Four failed inventions that changed the world

A chocolate teapot. An ashtray on a motorbike. The underwater hair dryer. Some inventions are non-starters. Good ideas on the other hand, are a little harder to come by. But sometimes having a brilliant idea isn't enough.

Four failed inventions that changed the world

Just ask Douglas Engelbart. You've probably never heard of Douglas Engelbart, you're more likely to have heard of Steve Jobs, here's why.

In 1960 at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart, a student of electrical engineering, noted that the way people were interacting with their new computers was inefficient. A combination of chunky keyboards and clunky joysticks, Engelbart thought he could do better.

His solution to this was a device that controlled an on-screen cursor named the bug via two perpendicular wheels from afar, and it was a brilliant idea. In 1966, Nasa trialled Engelbart's invention and found it one of their more efficient pieces of technology.

Two years later, alongside his fellow inventor Bill English, Douglas showcased something called the mouse to a 1,000 strong San Francisco crowd in what became known within industry circles as… Engelbart and English had a smash hit on their hands.

Their mouse was the next big thing. Only, it wasn't.

Five years later, Engelbart lost his funding and many key members of his team, including Bill English, left Stanford to work for Xerox.

And in 1979 a man you may have heard of offered Xerox shares in his company in exchange for eyes on their research centre.

That man was Steve Jobs, the company was Apple and the research centre yielded the mouse.

Jobs loved the idea so much that, legend has it, he had a team of engineers immediately stop what they were working on in order to rebuild, streamline and ultimately relaunch the mouse as an Apple product.

The Stanford Research Institute owned the original patent, meaning Engelbart never saw any of the profit from future sales of these mice.

Engelbart's thinking was ahead of his time, but sometimes a good idea just needs someone like Jobs with the force of personality to see it through. Somebody with the ability to see beyond what's directly in front of them - those who can dream a little.

Take Stephanie Kwolek for example, here was a talented chemist with a passion for fabrics and textiles who through her research into synthetic fibres, discovered a solution stronger than steel but as light as fiberglass.

We call her invention Kevlar and today it appears in tyres, oven gloves, bulletproof vests, space suits and spacecrafts. But when Stephanie first developed this crystallised cloudy liquid colleagues refused

to spin it for her, fearing it would clog up their machines.

It was 1965 when Kwolek was dreaming up her super strength fibres. A decade  Heilig had dreamed of creating an immersive, sensorial experience for a cinema audience. And so in 1957, he created the Sensorama.

A 3D video machine that let audiences experience riding a motorbike via vibrating seats and wind machines or watch a belly dancer perform with cheap perfume pumped into the auditorium.

Heilig had grand ambitions and he pitched his Sensorama to Henry Ford as a revolutionary show tool. The future was there for the taking.

Only, it wasn’t.

Because nobody, including Ford, wanted to buy it. The Sensorama ended up beneath a tarpaulin in Heilig's back garden.

Morton was undeterred, three years after the first Sensorama, he patented the Telesphere Mask, a 3D video headset. Viewed from today, one can sketch

a direct path from Heilig's mask to the Oculus Rift and the virtual reality industry that is expected to be worth $170 billion by the year 2022.

Sadly though, Morton Heilig will not be a part of it. He died in 1997, before VR found an audience in its current form, no perfume required.

Heilig, like Engelbart before him, had the right idea at the wrong time.

Wilson Greatbatch on the other hand, was exactly where he needed to be and when. Wilson wanted to listen to and record the human heart. He failed spectacularly. When attempting to record the heart's electrical impulses Wilson chose the wrong size resistor.

Instead of recording his machine started to give out an electrical pulse of its own. Greatbatch was not listening to the heart, he was speaking to it.

Wilson Greatbatch had just accidently invented the pacemaker.

His mistake would save millions of lives over the next 60 years and continues to do so. After he'd tested it out on a couple of dogs. Suffice to say, it worked.

Greatbatch's company today still manufactures 90% of all pacemaker batteries made worldwide.

The man himself lived to a ripe old age, his heart never missing a beat in 92 years. As Henry Ford himself once mused, "failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."

Just a shame he never bought that Sensorama when he had the chance.