Tech

Lost Tomorrows of Yesterday

Inventions that died before their time.

The World Wide Web, with its network of information and media linked through keywords and hypertext, was introduced in 1991, and the web browser was invented a year later. But it didn’t have to take so long. Almost 70 years ago, an engineer named Vannevar Bush basically invented the Web—only no one thought it was a good idea, and his invention was never made.

In a 1945 essay in The Atlantic, Bush described “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library”—a kind of mechanical workdesk with a viewing screen, a keyboard, and a bunch of gears and levers, that could store and retrieve not just gobs of information from books and documents but also a user’s personal thoughts and memories, on microfiche (microscopic text on plastic film). Called the Memex (for “memory extender”), it would be basically like having an entire library, or—even better—all of Wikipedia, inside a desk.

The Memex might sound like just a really complicated and bizarre filing cabinet—but what made it truly ingenious was Bush’s approach to organizing all that information. At the time, information was organized either alphabetically or categorically, which, Bush recognized, was not how the human brain generally works. Our minds tend instead to travel down paths guided by thought association, where one thing makes you think of some seemingly random other thing, which leads you somewhere else entirely—but the whole trail makes sense in your head, and leads you to new understandings at every step along the way.

To demonstrate, here’s a quick association trail from my own mind, starting with a word I picked at random:

rainbow
   ↓
prism
   ↓
chandelier
   ↓
the ballroom scene from in Beauty and the Beast

If I were using the old filing methods that were available during Bush’s time, none of those ideas would be clustered together. Rainbow would perhaps be filed under “color,” prism under “physics,” chandelier under “decorative accents,” and Beauty and the Beast under “Disney movies.” According to that system, you’d think these ideas had nothing in common. But for me, clearly, they have everything in common. Using a Memex, I could enter the word rainbow and then see a picture of a rainbow that I took, and Newton’s treatise on Opticks, and some pictures of chandeliers, and finally that movie clip. Then I could add my own thoughts and notes and store this associative trail, plucked straight from my own brain, for easy reference later. So if someone were to rifle through my Memex, they wouldn’t just gain insight into my interests, they’d learn a bit about how my mind works. It would be kind of like sneaking a look at someone’s internet browsing history, but way more fun!

Babbage’s sketches of the Memex machine

Sadly, those sketches are about as far as the Memex ever got—no one thought it seemed useful enough to pay for its creation. I really wish it had caught on, though, and that we could use these wild contraptions instead of the internet for research purposes. The Memex was designed to be the ultimate study aid, helping you store, organize, and retain information according to your own thought patterns and needs, while the internet constantly distracts us from our brains. People talk about going down internet “rabbit holes,” where you follow links into oblivion before realizing that you just wasted two hours reading about celebrity wardrobe malfunctions. I recently went down a rabbit hole involving an Amazon book-review controversy over a romance novel I’d never read or even heard of. And yet, I spent over an hour filling my brain with all this wacko information that has nothing to do with me or my actual interests. How did that happen?!

What happened is that I lost control of my path. On the internet, there’s often no clear goal, and no clear exit. It’s easy to get lost, and you just have to decide at some point to close your browser and go to bed. But you would never get lost like that using the Memex, because this magical desk was specifically designed to avert rabbit holes, and help you forge a meaningful path through the jungle of information. Alas, there is no Memex, and we each must face the internet jungle alone. But when I feel myself going down a rabbit hole, I like to pretend my computer is a Memex, and that by pulling a lever I can be guided back to my brain.

There are a lot of cool but ill-fated inventions like the Memex. I like to imagine all the parallel universes where these strange inventions caught on. Maybe there’s a Memex world out there, or a world where everyone wears ear trumpets. Instead, we live in this world. The one with the wine rack bra.

Here are some other worlds that we’re sad never happened. —Maggie

The Analytical Engine

The first computers were actually humans. Their job was to compute numerical tables, and they were actually called “computers.” Being human, though, they made mistakes. In the 1820s, a mathematician named Charles Babbage thought he could eliminate these inevitable human errors by creating a mechanical device that could compute numbers. He called this theoretical device the Difference Engine. But the funding for the project ran out before it could be completed.

Never mind, though—years later, Babbage came up with a more sophisticated version of the Difference Engine, which he would call the Analytical Engine. His blueprints describe a gigantic contraption created from thousands of interlocking metal gears and wheels, powered by steam and cranks.

Trial model of a small part of the Analytical Engine at the Science Museum in London, Photo by Bruno Barral, via Wikipedia Commons.

This new machine was way, way more than just a wildly expensive number-cruncher the size of a house (the thing was truly gigantic and made from literally tons of cast iron, bronze and steel). Basically he’d designed the world’s first general-purpose computer—a device that, through a system of numerical instructions fed to the machine with punchcards, could be programmed to do all kinds of things.

Babbage was so ahead of his time that no one understood what he was talking about—except Ada Lovelace, the math-genius daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who was became fascinated with the theoretical machine as a teenager, and whose later notes on its potential use went far beyond Babbage’s original understanding, earning her widespread recognition as the first computer programmer. Everyone else just thought he was a nutcase, so the Analytical Engine never happened.

It’s fun to think about how our world might be different if the Analytical Engine had caught on. The way our history worked out, the computer revolution came a century after the Industrial Revolution. But what if they had occurred simultaneously? What if computers had been around to help with our industrial advancement? The world would be a wildly different place. For one thing, we would be 100 years ahead in robotic technology; we would probably have high-functioning robots at this point to do our bidding. On the other hand, there’s a steampunk novel called The Difference Engine that describes a world in which the Analytical Engine is used by a cyborg to digitize and enslave all of humanity. So maybe we dodged a bullet there after all. —Maggie

Indestructible Tights

There are some annoying things that I, as a sophisticated lady on the go (aka a disheveled teenager who oversleeps), just don’t have time for, including hangnails, bathroom stalls that are out of toilet paper, and, most frustrating of all, RUNS IN MY TIGHTS. Without fail, no matter how cheap or expensive the tights, they will run, and I will shake my fist to the sky and be all “Damn you, stocking gods! What did I do to deserve this?!” But it turns out that those runs could have been prevented if it weren’t for this thing called “planned obsolescence.” Planned obsolescence is when companies create products that are purposely designed to break down after a period of time, forcing you to buy more. Some say this creates incentive for innovation, but I just say it creates incentive to make me BROKE.

Anyways, back to the tights. Around 1940, scientists at DuPont invented the strongest nylon stockings around. These bad boys were strong enough to tow cars with! Imagine how well they’d hold up to tripping on the sidewalk. But the company’s execs realized that if they created indestructible tights for the masses, women wouldn’t have to buy new damn tights all the time! They sent the scientists back to the lab to make the tights more fragile and, thus, shorter-lived.

It seems that no one has revisited the concept of indestructible tights, so I say we all just start pulling a Miley and stop buying new tights, in protest. —Gabby

The Hoverboard

I have wanted a hoverboard ever since I saw Marty McFly in this epic chase scene in Back to the Future 2. Skateboards, scooters, and driving are fun, but everyone knows that FLOATING is better than using wheels. My desire to hover on a board only increased when I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series of novels. His main character spies, sneaks off, and goes on major adventures via hoverboard, which makes all manner of mischief possible because unlike a skateboard, the hoverboard just does the work for you, so you’re free to concentrate on other things (like spying). OK, this isn’t really an invention that died before its time—more like one that people keep saying is gonna happen and then it just doesn’t get off the ground. All real-life versions of the hoverboard so far are either hoaxes like this or have to travel along one specific path, because apparently they need magnetized tracks to work. We need to find another way—I want the future I was promised! —Stephanie

The Flying Car

What if cars could fly? Guess what, they already did. In the 1970s, a guy named Henry Smolinski quit his job as an auto engineer and dedicated himself to the creation of a car with wings. It was a simple but weird plan: take a Ford Pinto, attach a giant pair of wings, then drive really fast until the car just starts flying. What’s even weirder was the fact that it worked.

Henry actually flew around in his car, which he dubbed the Mizar (one of the stars in the Big Dipper). Unfortunately there was a fatal design flaw: the concept of the car was that the wings were detachable, so you could drive your car on regular roads, and then stop and affix the wings when you were ready to fly. During one fateful flight, the wings detached without warning, sending Henry and his Mizar crashing to the ground. The fact that Henry was killed by his own invention put a damper on the business, and after that the flying-car concept failed to take off (yuk yuk). —Maggie

Thomas Edison’s Talking Dolls

Though Thomas Edison is generally considered one of the greatest inventors of all time, he had his share of clunkers, as well. One of them was the talking doll—Edison’s was the first of its kind (it was basically just a giant doll with a little phonograph inside). Though these dolls failed to catch on because of their lack of durability and overabundance of creepiness, they are a complete success in my eyes for being perhaps the scariest toy ever created. Listening to the dolls, whose voices were recorded in the late 1800s, is pretty terrifying, and it’s not entirely surprising that kids weren’t really in to the whole 19th century Chucky vibes. But perhaps the spookiest—and best—part of the Edison’s-talking-dolls story is the legend that Edison himself was so embarrassed by their failure that he buried the remaining stock on the grounds of his factory somewhere. Can you imagine being the lucky one to dig that treasure up? Nightmares forever! —Pixie ♦

37 Comments

  • Kathryn November 15th, 2012 7:48 PM

    Did anyone else read that whole blog post about the romance novel amazon drama?

  • Abby November 15th, 2012 7:51 PM

    Sooooo… I saw the link to the talking doll voices, and I just figured I’d finish reading the article and listen to it after, so I just opened it in a new tab and continued reading… and then proceeded to jump approximately 3 feet out of my chair when they STARTED TALKING ON THEIR OWN… JESUS that was scary…

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 19th, 2013 11:43 AM

      I’m laughing right now :D

  • Jareth_Stardust November 15th, 2012 7:58 PM

    I need indestructible tights so. frikkin. bad.

    • Majel November 16th, 2012 9:00 AM

      There actually are. You just have to find the right (slightly expensive) makes. I get indestructable tights for around 18-20 bucks at department stalls… you know, in those departments where a sales woman comes up to you and asks you what kind of stocking you need. And those tights last for years!
      Forget the ones at drug stores and the usual shops where young people buy their clothes.

  • dandelions November 15th, 2012 7:59 PM

    Thomas Edison’s Talking Dolls!?!?!
    I can’t even… This is amazing… and scary.

  • Adrienne November 15th, 2012 8:00 PM

    The talking doll’s voice is so scary!! And what the heck, indestructible tights??!? Darn you excecutives.

    Another guy way before his time was Nikola Tesla. What a guy.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

    • Nomi November 15th, 2012 9:28 PM

      I didnt see this before i posted my comment :o but yeah deff

    • erica84 November 17th, 2012 5:38 AM

      Oh god I’m really a fan of Nikola Tesla! People tend to skip him and instead talk about Edison… I went to his memorial center and it was amazing! And btw that doll voice is freaking scary!

      http://gimme-brainz.tumblr.com

  • SarahHach November 15th, 2012 8:02 PM

    I forgot about the Uglies series, those were my absolute favorites when I was in 9th-10th grade. Hoverboards in general would be the bomb dot com.

    http://sarah-hach.tumblr.com/
    http://sarah-hach.blogspot.com/ (art blog)

  • Fortune_Goddess November 15th, 2012 8:08 PM

    Something cool and sorta related is that my grandfather was one of the first people to work at IBM with the large computers and my mom used to tell me stories about how the computers were the size of a room. Instead of imagining them how they were (large robotic machines, very non-interesting) I imagined them as literally a computer, room-sized. I thought that they had to type by jumping on one key at a time.

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 19th, 2013 11:44 AM

      Ha! That’s awesome!

  • airplanes.books November 15th, 2012 8:38 PM

    INDESTRUCTIBLE TIGHTS WHY AREN’T YOU A THING

  • Nomi November 15th, 2012 9:28 PM

    Re: Thomas Edison — you should learn about Nikola Tesla here http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 19th, 2013 1:10 PM

      When I saw Thomas Edison’s talking dolls, I immediately thought of that Oatmeal comic haha! :D

  • AlisonWonderland November 15th, 2012 9:44 PM

    Ada Lovelace is just awesome.

  • cherrycola27 November 15th, 2012 9:46 PM

    Oh man I want a hoverboard so bad! I reread the Uglies series recently, for nostalgia’s sake, and was deeply and truly saddened that this invention hasn’t come true yet. I have this deep ache to be Tally (except she is so much braver than I) and fly around freeeeee!
    As a side note: The author of the Uglies, Scott Westerfeld, follows me on Twitter. :) I have no idea why, but it’s awesome.

  • Sputnick November 15th, 2012 10:44 PM

    Um, this is the age of over-privileged Americans buying whatever they want. SO THE TIGHTS SHOULD TOTALLY BE A THING!! The first company to bring indestructible nylons back will get so rich so fast, their moneyload will skyrocket past the numbers with normal names. They’ll become QUINTILLIONAIRES. The future. It’s so beautiful.

    • BritishFish November 21st, 2012 6:37 AM

      Exactly! Can you imagine if there was just ever color imaginable and crazy patters. Ah, now I’m getting too excited.

  • spudzine November 15th, 2012 11:30 PM

    Oooooooh I want a hoverboard! I mean it would be really cool to just float around to places yes.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/

  • marlzipan November 16th, 2012 5:04 AM

    Whoa! The Memex sounds amazing! I am always making lists and using bookmarking programmes to try and categorise things on the internet according to how my brain likes them…. although this is not anywhere near as cool as a real Memex, I’ve found it’s a really useful site for sorting your sites…

    http://www.pearltrees.com

    • Maggie November 16th, 2012 11:28 AM

      I’m going to try this!

  • Apple Betty November 16th, 2012 6:03 AM

    Learning IS fun!

  • hellorose November 16th, 2012 6:54 AM

    Just had a miniature Wikipedia rabbit-hole moment regarding Ada Lovelace and Byron, which led to discovering a man with possibly the most ridiculous name ever:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville,_1st_Duke_of_Buckingham_and_Chandos

    Then I read about the romantic novel Amazon controversy.

  • Blythe November 16th, 2012 7:28 AM

    I saw the name “Ada Lovelace” and I was like, “Where have I heard that?” Then I remembered that one of the characters in Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters trilogy (I think it was Dess?) idolizes Ada.

  • tturnthenoiseon November 16th, 2012 9:10 AM

    Thomas Edison actually stole most of his ideas from his friends/employees. He was just a good businessman and was better at marketing the inventions and taking advantage of people. That’s why the inventions that were his idea were terrible (see: horrifying talking dolls).

  • purrr November 16th, 2012 11:41 AM

    if i sent in a diary scan and didn’t get a “real” answer, does that mean you’re not gonna use it? or are you just super busy ladies? thanks!

  • limegreensunset November 18th, 2012 12:40 PM

    oh those indestructible tights! i need them in my life!!!!

  • Accio_Jesss November 19th, 2012 11:40 AM

    really makes you think about how much has actually happened in this world but not known

    jinxedjess.wordpress.com

  • guiltfreedonut November 23rd, 2012 3:00 AM

    Um I clicked on the ‘wine rack bra’ and went down the entire spiral of UO… things? Pee aim measures, guys. And yes it’s 3am and I need to know when to close my computer and go to bed.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 19th, 2013 1:16 PM

    I desperately wish these could exist! Especially indestructible tights and hoverboards. If they did (or WHEN THEY DO), I’d probably wear a pair of indestructible tights while flyin’ around on my hovercraft – an inevitable scraped knee would be painful for my knee, but not so much for my ~INDESTRUCTIBLE TIGHTS~!