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

8. Colorfax

As seen in: Popular Science, November 1947.

What it was: An improvement on monochrome fax machines (which had already been around for a couple of decades by this point even though they didn’t find widespread usage until the 1980s). Coinvented by W.G.H. Finch–the same guy behind 1938’s talking newspapers–Colorfax was a $150 box that plugged into an FM radio. It recreated incoming documents on paper by drawing them with red, blue, yellow, and black merchanical pencils. The article envisions the technology being used not only for business purposes but also to deliver color images associated with radio broadcasts–and to transmit the Sunday comics.

Flies in the ointment: For one thing, the $150 gadget could only receive faxes, not send them. The process was also sluggish, taking fifteen minutes to transmit an 8-by-10 picture. At this late date, it’s hard to judge Colorfax’s image quality, but it’s hard to imagine that photos looked very good given they were being rendered with pencils. (The Popular Science cover shown as an example looks okay, I guess–considering that it was 1947.)

When did the basic idea become practical? Depends on how you look at it. Good color printing at affordable prices didn’t come along until technologies such as inkjet, laser, and solid ink started to do it in the 1990s. (Solid ink, in particular, is vaguely similar to Finch’s colored pencil setup.) In the 1990s, a standard called ITU-T30e enabled color faxing, but it never became all that popular. It’s the sending and printing of colored images across the Internet that comes closest to the scenarios the article outlined.

Modern counterpart: Even the most humble all-in-one printer now lets anyone scan, send, and print color pictures.

9. Highway Hi-Fi

As seen in: Popular Science, November 1955.

What it was: An option for 1956 model-year Chrysler automobiles that put a phonograph player in your dashboard–one that played special 7-inch LPs from Columbia that played at 16 2/3rpm and contained between 45 minutes and an hour of music. The player itself rested on cushions, was allegedly skip-proof, and cost about the same as a car radio.

Flies in the ointment: Here’s how Popular Science described the experience of using Highway Hi-Fi:

You play records with no more fuss than it takes to work the radio–an obvious safety requirement. Press a button and the door flops open. Pull out the turntable as far as it will go, pick a record from the stack underneath, and push it against stops on the turntable–it drops right over the spindle. Press a lever on the tone arm and move the arm until it stops. When you let go, the needle drops into the first groove and the music starts.

Sounds complicated to me, at least if you’re trying to do it on the freeway with one hand, without taking your eyes off the road. And this account seems to leave out at least two steps: pushing the turntable back in, and performing the whole process a second time to listen to the flipside of the record. Also, who’d want to buy new copies of all their favorite music–or at least everything that was available–in a format that only worked in cars? (The article says there were no plans to build home players compatible with the discs.)

Another fly in the ointment, possibly the one that proved fatal: The players were apparently notoriously unreliable and complicated to repair.

When did the basic idea become practical? Highway Hi-Fi only lasted a couple of years; Chrysler tried again for 1960 with an RCA player that could take standard 45s, and failed again. A few years later, 8-track cartridges and cassettes put music in a much more car-friendly form that could also be played at home.

Modern counterpart: Until recently, I would have said the in-dash CD player. These days, though, it’s just as likely to be an AUX port that lets you plug in your iPod or music-capable smartphone.

10. The Punch-Card Picture Phone

As seen in: LIFE, September 1961.

What it was: An AT&T project–although LIFE didn’t make clear how much of it was working in labs, and how much of it was sheer visionary speculation about the “fantastic everyday world of the future” that Ma Bell expected to show up by 2000 or so. The article described was a multi-line videophone with built-in document sharing features: It could be used for business conferences, online grocery shopping, banking, and maybe even to “use the Vatican Library, or see the Louvre’s art treasures without leaving home.” LIFE theorized that the whole idea might lead to everyone being assigned permanent phone numbers at birth.

Flies in the ointment: The user interface apparently involved inserting punched cards in a reader. Sounds more like 1961 than 2001!

When did the basic idea become practical? If you want to be literal and only count any of this stuff as coming true when it can be done on a telephone, it’s only been in the past half-decade or so that much of it has been doable. AT&T’s big mistake–understandable for a phone company–was assuming that the gadget in question would be a phone, not a computer.

Modern counterpart: It sounds like a lot like the Web, really.

11. The Microlibrary

As seen in: Popular Mechanics, November 1962.

What it was: A next-generation advance on microfilm, which had been around for decades by 1962. A technology called Photo-Chromic Micro-Image (PCMI), developed by NCR, was allegedly capable of reducing printed materials by a factor of 40,000. The result was supposed to be crisp, clear images that could be projected from cards–permitting an entire year’s worth of Popular Mechanics to fit onto one 3-by-5 card. It was all a response to what Popular Mechanics deemed a “crisis”: the sheer amount of information in the world, and how difficult it was becoming to store and find it. The magazine thought that innovations such as PCMI might render libraries obsolete. It also said that the entire holdings of the U.S. Patent Office could fit on a 72-inch stack of PCMI cards, and that consumers would install PCMI readers in their homes.

Flies in the ointment: Popular Mechanics explained that NCR hadn’t figured out how to make it possible to index and retrieve the millions of pieces of information that could fit in a shoebox’s worth of PCMI. Also, the whole process sounds decidedly expensive–the article mentions that a similar system from Kodak cost $2.5 million or more.

When did the basic idea become practical? In the late 1960s and early 1970s, libraries got excited about PCMI and similar technologies–collectively known as “ultrafiche”–and began using them to cram massive amounts of information into small spaces. But the trend lasted only a few years. By then, I assume, it became clear that the future was digitization, not miniaturization.

Modern counterpart: Betcha that the inventors of PCMI would go gaga over Google Books and Google Patents.

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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. Mary Says:

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

    Ouch

  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?

    A

  6. 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.

  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.

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

  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: http://www.guenthoer.de/e-history.htm

    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:

    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.

  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)
    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

  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. http://code.google.com/p/search-as-you-type/
    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. http://searchasyoutype.wordpress.com/about

  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!_ _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!

  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 http://wwwery.com/?p=10694

  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 😉 )

    Greetings
    Busch-Jaeger

  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:

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  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.

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