We’ve all had something like this happen to us: You get a brand-new time machine, pile a bunch of TVs and Blu-Ray players in the trunk, and travel back to the court of Henry VIII to try and sell him a home entertainment system only to find yourself burned at the stake for witchcraft.
Throughout history, inventors, scientists and engineers have developed incredibly advanced technologies in times and places where nobody could understand them and nobody was interested in buying them. Here are ten of the most surprising examples of technologies invented ahead of their time.
1910: SEARCH ENGINE
Self-educated Belgian lawyer Paul Otlet had a bold plan to revolutionize the dull-sounding but important field of documentation science: Gather every available scrap of the world’s knowledge, write it all down on 3x5 note cards and organize it based on a revolutionary new cross-linked categorization system he called Universal Decimal Classification.
Amazingly, after only fifteen years of collecting and organizing snippets of information on everything from boomerangs to Borneo, Otlet and his partner Henri la Fontaine were able to open the Mundaneum, a fee-based paper search engine that handled over 1500 mailed-in queries each year.
The Mundaneum dealt with so much paper that Otlet began studying early electronic storage solutions as a way to keep up, research that at one point lead to an astonishingly far-sighted proposal for a network of “electronic telescopes” capable of displaying Mundaneum content at centers all around the world.
Unfortunately, the Belgian government cut funding to the project after their bid to build a Mundaneum-assisted League of Nations headquarters was passed over. A few years later World War II decisively ended Otlet’s dream of a mechanical information network. Today, the Mundaneum survives as a museum and is in the process of making its archives web-searchable.
1979: PERSONAL DIGITAL MUSIC PLAYER
Some twenty years before MP3 players became widely available, British furniture salesman Kane Kramer invented a pocket-sized electronic music player with an LCD screen capable of holding up to a half-hour of stereo sound that could even be “refilled” at a music store just by hooking it up to a phone line.
Unfortunately, after a disagreement with his funders, Kramer was unable to come up with the $120,000 needed to renew his patent and retain his rights. While surprised and bemused by the advent of modern MP3 players, Kramer never believed he’d get a piece of that particularly lucrative action until Apple called him in 2008 as a witness in their legal battle with a company that claimed they had invented the concept of the personal digital music player and was angling for a $10 million settlement.
For his help, Kramer received official credit from Apple for his work (although his patent was by now part of the public domain) and a free iPod (which apparently broke after a few months).
1956: IN-CAR STEREO
Outside of big cities, drivers in the late fifties didn’t have a lot of things to listen to on the radio besides eerie static and the occasional ranting preacher. Enter the Chrysler Corporation and the Highway Hi-Fi, a miniaturized phonograph player spinning special 7-inch 16 2/3 RPM records in the awesomely named “ultra-microgroove” format, allowing for up to an hour of music per side.
The player was offered as a factory option across the ’56 Chrysler model range along with your choice of six albums from Columbia Records … and only Columbia Records, as no one else could be convinced to produce albums in the unique format.
The first iteration of Highway Hi-Fi was cancelled after a year, but Chrysler tried again in 1960 using an RCA-designed “upside-down” player that used conventional 45 RPM platters in groups of twelve — as the tone arm reached the end of a record, it retracted so a new record could fall into place.
This system allowed owners to buy regular 45s and mix them around to their own preference, but the fundamental problem of a car-based record player remained in that drivers would have to drive on glass-smooth roads if they wanted to avoid skipping.
1945: HYPERLINK-BASED BROWSING
Vannevar Bush was one of the many scientists, engineers and administrators who quietly helped the Allies win the war as part of the U.S. Office of Research and Development, but by 1945 he was tired of seeing years of research and invention directed almost exclusively towards destruction.
In his essay “As We May Think,” Bush proposed the development of what he called the Memex, a microfiche-based electromechanical desktop that would allow a researcher to access a full library of information single-handedly.
So far this was pretty close to a cataloging system he had designed in 1939, but the Memex went one step further by proposing an entirely new indexing system based on “associative trails” where researchers could pull up related subjects, add personal notes, bookmark interesting details and create a personalized “trail” for each researcher that was intended to more closely mirror the way human mind’s stored and retrieved information.
The Memex never got beyond the theoretical stage, but the concept of structuring data in a way similar to the human thought process was cited as the inspiration for the internet’s “hypertext” system and in many ways is an ancestor of the Wikipedia concept, making it responsible for some 99% of the research-heavy articles found here or on any other website.
The idea of the videophone has been around since shortly after the invention of the telephone (and long before practical TV technology), but it seems that it has only been fulfilled with the recent popularity of Skype and other Internet-based video systems.
In fact, the first working videophone network was founded in 1936 by the German Post Office, making use of early mechanical televisions and a system of coaxial broadband cables originally laid by the Nazis for the broadcast of the Berlin Olympics to theaters in Berlin and Leipzig.
The videophones were based out of post offices, cost about a fifteenth of the average worker’s weekly wage and required the person you were going to videophone to also be at a post office with its own videophone, but were apparently a novel enough experience that plans were announced to lay cable to Cologne and Salzburg before the war cancelled any research or infrastructure project that couldn’t be used to blow up London.
French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was fascinated with the early science of steam-driven machinery, while his superiors in the Army were fascinated with the much earlier science of transporting heavy artillery pieces from place to place with a minimum of effort, expense and dead horses.
It would seem, then, that Cugnot’s revolutionary “steam cart” was the answer to both parties’ prayers. But the steam-driven tricycle was cursed with several inherent design flaws: the front wheel was used for power, steering and balancing the boiler and driveshaft while the rear wheels were left clear to carry cargo and passengers. This resulted in major balance difficulties that made it difficult for the tractor to operate anywhere other than level ground.
The machine had an ideal speed of just over two miles per hour, but the extremely inefficient boiler required re-firing every fifteen minutes, while the question of how much wood and water would have to travel along with the vehicle was never adequately resolved.
The device was eventually rejected on grounds of practicality, but Cugnot was rewarded for his innovations and his steam cart remains the first vehicle to move under its own power, steer around obstacles, carry passengers and cargo, and (if an 1801 woodcut is to believed) the first to run smack into a wall due to driver error.
1632: CONTACT LENSES
Renowned French philosopher, mathematician and inventor Rene Descartes had an idea one day for a vision aid that combined the difficult optical tooling of contemporary eyeglasses with the bizarre sensation of having a glass pipe held directly on your cornea: the contact lens.
Descartes’ design combined shaped lenses with the natural optical qualities of clear water to reach an optimal vision solution — optimal, unless you wanted to blink or do something other than walk around holding a pipe to your eye.
Nevertheless, the central idea of using liquid as a visual medium is central to the design of today’s “soft” contact lenses, which can be up to 70% water.
Although the exact date the so-called “Baghdad Battery” was created is extremely ambiguous, the fact remains that if it is in fact a battery it predates the invention of the “voltaic pile” by at a solid millennium at the least.
Discovered by German archeologists in the late thirties as part of the tireless Nazi effort to steal mystical artifacts before Indiana Jones got to them, the Baghdad Battery was believed to be a power source for electroplating, as at the time there were a handful of Persian/Sassanid sculptures with super-thin gold platings that were believed to be practically impossible with early metalworking technology.
Later research showed that such thin plating was possible without a power source, leading the alien-god-conspiracy-theory press to claim all sorts of possible uses for the Baghdad Battery, all of which ignored the fact that the battery in question was found next to a crude terra-cotta multifunction DVD remote control.
LATE 100’S: STEAM ENGINE
First described by Hero of Alexandria, history’s first tech blogger, the Aeolipile (roughly, “ball of the wind-god”) was the first documented example of a machine driven by pressurized steam. A sealed bowl of water was heated by an open flame, generating steam that traveled through two narrow pipes into a sphere with two “rocket nozzles” that spun the sphere faster and faster until the water finally boiled off.
Confronted with the raw power and speed of an entirely new energy source, the elite citizens of the Roman Empire thought to themselves “this would be a nifty thing to put in our temples as a sort of mystical toy” and resolutely ignored the incredible potential of a power source that didn’t depend on donkeys or slaves.
As a result, the so-called Hero Engine never saw any sort of industrial application, serving only as a foundation of the “sandalpunk” science fiction genre, an alternative history narrative notable for being even more annoying than steampunk.
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EARLY 100’S: COIN-OPERATED VENDING MACHINE
Historians have had a difficult time distinguishing between the actual inventions of Hero of Alexandria and inventions that he had only described during his travels. Among the many “Heroic” devices history has recorded, one particular machine has always been solidly attributed to the talented Greek inventor: the vending machine.
Hero had always been known for his work on devices that relied on various types of pressure, whether pneumatic, hydraulic or gravity-powered weight-based mechanisms. When Greco-Roman authorities realized that pilgrims were partaking of far more holy water than their minimum donation accounted for, they called on Hero to design a system that would dispense an honest amount of blessed water for an honest amount of cold hard cash.
Hero’s design was so ingenious that vending machine designers a thousand years later copied its basic principles: Given that a coin of a certain value was guaranteed to weigh a certain amount, that coin could be used as a weight on a lever that would measure out a certain amount of holy water before the coin slipped off the lever and the source of water was shut off.
Today, simple photosensors are used to double-check the identity of coins deposited into any vending machine, but in the final analysis, every time you buy a refreshing sody-pop out of a cola machine, you’re relying on technology developed during the birth of Christianity — food for thought when you’re drinking your next RC Cola.