Ideas Down the Tank
For every lightbulb and automobile there’s an invention so bizarre, it has immediately gone down the tank. This includes actual tanks: During the first half of the 20th century, both flying tanks and tanks with a single wheel fell quietly into the annals of failed military history. But some inventions have crashed and burned in the unforgiving light of day. Zeppelins, New Coke and Segways all plummeted right before our eyes—sometimes literally.
Daedalus is the archetypal mad inventor. In Greek mythology, King Minos, seeking new inventions, imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus. Instead of working for Minos, the inventor builds a pair of wings out of feathers and wax. He instructs Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, else the wings will melt. But Icarus—filled with joy at having escaped and the arrogance of youth—glides high, then plummets to his death.
On July 2, 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin sent a rigid flying dirigible shaped by a metal skeleton into the sky. A zeppelin ascends because it contains lighter-than-air gas: either hydrogen or helium, the two gases that make up the sun. Helium is preferable; hydrogen explodes at the slightest provocation. For decades zeppelins grew bigger. At 245 meters long, the LZ-129 Hindenburg was the flagship of the largest type of aircraft ever built. But at the time, helium was stockpiled in the United States, so the German Zeppelin Transport Company decided to use hydrogen. On May 6, 1937, the airship burst into flames over New Jersey, killing 36 and ending the zeppelin era. Like Icarus, the Hindenburg was too ambitious—and too close to the sun.
Imprisoned on the Greek island of Crete, Daedalus constructed a shoddy pair of waxen wings. Flown too high, they would melt in the hot sun; too low, and they would be ruined by the sea spray. In the modern world, such a substandard product would be recalled immediately. Right?
In hindsight, perhaps Daedalus should have spent some time fireproofing those wings. The technology was available: Greek historian Herodotus writes that the Egyptians soaked their wooden structures in alum to prevent fires. Another common fire retardant of the time was asbestos (Greek for “inextinguishable”), thought to be a miraculously indestructible fibrous mineral. But even the ancients realized it was dangerous. First-century Roman writer and statesman Pliny the Elder suggested that slaves mining for asbestos should breathe through a bladder-skin mask.
Somewhere along the way, this crucial information was lost (possibly at Pompeii, where Pliny suffocated under a wave of volcanic ash). The Industrial Revolution transformed the “magic fiber” from novelty to manufacturing marvel even as its dangers were rediscovered. Throughout much of the 20th century, asbestos was the primary insulating material in construction, poisoning the lungs of thousands. Today, although its reputation is sullied, asbestos is still legal in the U.S.
Not every vehicular experiment has been quite as successful as the automobile. Some, like the zeppelin, enjoy only a brief run of success. During World War I, the German military deployed airships to bomb England. The high-flying zeppelins could travel long distances and stay out of the reach of antiaircraft weaponry. But when Germany lost the war and gas engine monoplanes took the lead, zeppelins gradually became obsolete.
Other vehicles never catch on in the first place—the Segway PT, for instance, which (more than a decade since its dubious debut) has yet to find a market. Its few enthusiasts unwittingly make a mockery of the upright conveyance, whether it’s Jeff Bridges as Iron Man’s technologically overboard nemesis Obadiah Stane scooting back and forth, or flocks of tourists bebopping around Washington, D.C. The Segway’s rock-bottom moment, however, was presidential. The Segway is “smart,” programmed to prevent its rider from tipping forward or backward, so it takes effort to fall off this motorized scoot-machine. Yet in 2003 President George W. Bush tumbled off one in his black workout shorts. The photos went viral. Nobody knows whether it was more embarrassing for the Segway or the president.
The spire atop the Empire State Building was originally imagined in 1931 as a docking station for dirigibles. That way, instead of landing in a New Jersey airfield, passengers could arrive in the middle of New York City. Fortunately, no one ever tried to disembark from a lightly moored aircraft wavering in the sky, 102 stories up. Had it been attempted, the spire might have joined the list of the worst inventions in history, as unpredictable wind gusts make navigating an airship virtually impossible in cities.
The Zeppelin Airship Company, which wasn’t consulted, had no intention of lashing its aircraft to a skyscraper. But nor did the company have clean hands when it came to bad ideas. For one, the flagship Hindenburg was filled with carcinogenic asbestos. A pressurized lounge was sealed off at the bottom of the ship and fireproofed with sheets of the stuff. Crew members even wore asbestos suits and hemp shoes to prevent static sparks. In fact, this zeppelin was the first commercial ship to allow smoking on board—a questionable policy for what was essentially a gas-bomb. If the cigarettes or the exploding blimp didn’t get you, there was always the asbestos in every breath.
If all goes according to plan, the Crypt of Civilization will be opened in the year 8113. Entombed in 1940, the crypt is a time capsule—a way of preserving artifacts of cultural import—located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. Among the essentials: Lincoln Logs, a flyswatter, miniature underwear and, naturally, a bottle of Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886 by John Pemberton as a cocaine-fueled tonic for headache-suffering, world-weary patients, the molasses-dark soda has come to represent the very idea of America—or at least the ingenuity and capitalism befitting a megacorporation. But the crypt’s unsealers may be in for a nasty shock: The Coke bottle is preserved in toxic asbestos, and somewhere alongside it is an asbestos mat. Wrapping the drink of 20th-century America in poison may just send the wrong message to future historians.
But for the most embarrassing moment in Coca-Cola history, nothing beats New Coke. The unpopular updated formula, launched in 1985, threatened the iconic beverage’s standing more than asbestos ever could. More than 25 years after the fact, New Coke is still remembered as one of the worst marketing blunders of all time. Do not expect to exhume a can in any forthcoming time capsules.
The 1980s: hairsprayed bangs, shoulder pads, jelly bracelets. Madonna and Michael Jackson controlled the airwaves. And blockbuster budgets fueled pulpy popcorn movies—E.T., the Indiana Jones trilogy and Gremlins, to name a few. Gremlins tells the story of Billy Peltzer’s furry pet alien, Gizmo. When Billy accidentally feeds Gizmo after midnight, out pops a rowdy reptile version: a gremlin that multiplies when it comes into contact with, wait for it, water. Soon there’s a veritable army bedeviling the streets.
At theaters nationwide, it wasn’t water but foamy Coke that kept multitudes of kids coming back in their puffy-painted sweatshirts. But on April 23, 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke, a supposedly tastier recipe to keep up with changing times. Suddenly Coca-Cola’s phone operators were receiving triple the calls, as shocked refreshment seekers raged that the company had gone too far. Protesters assembled, gremlin-like, outside Coke headquarters to demand their beloved soda pop’s return. Coke hoarders bought bomb shelter–size supplies to wait out what felt like a carbonation apocalypse. The company realized its error and just three months later reverted to the original formula, calling it Coca-Cola Classic. Which just goes to show you: Never feed Coke after midnight.
Q, the genius geek of the James Bond movies, creates a cigarette that shoots a dart when lit. Back to the Future’s Doc Brown figures out how to drive through time in a souped-up DeLorean. But not all fictional inventors hit the jackpot. Just look at Rand Peltzer, the paunchy, down-on-his-luck entrepreneur in Gremlins. A sampling of Peltzer products: the Bathroom Buddy, an awkward, all-in-one contraption of nail clippers, mirrors and toothbrushes that shoot green paste; an orange juicer that explodes in froth on innocent breakfasters; and the Smokeless Ashtray, the mother of all misnomers, which billows plumes like an indoor exhaust pipe. Peltzer’s true talent is that of the hype man and mountebank: He pawns off his finicky trinkets on everyone from shop clerks to gas station attendants.
But hype is only half the battle—a motto that extends into the real world. In 2001 it was rumored an innovation just around the corner would change the way people moved. Praised by Apple mogul Steve Jobs and boosted by the enticing codename Ginger, the Segway burst onto the market like a bum firework, leaving bemused everyone who’d been awaiting a bang. The Segway was a dud of Peltzer proportions.