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

4. The Watch-Case Phonograph

As seen in: Popular Science, June 1936.

What it was: A bizarrely small phonograph built into a watch case.  You wound it up like a mechanical timepiece, whereupon a “midget record” played music through a “diminutive horn.”

Flies in the ointment: It would have required the world to accept a new media format: midget records. (Their running time is unknown–wonder if you could fit an entire song onto one side?) Also, holding the player up to your ear would have gotten old fast.

When did the basic idea become practical? The introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979 kicked off the era of pervasive, portable prerecorded music.

Modern counterpart: The iPod, of course.

5. Magic Lantern Talkies

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, October 1937.

What it was: A projector technology that permitted businesses to create presentations consisting of color slides synchronized with an audio track. Popular Mechanics’ article provides an example in which a New York City marketing company creates a 15-minute presentation (with 75 slides) and dispatches it to offices in Dallas, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The projection equipment fit into a jumbo-sized briefcase–which, back then, sounded impressively compact.

Flies in the ointment: The theory was that businesses would hire scriptwriters, actors, and radio announcers to create these shows, making them a pricey proposition. The story says that a high-end magic lantern talkie might cost $1500–or around $23,000 in current dollars. The projector cost under $100.

When did the basic idea become practical? Businesses began using overhead projectors as a presentation aid in the late 1950s, and presentation software such as Harvard Graphics in the mid 1980s.

Modern counterpart: The unavoidable communications tool known as PowerPoint.

6. Talking Newspapers

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, June, 1938.

What it was: I’m just going to quote the article, which discusses an invention by W.G.H. Finch:

“Hurry to Police Headquarters with the sound box. Get every word of that murderer’s confession so our readers will be able to play it tonight when they see the pictures!”

Such assignments may become routine to the newspaper reporter and photographer of the future who will carry a portable recording device when he covers an important story. Every word of sound will be recorded on a film track which will be rushed to the newspaper office to be developed and printed. When the newspaper is bought that evening, it will have not only pictures and type matter but also a series of wavy lines constituting sound tracks, along the margin and, in some cases, on the page itself.

Cutting these sound tracks apart and pasting them together in a continuous strip, the reader will put them in an inexpensive reproducing device attached to his loud speaker. Then he will hear the murderer’s confession–his children will hear the comic characters in the funny section talk, bark, quack, and mew, and his wife, reading a travel article about Hawaii, will hear the soft accompaniment of guitars and ukuleles providing appropriate atmosphere.

Flies in the ointment: Sounds like a lotta work–and a predecessor of much later ill-fated attempts to encode information on periodical pages, such as Cauzin Softstrip and the CueCat. I’m not sure why Popular Mechanics, which had already reported extensively on experimental TV broadcasts, thought that anyone would prefer to cut up the evening paper to get the news in words and pictures.

When did the basic idea become practical? Depends on how you look at it–to this day, newspapers don’t talk. But audio synchronized with images became real when commercial TV broadcasting really got rolling in the the late 1940s. And newspaper Web sites began to supplement their words and pictures with audio in the 1990s.

Modern counterpart: How about newspaper podcasts?

7. Newspapers by Radio

As seen in: The Rotarian, September 1939.

What it was: A system that sent newspapers over ultra-high frequency radio waves to early fax machines in the home, eliminating the need to print and distribute them through traditional means. The Rotarian piece reports that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the first paper to try the technology; that Transradio Press Service was planning to launch 25 radio papers; and that the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit News, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer had all obtained licenses to broadcast papers.

“The coming of the facsimile broadcast marks not merely a milestone,” says the story portentously. “It is also the dawn of a new epoch of deep importance to all of us.” It speculates that the new medium will throw newspaper employees out of work; that news stories will need to get shorter; and that the industry will have to figure out how to make advertising pay for facsimile newspapers so they’re self-sustaining. Any of this sound familiar?

Flies in the ointment: Mostly speed–or lack thereof. It took fifteen minutes to broadcast one page of content, which was why the Post-Dispatch’s electronic paper was only nine pages long. Color was also out, eliminating the possibility of a traditional Sunday comics section–but the article muses that it might not be that far off.

When did the basic idea become practical? Newspapers began to establish electronic presences on services such as CompuServe in the 1980s, then really ramped things up when the Web went mainstream in the mid-1990s.

Modern counterpart: The notion of scheduled digital delivery of a newspaper reminds me of the Kindle’s newspaper service.




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. Mary Says:

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


  4. 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.

  5. 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?


  6. Ed H. Says:

    Well, the *AUTOMOBILE* wireless telephone (as you specify) has been around since at least 1946:

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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)

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. Felipe Says:

    Seems like portable CRT TVs were highly underestimated in this article. See:

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

  15. lol Says:

    Edison is not the ‘greatest inventor of all time’

  16. 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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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.

  19. William Carr Says:


    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.

  20. Tony Smit Says:

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

  21. 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.

  22. Aaron T. Says:

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

  23. 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

  24. Quiddity Says:

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

  25. 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.:*~

  26. 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)

    OK, maybe that went on a little long, so, here's a link:

  27. 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.

  28. 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.
    And their demo video on

    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.

  29. 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!_ _
    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!

  30. 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

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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 😉 )


  35. 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.

  36. jibran Says:

    It has been seen for a couple of years that liver disease is spreading a lot.I think the main thing is the level of fats increases inside the body which will effect the lever. العاب اطفال

  37. 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

  38. 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

  39. Green Glue Says:

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

  40. Marty Says:

    Great post! Didn't know this at all until I came across with your post! Really great! Best Mid-Range Digital SLR Cameras

  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.

11 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. And That’s What You Missed on Technologizer Says:

    […] I delved into old issues of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and other magazines to find inventions that were a tad before their time–such as Thomas Edison’s idea for 40,000-page books made out of nickel. […]

  2. Wednesday Weekly Links « LiberryDwarf Says:

    […] Fifteen historical inventors’ ideas which were ahead of their time […]

  3. Pick A Future Winner « Columbus Futurists – Future/Vision Says:

    […] recent article – Mr. Edison’s Kindle – posted in the Technologizer blog, suggested such a possibility.  It posits the idea that […]

  4. Kindle pana Edisona | Says:

    […] prze­czy­tać możemy na blogu Tech­no­lo­gi­zer jed­nym z ojców e-czytników może być sławny Pan Edi­son, twórca ponad 5000 paten­tów […]

  5. How Polaroid Failed to Introduce the Kindle in the Mid-1940s Says:

    […] the 1940s. The whole thing reminds me of another unconsummated brainstorm I’ve covered here: Thomas Edison’s 40,000-page books printed on metal.   Be the first to comment Tweet Read more: Nostalgia, Polaroid, Vannevar […]

  6. A World Without the IBM PC Says:

    […] There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen. […]

  7. How Would the World be without the IBM PC? Says:

    […] There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen. […]

  8. How Would the World be without the IBM PC? | World News Access Says:

    […] There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen. […]

  9. How Would the World be without the IBM PC? « Heptanews * Entertainment * Politics * Opinions * U.S. * Technology * Health * Leisure * World * Sports Says:

    […] There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen. […]

  10. How Would the World be without the IBM PC? | IT News Post Says:

    […] There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen. […]

  11. The Autopsy Photographer Says:

    […] Bledel Ali Campoverdi Ali Larter Alice Dodd Alicia Keys Alicia Witt Amanda Bynes Amanda Detmer Amanda Marcum Amanda Peet Posts Related to The Autopsy […]