Mr. Edison’s Kindle

Fifteen amazing gadget ideas that were way, way ahead of their time.

By  |  Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:04 pm

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So said legendary tech visionary Alan Kay. He was absolutely correct. But he might have added that inventing the future is anything but a cakewalk. Even though everyone who does it has the luxury of learning from predecessors who tried and failed.

The brightest inventors on the planet keep coming up with ideas that never amount to much–even when they set out to solve real problems, and even when their brainchildren foreshadow later breakthroughs. And professional tech watchers have long proven themselves prone to getting irrationally exuberant about stuff that just isn’t ready for prime time.

Thanks to Google Books’ archives of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, LIFE, and other magazines that frequently reported on futuristic gizmos, we have a readily accessible record of technology that failed to live up to the initial hype–including random notions that never got off the drawing board, startlingly advanced products that didn’t find a market, and very rough drafts of concepts that eventually became a big deal. The best of them are fascinating, even when it’s not the least bit surprising that they flopped.

Herewith, fifteen inventions–not that all of them ever got built–that were at least a decade ahead of their time. They’re in chronological order, starting with the inspiration that gave this article its title.

1. Thomas Edison’s Metal Books

As described in: Cosmopolitan, February 1911.

What it was: Among the numerous brainstorms and predictions that Thomas Alva Edison shared with Cosmopolitan readers in an exclusive interview was his vision of 40,000-page books that would be two inches thick and weigh a pound–because their pages would be made of metal, not paper:

Even the pages of books may be made of steel, though Edison regards nickel as a better substitute for paper…”Why not?” asks Edison. “Nickel will absorb printer’s ink. A sheet of nickel one twenty-thousandth of an inch thick is cheaper, tougher, and more flexible than an ordinary sheet of book-paper. A nickel book, two inches thick, would contain 40,000 pages. Such a book would weigh only a pound. I can make a pound of nickel sheets for a dollar and a quarter.”

Here…is a prospect of real culture for the masses Forty thousand pages in a volume! A single volume the equivalent in printing space of two hundred paper-leaved books of two hundred pages each! What a library might be placed between two steel covers and sold for, perhaps, two dollars!

That’s a lot of exclamation points!

Flies in the ointment: I feel disrespectful expressing skepticism about an idea pitched by the greatest inventor of all time, but…I’m skeptical that it would have worked. Also, wouldn’t it have been tough to flip ahead to, say, page 17,356?

When did the basic idea become practical? I know of no evidence that Edison or  anyone else ever printed a single book on nickel. (A Google search for “books printed on nickel” returns one result–a Publisher’s Weekly story referencing the Edison interview.) The first time anyone crammed massive numbers of books into one booklike device that real people could buy may have been when the Rocketbook and Softbook were released in 1999–not that very many people bought either of them.

Modern counterpart: The Kindle, the Nook, Sony’s Readers, and every other current gadget for reading digital tomes…even though they all cost a lot more than $2. And is it going too far to say that Edison had a 1911 version of the upcoming Apple tablet in mind?

2. The Automobile Wireless Telephone

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, February 1913.

What it was: An brainchild of Los Angeles inventor E.C. Hanson, who successfully made wireless calls over a distance of 35 miles from a phone installed in his roundabout.

Flies in the ointment: You thought the telescoping antennae on early brick phones are comically archaic? Hanson’s car phone required that the car in question be outfitted with telephone poles fore and aft, supporting “aerial wires and high-voltage insulators.”

When did the basic idea become practical? Experimentation with mobile phones continued for decades, but they only started to make sense in 1983 when Motorola shipped its DynaTAC, the first true cell phone–a full seven decades after Hanson’s experiments.

Modern counterpart: Your iPhone, BlackBerry, Nexus One, or Pre. Or even your humble flip phone.

3. The Telenewspaper and Electric Writer

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, June 1928.

What they were: Items in a “home of the future” depicting the typical house of 2000, designed by architect R.A. Duncan and exhibited in London. Besides the expected flying car in the garage, the place had a high-tech study with:

…a built-in radio and loud speakers, a built-in television set to see the day’s events and a built-in telenewspaper for visible radio projection of the day’s news. An electric writer, to transmit by radio similar messages, and an elaborate lighting-control panel, were also included.

That’s as far as the magazine’s explanation goes. If the room already has a TV, I’m assuming that the telenewspaper would have presented news in words and pictures displayed on a screen. The electric writer, meanwhile, appears to involve an in-wall display and some sort of box with buttons. I can’t see any evidence of QWERTY capability–maybe there was a wireless keyboard.

Flies in the ointment: The illustration in the magazine shows a house dwarfed by a huge honkin’ antenna, looking a bit like the ones at the top of San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. With experimental television broadcasts barely underway, it was awfully premature to be talking about homes with multiple displays built into the walls. Also, shouldn’t the telenewspaper and the electric writer be one device, or at least share one display?

When did the basic ideas become practical? In the 1980s and 1990s, more and more people began using electric screens to read news and transmit messages, although the screens usually weren’t built into walls and the transmissions used telephone wires rather than radio waves.

Modern counterparts: Google News and Gmail.

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42 Comments For This Post

  1. Craig McMaster Says:

    One drawback to Edison's book which comes to my mind, is that the edges of these pages would be like razor blades. Paper cuts on a whole new level!

  2. deadstatue Says:

    why are you skeptical about the metal book?why would it be hard to flip to page 17,356? is the one pound too heavy for a book? can you not decipher numbers more than 4 digits long? i still think its a great idea…

  3. Felix Says:

    One reason AT&T thought of it as a phone is that they had to. The consent decree of 1956 required AT&T to only work in the phone industry. That’s one reason they lost control of UNIX, that they were not allowed to make any money off it. They had to treat this gizmo as a phone to make money off it.

  4. Albertini Says:

    $2.00 in 1914 had about the same buying power as $43.19 in 2010.

    Annual inflation over this period was about 3.25%.

    Why not a device costing $40?

    A

  5. Ed H. Says:

    Well, the *AUTOMOBILE* wireless telephone (as you specify) has been around since at least 1946: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_radio_telephone

    And the first that was 100% seamlessly (to the user) integrated into the conventional land-line system was in 1962. (According to the same article.)

    And suitcase-portable cellular phones were around in the ’70s. The DynaTAC may have been the first “one-hand” cell phone, but it was not the first “wireless telephone”, by any stretch.

  6. Chad Harper Says:

    Great list! Let’s not forget Vannevar Bush, who invented hypermedia long before Al Gore stole the Internet from Tim Berners-Lee.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_We_May_Think

  7. Red Five Says:

    The concept of the fax machine dates back to 1846, and a Scottish inventor named Alexander Bain. Today’s fax machines depend on the telephone system, but the original invention predates the telephone by 30 years!

  8. Ben W Says:

    I second deadstatue’s post. Most people ignorantly use something similar to a binary search algorithm when looking for a page number…. To a degree at least. Most people are smart enough to not go halfway back when the page is only 10 away.

  9. Ron Rossman Says:

    Just wanted to toss in there, a lot of College Universities still have Microfilm around.. I know Pattee Library at Penn State still has an ungodly number of newpapers on microfilm.. local papers, bigger city papers from around the US, and foreign papers, going back into the 1800’s (maybe farther I’m not sure)

  10. Rachel Says:

    It’s worth noting that the neck-strap television /did/ see some practical use, albeit not by home users. As the costume for Big Bird has no eye-holes or anything similar, the Muppeteer inside (Carroll Spinney, who still performs the role!) wore one of those neck-strap TVs to see a live feed of himself on the stage; he performed gazing down at the television screen the entire time, with his hand up above his head to perform Big Bird’s mouth. There was an interesting display about that setup at the Jim Henson exhibit the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle hosted earlier this year!

  11. Mick Russom Says:

    Edison was a fraud and cheated Tesla out of money and stole ideas form Tesla and others. Nikola Tesla is the true American inventor of ALL TIME, and history has proven that westinhouse AC revolutionized the world with a Tesla motor, Edisons crap DC obsession caused fires and was ultimately worthless.

    Edison promised Tesla $50,000 for a patent, and when Tesla did what Edison asked and got the patent for Edison, Edison refused to pay. Tesla was so angry and one of the brightest minds had to dig ditches – pure manual labor – in NYC – while Edison let this mind toil to cheat him for the love of money. The world may have been very different if Edison has used his undeserved fame and wealth to nurture Tesla instead of wasting his time.

    TESLA also demonstrated wireless power which Intel is experimenting on today, and he demonstrated a remote controlled (radio) boat before Marconi.

  12. Felipe Says:

    Seems like portable CRT TVs were highly underestimated in this article. See: http://www.guenthoer.de/e-history.htm

    My grandmother had a Panasonic TR-1000 and I think she still does.

  13. lol Says:

    Edison is not the ‘greatest inventor of all time’

  14. rjp Says:

    5cm (2in, 40000 pages at 1/20000in) * A6 (10.5cm * 14.8cm) * 9gm/cm^3 works out to be somewhere around 15lbs.

    Which is a bit heavy for your A6 sized book, even if it does have 40k pages.

  15. Topher Says:

    Microfilm itself really doesn’t qualify since readers are generally pretty bulky. A handheld microfiche reader was patented in 1977 and became available not too long after. Nobody used these to carry current best sellers around with them, but they were pretty useful to technicians who needed to have massive amounts of specs with them on shop floors or out in the field. There was serious talk of replacing printed telephone directories with microfiche and cheap portable readers (the phone company figured it could recoup the cost of handing our the readers for free after one year by eliminating the cost of printing, binding, distributing and storing printed directories).

  16. Steve Says:

    Second all those posts saying Edison was a fraud: he was. He was a cheat and a fraud, a poor inventor but a good businessman. He took ‘his’ inventions from others and is certainly not the greatest inventor ever.

  17. William Carr Says:

    Huh.

    40,000 pages, in two inches, would make each page 50 millions of an inch thick.

    Can you say “paper cut” ? That’s about 4 times thinner than a razor’s edge.

    Disregarding the ethics of nickel mining… you’d cut yourself turning pages.

  18. Professor Says:

    @William Car "40,000 pages, in two inches, would make each page 50 millions of an inch thick."

    Fail. Each page would be 1/20,000th of an inch assuming no space. In practice there are some forces in play between each page so the pages would have to be slightly thinner to make it within 2 inches thick, but no where near 50 millionths of an inch.

    @rjp you are spot on. The book wouldn't be a pound, it would be around 15! or 7kg according to your book size estimate. And you've gone with a small book to so anything bigger would be even heavier.

    Edison Fails (or cosmopolitan reporter fails!) If it's a verbatim quote then it makes you question the genius of the man. He can't even do basic maths.

  19. Quiddity Says:

    Did anybody ever read E.M Forster’s story “The Machine Stops?” Interesting ideas that took a century or so to realize.

  20. Hollie Powell Says:

    The telephone system we are using today still uses the legacy Tip and Ring -48 Volts line which is susceptible to noise.:*~

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Ever heard of PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations)?
    It was quite similar to #14, but the original terminals (ca. 1960) were plugged into ILLIAC I at The University of Illinois. By the '70s, there were several thousand terminals worldwide on nearly a dozen networked mainframe computers.

    In 1972, PLATO IV was ready for operation. New features included IR sensors for a new user interface–TOUCHSCREEN! another feature was support for…

    (please say the following words in a monotonal robotic voice and pronounce as spelled)
    DHE VOTRAX SPEECH SEENTHEESIEEZEHR!

    OK, maybe that went on a little long, so, here's a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_%28computer_sy

  22. Tony Smit Says:

    Edison was not a fraud, as he invented vastly more things than Tesla ever did.
    Edison did not realize the value of Alternating Current, he was fixated on Direct Current, and that was hisfailure in the electric power generating and distributing systems. Still, he did create the Con Ed power utility.
    Tesla's attempts to create wireless power failed, because wireless is very lossy and unreliable for large power requirements. Also, most people do not want to be exposed to several kilowatts of electromagnetic fields near their body. Wireless power, as envisioned by Tesla and now Intel, is doomed for these reasons.

  23. Tony Smit Says:

    Suction cups on the fingers.
    But you still could not turn the pages – atmospheric air pressure would keep them "stuck" together.

  24. Aaron T. Says:

    Fail fail. 1/20000 is equal to 50 millionths (0.00005).

  25. Tim at IMM Says:

    They were predicting "computerized teachers" a long time ago. The promise is that computers would never get tired and could drill a child endlessly. The problem is that kids do get tired rather easily and they tend to hate being drilled by a computer. Without that human interaction, the incentive to learn just isn't there, especially for slow learners. So the idea of computer education never revolutionized the field of education–and is never likely too.

  26. searchasyoutype Says:

    In modern times due to copyright law it is possible that justice can be done even many years after the original inventor has invented a product and has not succeeded in getting the recognition or reward for his invention. I hope my case will be a beacon to many inventors. My invention has been 're-invented' by a software giant and has been granted a patent for it. Google has recently been granted a patent for 'instant' search. My name is Pal Sahota and the company name is Pal Systems Ltd. This is the same technology I invented it in 1989 and I called it search-as-you-type. Google are calling it under a few names including Search-as-you-Type (SayT) see below links. http://code.google.com/p/search-as-you-type/
    And their demo video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElubRNRIUg4/
    The name of search-as-you-type was coined by me and used as our branded product and this can be clearly seen in the newspaper articles in my blog. http://searchasyoutype.wordpress.com/about

  27. searchasyoutype Says:

    There are also two videos made in 1991 which can also be seen from this blog.__Watching these videos it can be clearly seen that the data is accessed in the same way as shown in the above Google demo!_ _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMB-vYrZ_ZE__http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFb87HRbKYQ
    My product Autodispens used search-as-you-type everywhere and not just for accessing data. I believe that every type of “real time parsing algorithm” application is covered in this extensive program and this was done in DOS and on the very first PC’s. Am I going to have to pay royalties to use my own product done in 1989!

  28. Pal Sahota Says:

    My name is Pal Sahota and I think that USPTO should be more accountable if they have made a mistake in issuing a patent because they have not done enough research especially in cases of ‘prior art’. Google recently got a patent for ‘instant’ search United States Patent 7836044. This is ‘prior art’ as this technology was pioneered by me in 1989. The full details are disclosed in my open letter below http://wwwery.com/?p=10694

  29. amidude Says:

    Hard to take someone serious who hasn’t grasped the nuances of the English language. “An brainchild…”, guess you never heard of a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y.

  30. Shae Lippincott Says:

    I have realized that online degree is getting preferred because obtaining your degree online has developed into a popular alternative for many people. Quite a few people have not necessarily had a possible opportunity to attend an established college or university yet seek the improved earning possibilities and career advancement that a Bachelors Degree gives. Still others might have a diploma in one discipline but would want to pursue anything they already have an interest in.

  31. IG2011 Says:

    If anybody wants to see what an early 50’s automobile phone and also see an excellent movie, rent the original Sabrina to see Humphrey Bogart on the phone from his car bitching out William Holden.

  32. Mary Says:

    Imagine the papercuts you'd get from that thing. Slash you straight to the bone!

    Ouch

  33. Busch-Jaeger Says:

    Hahahaha! I searched for some information about Edison but never expected something like this! Thank you so much for sharing – made my day! You can't tell that this man was not crazy! But yes, the idea with the steal-book is hot… Even if it will be hard to write on it.

    Go on like this, this article was just too good (i had to repeat that ;) )

    Greetings
    Busch-Jaeger

  34. Dorothy Says:

    Nostalgia-CITY, baby! I remember my father subscribing to, and reading Popular Scinece and Popular Mechanics religiously. As for the books made of nickel, can you envision the poor library employee who had to empty the drop box every morning. Does nickel conduct eletricity well enough to attract lightening.? If so, a storm could make for a lousy Monday morning.

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  36. Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi Says:

    $2 in 1911 = $46.21 today (it is called inflation). Amazon Kindle Reader = $79 and holds a lot more than 40,000 pages (try about 7 times that amount — 1400 books x 200 pages = 280,000 pages). It weighs about 6 ounces and one can easily find whatever you are seeking on the device. Winner: The Amazon Kindle.

    Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi
    Associate Professor of Economics
    Winston-Salem State University

  37. hand truck cart Says:

    Great article. It amazes me just how talented these inventers were. One thing for sure is they were way ahead of there time especially E.C. Hanson I have read a fair amount about this guy hand truck cart

  38. Green Glue Says:

    Wow can you imagine losing your place in Mr. Edison's book and then trying to find it.
    Door Hardware

  39. Guest Says:

    Correct. 1/20000 is equal to 50 millionths (0.00005). Here is why for those who can't see it:

    1/2 = 0.5 = half = 500,000 millionths
    1/20 = 0.05 = 5 hundredths = 50,000 millionths
    1/200 = 0.005 = 5 thousandths = 5,000 millionths
    1/2000 = 0.0005 = 5 ten-thousandths = 500 millionths
    1/20000 = 0.00005 = 5 hundred-thousandths = 50 millionths

  40. Marty Says:

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  41. iphone 5 Says:

    I love the automobile wireless telephone. The antenna on the car looks absolutely ridiculous in our day, but amazing that it worked in a 35 mile radius. Impressive . iphone 5

  42. Melissa Vivian Says:

    After reading this post, I have realized that we really should be thankful to our ancestors. What we have now is truly because of their inventions and built principles.

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