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World-changing inventions nobody thought would be successful

‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,’ Ken Olson, founder of computer company Digital Equipment Corp, is quoted as saying in 1977. Throughout history and in recent years, there have been life-changing inventions. However, at the time of their release, many historic inventions faced public scrutiny and ridicule.

From the lightbulb to the internet to virtual events, here are 8 amazing inventions that nobody thought would be successful.

The lightbulb - 1879

Not everyone was impressed when Thomas Edison started working on the first practical electrical light bulb. Although he wasn’t the first to produce a light bulb, a brief history of the light bulb explains that Edison’s version outlived earlier ones “because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable.”

Even though Edison had many patents for previous successful inventions, many scoffed at him when he started researching a light bulb that would serve for practical use. Sir William Preece, engineer-in-chief of the British Post Office is quoted in an excerpt by New Scientist as saying, “sub-division of the electric light is an absolute ignis fatuus,” or a deceptive goal or hope. Fast forward to the present and everyone has light bulbs in their homes.

The Telephone - 1876

When you were taught in fifth grade how the telephone was invented, you came to know about the great Alexander Graham Bell, otherwise known as ‘the father of modern communication’. He was the first person to be granted a patent for the telephone, and his success came as a direct result of trying to improve the telegraph, a previous form of communication.

However, when Bell tried to sell his patents and technology to Western Union, the leading telegraph company at the time, they turned down his request, claiming that they had no use for the device, which was “hardly more than a toy”. Thankfully, Bell received support and funds from other investors and he was able to continue working on his product. Years later, telephones have evolved into the smartphones that we can’t live without.

Personal Computer - 1975

We all know the history of the first computer and how it was so enormous that it needed an entire room for space. Understandably, it wasn’t practical or feasible for everyone to own one when they were just starting out.

Nevertheless, as these valuable pieces of technology evolved into smaller, faster, and more efficient models, they became more popular and widely used, so much so, that in 1975, the first personal computer was invented.

Yet, even though personal computers meant that people could handle certain types of work more efficiently, the device still had its naysayers, making its commercial appeal limited.

One such critic was Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation and one of the giants in the tech industry at the time. In 1977, Ken Olsen is quoted as saying, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Sadly, his failure to foresee the rise of the microcomputer meant that his business quickly became obsolete. Now, almost everyone does indeed own a personal computer.

The Internet - 1983

Life without the internet is unimaginable today! In our digital era, we can work, learn, play, shop, and meet new people without leaving our homes, all thanks to the internet. Many of us have witnessed how it evolved and how it continues to do so today. A short history of the internet reveals that it was not just one person who invented it. It went through various stages of processing and development until it became what we know it as today.

However, the internet was already up and running when it started receiving negative scrutiny. Who would have thought that what the U.N. labeled in their resolution as a basic human right was once the object of ridicule and failed predictions? That’s exactly what happened when Robert Metcalfe, a pioneer himself of the internet, said in 1995, “I predict the Internet [...] will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” How happy we are that this turned out to be a failed prediction and nothing more.

E-commerce - 1994

Although online shopping had been in the making since 1979, an early timeline of e-commerce explains that the first online transaction didn’t actually occur until 1994, after the internet was introduced to the public, when a sale of a Sting CD occurred between two friends.

Of course, now it’s a trillion dollar industry, but in its early stages, there was a lot of skepticism around online shopping. For instance, The Financial Post (Canada) dismissed online shopping, calling it “the latest fad.” Additionally, an essay written by TIME in 1966 made this amusing prediction, “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop - because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.” Again, their negative assumptions seem quite comical now that e-commerce is growing at a much faster rate than traditional retail.

Netflix - 1997

When it comes to online streaming services, Netflix is a streaming giant. It is currently the leading service, with over 200 million subscribers. Although, when it started out, as many of you may recall, it was a DVD rental service that was going out of business. In fact, the origin story of Netflix claims that in 2000, both co-founders offered the company to Blockbuster, proposing that Netflix become Blockbuster’s streaming service and buy out their shares for $50 million. Needless to say, Blockbuster passed on the offer.

Fortunately, the CEOs at Netflix were quick thinkers and they started offering various services and acquiring different investors. Despite their few rocky years, in 2007, the company began to move away from DVD rentals and introduced video on demand via the Internet. Netflix’s new streaming service directly affected DVD rental giants like Blockbuster, forcing the company to close down and file for bankruptcy in 2010.

Remote work

Contrary to popular belief, remote work dates back two centuries, with people making crafts at home and selling them for gain. However, the term “telecommuting” wasn’t coined until 1973 by Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer. From there, remote work began to take off as startups were formed in people’s garages and more companies saw the advantages in lower overhead costs by having their employees work from home. Recently, when the pandemic broke out, it prompted a widespread shift to remote work, causing an indelible mark in the future of work trends.

However, even though remote workers are thriving in the new world of work, there are many managers who are doing everything in their power to force their employees to return to the office. An article by BBC points out that “72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in office.”