The Everyday Inventions People Never Thought Would Catch On

By Google Arts & Culture

Sunbathers relax under a low umbrella (1966)National Archives of Australia

In today’s technologically-advanced world, new things, products, and inventions are brought out all the time, and the joy of modern marketing means the “next best thing!” is often just around the corner for consumers.

CB w/ L, T and pickles (The cheeseburger, curly fries, plate, coke, with ice and straw) and EAT (2011/2012) by John MillerChrysler Museum of Art

While humans are often skeptical of new things, many successful inventions endured plenty of public scrutiny and ridicule before becoming wildly popular – and today we can't live without them. This is a common trend you’ll see below in this list of inventions. From television to cheeseburgers, when these things were released into the world, no one ever thought they would last. How wrong they were!

Diagram, Edison's latest lamp (1879/1882) by Edison Electric Light CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Electric light bulbs
19th-century American inventor Thomas Edison was awarded 1,093 patents in the USA, and one of his most famous creations was the first commercially viable electric light bulb – though it’s important to note that the history of the lightbulb starts way before Edison arrived on the scene.

Carbon wire filament incandescent light bulb (1886) by Edison Electric Light CompanyNEMO Science Museum

It’s hard to imagine life without these glass bulbs of light, but Edison’s light bulb was met with disdain, with scientist Henry Morton of the Stevens Institute of Technology believing the invention would become a “conspicuous failure”. Back in Britain, a parliamentary committee decided the light bulb was “good enough for our transatlantic friends [...] but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.'' With further developments in filament production and energy efficiency though, it wasn’t long until light bulbs became a permanent fixture in households.

Television Set (1950) by PhilcoThe Valentine

In 1926, one year after Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of a working television in London, American radio pioneer Lee de Forest was quoted as saying the device would be a commercial and financial impossibility, adding it was “a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.'' Even 20 years later, people still weren’t convinced and while more sets were appearing in homes, people in the film industry scoffed at the idea of people gathering around the television. For instance film producer Darryl Zanuck stated in 1946 that “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”.

The 1960s: television on the podium (1964-08-01) by IOCThe Olympic Museum

Today, TV is big. In 2013, for instance, it was estimated that 1.4 billion households worldwide owned at least one television set. TV streaming services have also changed the way we watch the box, with providers like Netflix leading the way by giving audiences an influx of big budget, original content – the company is estimated to have spent $13 billion in 2018.

The Wright Flyer's First Flight, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, December 17, 1903 (1903-12-17) by Daniels, John T., 1873-1948Original Source: Digital Collections

In 1901, Wilbur Wright proclaimed: “Man will not fly for 50 years” after several disappointing experiments with their early gliders. Luckily, the Wright Brothers continued to try and make their machines fly and in 1903, they made headlines when they flew what's thought to be the first airplane, with the flight lasting around 12 seconds.

Lockheed 1649 Airplane. (1993-07-13)NASA

Still, while this development caused a stir, in 1911, Ferdinand Foch, a French general and Allied Commander during World War I, said: "Airplanes are interesting scientific toys, but they are of no military value." Later in 1933, following the maiden flight of the world’s first modern passenger aircraft – the 10-seater Boeing 247 – an engineer is reported to have claimed: “There will never be a bigger plane built.” These days, around 100,000 flights take off globally per day.

Benz Victoria (1893) by Karl BenzMAUTO - Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile,Torino

In 1899, The Literary Digest magazine said this about automobiles: “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy, and although its price will fall in the future, it will never come into as common use as the bicycle.” Three years later The New York Times echoed the same sentiment, declaring cars as impractical, and the appeal of bikes still going strong.

1896 Ford Quadricycle Runabout, First Car Built by Henry Ford (1896) by Ford, Henry, 1863-1947Original Source: Digital Collections

A year after that, Detroit lawyer Horace Rackham was advised by the president of the Michigan Savings Bank that “the horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty,” before he bought stocks in Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company. Luckily, Rackham ignored this advice and in 1908, the Ford Motor Company designed the Model T automobile, which by 1918 would make up half of the total cars in America.

Personal Computer (1978) by Commodore Business MachinesPowerhouse Museum

Personal computers
These days, it’s hard to imagine life without computers, with so many jobs now created around this piece of tech. Having a computer at home was once seen as a bothersome bit of kit, despite the capabilities and functions of computers rapidly growing since 1949. This was one year after the world’s first stored program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine, made its debut in Manchester, UK.

By Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

Computers were seen as a chore, as "another thing to learn and master", with many feeling they were unnecessary to have at home. Even Ken Olsen, founder of computer company Digital Equipment Corp, said in 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Now? It was reported in 2017 that around 120 million personal computers had been sold worldwide.

Woman and Child at Laptop Computer (2013-05-22) by Chuck UnderwoodNational Women’s History Museum

The ubiquitous use of laptops of course has helped this figure rise year on year. With the ability to tap away on a keyboard anywhere, especially in a coffee shop near you, laptops seemed like an obvious progression. But in 1985, The New York Times reported on the “tragic demise” of a once promising trend blaming their heaviness, price, and poor battery life. It took a few more years for laptops to become practical, but technology improved enough for them to become lighter, more durable, and easier to use.

Rover 'safety' bicycle (1885) by RoverScience Museum

As mentioned, before the car, the biggest transportation trend was bicycles and that’s all they were seen as – a fad or trendy fashion statement. In 1890, bikes had a sudden surge in popularity but this seemed to wane again by 1902, with critics of bicycles thinking they were unsafe, impossible to improve, and ultimately impractical for everyday use.

Ordinary bicycle:Columbia Light Roadster (1888) by Pope Manufacturing Co.The Strong National Museum of Play

In December 1906, the New York Sun even went as far to say: “As a fad cycling is dead, and few individuals now ride for all the good they claim to see in the pastime when it was fashion." Eventually bike designs did improve, and so did road conditions. Bikes became a practical option and some towns have even been planned to encourage the use of bicycles as an alternative to pollution-heavy cars.

By Leonard MccombeLIFE Photo Collection

Nail varnish
In 1917, Cutex created the closest thing to modern liquid nail varnish, but it took a while for it to hit the mainstream. For the most part it was dismissed as a passing trend, with The New York Times declaring in 1927 that nail polish was a “London fad”. In Vogue, the mag was more concerned over the safety of the product: “There seems to be some doubt in the minds of a great many women as to whether nail polish is in any way harmful or, at least, not so good for the nails as the powder or paste polish.”

By Leonard MccombeLIFE Photo Collection

Eventually, better manufacturing processes were developed and nail polish became more than just a passing craze. Thanks to mass marketing and social media apps like Instagram, nail polish and nail art are a huge deal. In fact, it’s predicted the global nail polish market is expected to reach $15.55 billion by 2024.

Photograph of the actress Norma Shearer during sound recordings on the telegraphone at the MGM studio (1927) by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (gegr. 1924)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Talking pictures or "Talkies"
Sound films (a motion picture with synchronized sound) were first exhibited in public in 1900 in Paris. But it wasn’t until around 1920 where the first steps in the commercialization of sound cinema were taken, which looked to include synchronized dialogues. These were known as “talking pictures” or “talkies”, and at first they were exclusively shorts.

Cicago Drive - In Movie Theater (1951-07) by Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

As the silent film era was drawing to a close, many felt the talkies were a “box office gimmick”. Newspapers claimed that “talking doesn’t belong in pictures” and while many people felt sound effects could be a good addition, it was thought talking was overrated. In the end, like many inventions, the technology eventually caught up with the idea and as audio-recording technology improved, audiences adjusted, and the talkies proved to be more compelling.

Rain Coats (1941) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Umbrellas have a long history, going back thousands of years. For a while they were seen as a way to protect yourself from the sun rather than the rain, and more commonly known as parasols. These days the words are used fairly interchangeably. Despite the drizzly climate, Britain was slow to adopt the umbrella as a wet-weather staple. While the lightweight, waterproof version of the sun parasol had been gaining popularity in the rest of Europe, in the mid 1700s it seemed like Britain wasn’t quite ready for the contraption. So much so that when Jonas Hanway brought one back from a trip to France, insults and trash were hurled at him – luckily he had the umbrella.

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

So why was this? The umbrella still had gendered associations, being seen as something only women would carry on a hot day. Hanway was unjustly ridiculed by many people including a coach driver who, for some bizarre reason, was threatened by his device. It took until the end of the 18th century for the umbrella to come into vogue on the rainy streets of Britain.

CB w/ L, T and pickles (The cheeseburger, curly fries, plate, coke, with ice and straw) and EAT (2011/2012) by John MillerChrysler Museum of Art

It’s been reported that McDonalds sells more than 75 hamburgers every second, and while there’s no stats for cheeseburgers, it can’t be much less with every restaurant, takeaway, and gastro pub doing their own version of the meat and cheese classic. But it wasn’t always this way.

Lionel Sternberger is credited with inventing the cheeseburger in 1934, and it was initially regarded as a “crazy Californian novelty” rather than a culinary revelation. The New York Times first wrote about cheeseburgers in 1938 and thought it was an eccentric treat that while “gastronomically sound” just wouldn’t catch on. How wrong they were! Once places like McDonalds added them to their menus, they cemented themselves as part of the American palate and all over the world.

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