up several new plants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, equipped with his new magnetic separators. The mills faced technical problems galore, though, and Edison continuously failed to attract buyers - especially when the established manufacturing giants found more ways to make even more pure ore.

Throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s, Edison filed a series of patents for his technology, including his magnetic separators, machines for drying, separating, crushing and breaking rock and ore, conveyor belts, rollers and processes. Ultimately, though, the whole thing closed in 1900, and in the meantime, the stock in GE that he’d needed to sell to finance his operation had doubled its worth.

8. Tesla’s Earthquake Machine

Image: Reddi

According to the popular story, Tesla created a small machine that could cause earthquakes, and it destroyed his laboratory in 1898. The idea that the hand-held device was capable of causing a full-blown earthquake has been pretty well debunked, but one thing that’s often not mentioned alongside the story is that causing earthquakes isn’t what Tesla was trying to do.

Tesla’s Oscillator was meant to replace some of the massive, unwieldy engines of the day. By harnessing the natural properties of oscillation, Tesla worked on the development of a small machine that could be used to replace the steam-driven engines in everything from mills to trains. His version wasn’t just a smaller, space-saving power source, but it would have safely and cleanly turned motion into power. It would have been more efficient, too, without wasting a huge amount of energy in friction.

Even though he made a number of different Oscillators, his invention was rendered obsolete before it got off the ground. Steam turbines came into being about the same time, making his Oscillator redundant - which was, perhaps, for the best. Along with the potential for cleaner, safer power, Tesla had boasted that his machine would be capable of levelling the Empire State Building with five pounds of air pressure and ten minutes. If it was used in the right way, meanwhile, it would be able to split the earth right in half.

8. Edison’s Concrete Failures


After Edison closed his failed mining operations, he repurposed some of his equipment, employing it in a project which turned into another failure. In 1902, the mining equipment had been refitted and redesigned to manufacture concrete, which Edison was convinced was going to be the building material of the future.

He may have been partially right, but Edison’s vision of concrete buildings was somewhat over the top. His plan was to create massive moulds for homes that would include absolutely everything, from concrete beds to concrete kitchen cabinets.

The theory was sound. Edison marketed the concrete homes as fireproof, and colours could be chosen before the concrete was poured, meaning that nothing would ever have to be painted or repainted. The estimated cost of the home was about US$1,200 (about US$32,000 today), and it could be built in a matter of hours.

The fail was epic when it happened. The affordability of the project was dubbed “the salvation of the slum dweller”, and no one wanted to be seen in a concrete house when it gave the impression that was all they could afford. His concrete furniture fell apart quite literally as well, when boxes of it were shipped to shows in New Orleans and Chicago. The crates were stamped with instructions to abuse the packages as much as possible to display their durability, but when they reached their destination, many had broken into multiple pieces. Today, about a dozen concrete houses still stand, but the company has been closed for decades.

10. Tesla’s Flying Machines


Nikola Tesla’s last patent was awarded in 1928, for what he described as a ‘novel method of transporting bodies through the air’. His design is for an aircraft that looked little like anything the world had seen before; it’s essentially an open box surrounded by a series of propellers that would allow the craft to lift off vertically.

While the flying machine would never, pardon the pun, take off, his patent would form the basis for the later utilized tilt-rotor, tilt-wing concept that would first become popular during the 1950s. It’s also the first time anyone considered fitting a turbine engine to an aircraft.

But there were - perhaps unusually for Tesla - a few glaring errors in the design that made it unworkable. His craft would never have been able to hover as he suggested, and as designed, stability and control would have been a nightmare. If built, he would have been able to travel very efficiently - in a circle.

Additionally, Tesla supposedly proposed another flying machine that has conspiracy theorists all a-flutter. It’s long been claimed by a certain sort of person that Tesla must have been in contact with extraterrestrial life forms due to the sheer genius of his inventions.

Image: via

One of his flying machines was a saucer-shaped craft that relied on capacitors and a gyroscopic stabilization system to keep it aloft and under control. With no internal energy source, though, the craft needed to rely on his other inventions to receive its power wirelessly. If those other inventions had succeeded - and if the government hadn’t seized much of his work when he died - the world might be a very, very different place.

Top images: Left: Thomas Edison via Library of Congress; Right: Nikola Tesla via Napoleon Sarony.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]

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