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failed inventions

10 Failed Inventions That Were Ahead Of Their Time

Just imagine – you’ve got the perfect idea for the next big thing, you’ve done your research and you’ve got the funding. But the business fails, only to be replicated successfully a few years later when the market is ready for it. We’re going to chart ten failed inventions that didn’t take off when they were launched but are now seen as influential, perhaps providing the basis for future technology and proving that timing is everything.  


Microsoft Tablet

Who knew that Microsoft actually invented the tablet a decade before Apple? At the turn of the century, Bill Gates predicted that his tablet would be “the most popular form of PC sold in America within five years” only for it to die a death soon after. The main issue was that Microsoft envisaged their tablet to replace the desktop as the customers’ main use computer. It was designed with the same operating system as a PC and had a price tag to match at around $2000. Apple came along later and designed their tablet with a different operating system, look and feel, realising that it couldn’t replace a laptop or computer, but would be an additional product. 

“He [Steve Jobs] did some things better than I did,” reflected Bill Gates. “His timing in terms of when it came out, the engineering work, just the package that was put together. The tablets we had done before, weren’t as thin, they weren’t as attractive.”


Thomas Edison’s Electric Pen  

The genius Thomas Edison held 1093 patents and invented the incandescent light bulb, one of the first motion picture cameras and, in 1875, the electric pen! The pen plugged into a battery and made small holes in the paper as you wrote. The idea was that it was easy to make copies by rolling ink over the original which would go through the holes. The pen didn’t sell well though so Edison sold the patent to Albert Blake Dick who mechanised it and turned it into the mimeograph (the first standard office copying machine). Later the idea of the pen was taken and combined with an ink depositor to make the tattoo gun. 


Video Phone 

Facebook logged over 17 billion video calls in 2017 and Skype was reported to have 300 million active monthly users in the same year. Add this to Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts and all the other video calling and conferencing software that is being used and you have some very large numbers. They would no doubt totally impress and perplex the makers of the AT&T Picturephone which had its first public unveiling in 1964 at their exhibit at Disneyland California. The video below shows the inaugural call being made at the launch of commercial service in the first test city, Pittsburgh. 

The company tried and failed to launch the product again and again throughout the rest of the century putting it down to the product being too intrusive, expensive and not good enough quality. As webcams started to become mainstream on computers we found that the ease of use and price were big factors in the original shortcomings of the video phone but actually that people were not afraid to be seen. 


Xerox Alto

The Xerox Alto was the first ever computer launched in 1973 but it had no commercial success. It is still credited as paving the way for the information technology industry today but it is one school of thought that Xerox spent too much time and money on research and inventions and not enough on innovation and commercialisation (something that Apple are renowned to do well). 

“Alto is the direct ancestor of today’s personal computers,” says Thomas Haigh, a Computer Historian. “It provided the model: GUI, windows, high-resolution screen, Ethernet, mouse, etc. that the computer industry spent the next 15 years catching up to.”


Ask Jeeves

The 1990s, when we were all doing The Macarena, trying to keep our Tamagotchis alive and, most incredibly, using multiple search engines. Shout out to Lycos, AltaVista, Yahoo and everyone’s favourite knowledgable cartoon butler, Jeeves. But despite leading the search engine race for a period in the late nineties by being the first to understand natural language queries, Ask Jeeves (or any of the others) could not compete with Google who won the race with its superior technology, user-experience and advertising model.

Google now holds an 89.1% market share according to is still there, rebranded now as a “question and answer site” as opposed to a search engine, although we’re not really sure the difference. 

Google is constantly watching, analysing and evolving. By utilising the massive amounts of data they collect from each of us using their products, they are able to constantly deliver a better, more relevant, and user-friendly product than any of their competitors.

Bryan Clarke on why Google came out on top

Sega Dreamcast

In 1999 everything looked so promising for the Sega Dreamcast – it was the first video console to offer online gameplay and interactive memory cards. It also had the biggest media launch to date. By 2001, sales had been discontinued and Sega was only to produce software from then on. The Dreamcast suffered terribly from piracy as PC users were at the same time learning how to burn their own CDs. The Dreamcast didn’t have any restrictions for ripping CD-R discs which were then sold on illegally much cheaper or put online.

The final nail in the coffin for Sega was Sony announcing the release of the PlayStation 2. It was to have broadband online connectivity (the Dreamcast only offered dial-up), it was much faster with more memory and offered playback. While the Dreamcast sold 10 million units over two years, the PlayStation 2 sold 155 million units and it was 12 years before it was discontinued.


Microsoft SPOT Watch

It was déjà vu for Bill Gates after Microsoft launched the SPOT Watch in 2004. The watch used FM waves to receive MSN messages, news, sports scores and weather updates and it didn’t even need connecting to a primary device. But again, the design was unattractive and the price tag was high, even for the novelty value of the first wearable tech. Cellular broadband data was also now appearing bringing with it real mobile smart devices which meant the SPOT was soon forgotten. Only to see the Apple Watch have roaring success with a similar product years later.

In 1999 LetsBuyIt was the number one name in volume discount retailing – bringing customers together to secure better prices for goods by purchasing at the same time – a brand new idea at the time in e-tailing. They ran famous adverts with ants, demonstrating the power of a group. But within a couple of years, the company were in serious financial trouble. Nowadays, Groupon leads the way with a very similar business model. Where LetsBuyIt failed, their success can be attributed to the rise of social media, the sharing that comes with it and their focus on local serviced based sales, as opposed to consumer products.


Apple Newton MessagePad

It must be a relief for Bill Gates to see an Apple product feature on this list! Apple’s pocket-sized, handheld “personal digital assistant” (PDA) launched in 1993 and was able to take notes, store contacts and manage calendars. The device was an epic failure, largely down to being launched around a time where the company was in some turmoil. Steve Jobs was about to reclaim his position as CEO and the company had way too many projects on the go leading them to rush this product out, forgetting about the most important thing – the consumer.

“We were just way ahead of the technology. We barely got it functioning by ’93 when we started shipping it.” Steve Capps

The Newton MessagePad lead the way for taking the computer out of the office and for Palm Pilot to later have more success with their handheld PDA which focused on the user. It was also the first time we’d seen technology that could take a sentence like “dinner with Anna tomorrow” and turn that into a calendar item, the way we do today with Siri.


Twitter Peek

In a world where everyone does everything on their smartphones, the limited functionality of the Twitter Peek seems ridiculous. And indeed in 2009 when the bright turquoise Blackberry shaped device launched, it still seemed fairly ridiculous. The idea was that it would bring the joy of tweeting on the go to those without a smartphone and to help newbies finally “get” Twitter. But Twitter was literally all it did – no emails, internet browser or phone calls. And it didn’t even do Twitter very well – the $100 gadget only supported a single Twitter account. However, the single-use purpose that we shunned is now starting to have a real impact on our lives with the Internet of Things (IoT) where our everyday devices are connected to the Internet to send and receive data.

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Sophie Cross

Sophie Cross is a freelance writer and marketer specialising in business and travel. She is the editor for London Revealed magazine and her clients include Group and Merlin Entertainments.

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