Even geniuses sometimes do dumb things. I heard that Einstein sold all his bitcoin when it hit 5 dollars a token. So he was a moron. And Einstein isn’t the only one. It turns out a lot of geniuses are really dumb. The problem is though, they are only remembered for the things they get right. So people forget that Isaac Newton believed in alchemy and magic. Just as many great scientists had dumb ideas, many great inventors had dumb inventions. But what are some of their worst inventions?
Thomas Edison once invented an electric pen. Why a pen would require electricity, I have no idea. Maybe that’s why it never caught on. Considering Edison had more than a thousand patents by the time of his death, they can’t all have been winners. Yes some were brilliant like the phonograph and the motion camera. But a lot of them are worse than electric pens.
Edison’s Talking Doll
In the 1880s he developed a strange talking doll. Being a visionary, he knew children would like dolls that spoke to them. And since he owned the patent for the phonograph, only he had the technology to make this happen. So on further developing a tiny phonograph to fit inside hollowed out dolls, voice message were recorded, and the dolls sold. Unsurprisingly they sold quite well. But the problems began immediately. First of all they broke easily, which is not good for a product you give to young children. But the main issue was the dolls were creepy. The tiny sound recording devices were predictably distorted. So the dolls voices just sounded ghostly and haunting. Children were terrified – which I usually think is a good thing, but I’m also not in the doll business. Mostly, the dolls would sing nursery rhymes, in the hope this would comfort the child.
But it’s hard to believe how creepy the internal voice recordings were. On first being introduced in 1890, the doll has songs like little Jack Horner, Hickory Dickory Dock, and my personal favorite, Now I lay me down to sleep. It really sounds like something from a horror movie. The ghost of an evil genius who somehow trapped his soul inside a doll. So parents were not thrilled, with even a lot of adults being scared of them. To the surprise of no one, the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company shut down after just a few weeks of selling the doll. Considering they spent years developing the doll, it remains one of the worst inventions in business history. I also think it doesn’t help that he dolls look like Frankenstein’s monster. But like I said, I’m not in the doll business.
Some of Edison’s other terrible inventions involved concrete. Around the turn of the century he became obsessed with concrete. Realizing the potential for concrete to be molded into almost any shape, he built and sold all kinds of products built entirely from concrete. This included concrete furniture, pianos, and even a concrete cement mixer. His ultimate goal was to create entire houses from concrete, with everything inside also made from concrete. While this was physically feasible, nobody wants to live in a big concrete house. But with Edison being Edison, he didn’t give up easy. So in 1917 he actually began building them. Some of his concrete houses still stand today, and they are terrible. Back in the day, no one liked it then either. So nobody bought the houses, and before long the idea was largely forgotten.
The Spirit Phone
Thomas Edison was kind of a lunatic. At one point he tried to speak to the dead. In secret, Edison and a group of other scientists had been trying to build a device that could contact the afterlife. America at the time was still in the age of spiritualism, with many believing in ghosts. They believed the spirit world was a physical place – a place that could therefore be contacted. For Thomas Edison it was a scientific question, rather than a religious one. As matter can be converted into energy, he said our consciousness could be converted into something else when we die. Then in 1920 he shocked reporters, telling them “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this Earth to communicate with us”.
Little is known of his supposed “spirit phone” – and for decades it was thought he was just being playful in the interview. But in 2015 a French journalist – the worst kind of journalist – found an old copy of Edison’s journal. In it, he found Edison’s thoughts on building a spirit phone. We still don’t know if Edison succeeded in building his mysterious device – but my money is on no, because I’m not crazy.
Flying Ice Box
Benjamin Franklin was another famous inventor. In a previous video we looked at his musical instrument that turned out to be deadly. That may have been once of his worst inventions, but today we look at his ice box. It was in the 1780s, a time long before refrigerators. So people would use a meat safe – large wooden cabinets designed to keep food cool. It will surprise you to hear this, but keeping meat in a big wooden box doesn’t stop it from going bad. Although it does keep rats out. But Benjamin Franklin had a better idea. He understood that the higher into the air you get, the colder it gets – hence why mountain peaks are often snowy.
So his idea was to attack balloons to a meat safe, and have it permanently suspended in the sky. Linked to the ground by a long rope, it could simply be pulled down when meat is needed. Franklin died before putting the idea to the test. On the surface it doesn’t sound crazy. But in practice, it’s a lot easier to buy ice than hydrogen. Ice also isn’t flammable.
Fiske Reading Device
Bradley Fiske was a renowned American rear admiral. Having served in the Spanish American war, he went on to invent all kinds of things related to the navy. His most famous invention was a new kind of rangefinder – and the New Yorker “one of the notable naval inventors of all time”. But not all of his inventions were naval.
In 1922 he came up with a new way of reading. Instead of buying books, he created a device people would hold up to their eye. Small reading cards could be inserted into the device for your eye to then see. The main selling point is that these story cards were cheaper than books. And because they were smaller, could be sent in the post. He considered this one of his better inventions, claiming it was the future of reading. But it was never adopted by the public – why? Because it was less convenient than reading actual books. It was like holding a big magnifying glass up to your eye – and doing it while reading a whole novel.
In 1919 an Italian inventor tried to build a giant flying boat. His goal was for it to be a large passenger aircraft, capable of flying from Europe to North America. It was clear that planes could cross the ocean much faster than ships, but most people assumed a large craft would be too heavy to fly. Giovanni Caproni disagreed – and he was right, but also ridiculously wrong.
While he was a genuine pioneer in the field of flight, he was also Italian, so his ambition was not grounded in reality. Still, by 1921 a prototype had been built. With nine huge wings, the flying ship was built to transport more than 100 people. It was 77 feet long, and when empty weighed 13 tonnes. Considering the average commercial plane today weighs more than 150 tonnes, that’s a respectable figure.
But this lightness came at a cost. The entire craft was stupidly brittle. Any impact would risk tearing it apart. Most people doubted that it would even take off. But in it’s first test, it did, taking flight at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour. As you might imagine, it was difficult to fly an entire ship – no matter how many wings it had. So on it’s second flight, it crashed into the lake below and broke up on impact. And just like that, Caproni’s dream was dead. Yet he did carry on innovating, and is today remembered as a great engineer.