The world in the 1900s was a very different one to the world in the 1800s. This was largely due to the rapid growth of technology that built the foundation for the world we live in today. However, with many new things in tech, there are many failures as well. Here is our list of Victorian inventions that were great ideas but the vital technology needed wasn’t around.
Talking doll – Thomas Edison
Speaking dolls have been around for a long time. However, the first of these was a huge failure. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and by 1890 it was small enough to fit inside a small doll. The appeal was there and it was a no brainer that the dolls would be a big sell. The downside is they didn’t factor in how children play and the mini phonographs inside the dolls broke easily leading the dolls to only be available in store for 1 month.
Atmospheric railway – I K Brunel
Brunel spent much of the 1840’s building the Great Western Railway which is still used today, albeit electrified. When building the railway, part of it went through hilly terrain and Brunel thought of trying a new way to move trains – an atmospheric railway. There were no locomotives. Instead, stationary steam engines created a vacuum in pipes laid between the tracks. The vacuum then pulled the trains. The system worked, pulling the rolling stock along at about 20 miles per hour, but there was a fatal flaw.The pipes needed a flexible seal. The only suitable material available at the time was leather, and the only way of keeping the leather flexible was regularly coating it in tallow (animal fat). If you are a rat, a tasty bit of leather dipped in fat is a wonderful meal. The local rats soon got into the habit of gnawing their way through the leather seals and bringing the trains to a halt. After less than a year, Brunel had to admit defeat and revert to conventional locomotives.
Indoor Ice Rink – John Gamgee
In 1876 the world’s first indoor ice rink opened in London. It was just 11.3 meters by 7.3 meters but it worked similarly to today’s rinks. A refrigerating machine outside the rink cooled down a liquid that flowed through a network of pipes across the floor of the rink. The surface was then flooded with a thin layer of water, and the cold pipes froze the water, creating a solid sheet of hard, smooth ice. 3 more rinks were built but they were just too expensive to run and failed commercially. It was the end of the 1800’s that public rinks actually appeared and turned a profit.
Vacuum cleaner – Hubert Booth
In 1901, booth watched a demonstration for a cleaning machine that worked by blowing dust. He was certain that sucking the dust up worked better. Booth designed a horse-drawn machine powered by an internal combustion engine. London householders booked his services, and Booth’s vacuum cleaner came to their street. With the machine parked outside, hoses were passed through the windows, and the rooms cleaned by suction. For several years the business was very successful, then in 1907 William Hoover bought a patent for an “Electric Suction Sweeper” and the rest is history.
Great Eastern – I K Brunel
Brunel was an innovative genius and by 1958 he had already built 2 steamships, the Great Western and Britain. This is when he came up with the idea of a massive vessel that could travel from the UK to India. The ship worked but was costly and could never take the total 4000 members that it needed to turn a profit. Finally, in 1864 it was sold for a quarter of it’s worth and was used to lay the first telegraph cables. Over the next 14 years she finally showed her worth by laying over 48 000 kilometres of cables.
Antiperspirant – John Gamgee
In the 1870’s, Gamgee spent time looking for a new disinfectant and came up with a substance he called “Chloralum”. Unfortunately, this didn’t take off and only breweries used it to disinfect their barrels. If he had lived at a later time, when body odor was more of a concern to the general population, John Gamgee may well have become a very rich man. His patent for Chloralum has been cited by the multi-national company Unilever in patents relating to “antiperspirant compositions and method for reducing perspiration” with one of the patents being granted as recently as 2015.
Panama Canal – Ferdinand De Lesseps
Ferdinand had successfully supervised the building of the Suez Canal which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. After this he turned his attention to Central American to create a canal between the 2 oceans. As with the Suez Canal, he wanted to keep the new canal at sea level, this meant he needed to blast through a 300-foot hill of solid rock. Anything that could go wrong went wrong with the project could, work was slow, thousands died from illness and money ran out. In 1904, the USA took over the project, and work restarted, using much more advanced excavation equipment. The canal finally opened in 1914, 24 years after de Lesseps had started work.
Telephone Recording Machine – Edison/Bell
The idea of “all calls are recorded for monitoring purposes” goes back about 140 years. In 1881 the Philadelphia Local Telegraph company linked up a telephone to one of Edison’s phonographs. The idea was to record telephone conversations for business disputes. The device was a prototype and Edison believed that it was up to the mechanics to market it. They didn’t, and it was only in the 1940’s that we saw voicemails and telephone recordings become a reality.
Airship – Jules Henri Giffard
Hot air balloons were the way of air travel in the 1850s. Unfortunately, there was no way to control them and you just went, literally, where the wind blew. In 1852, Giffard built a lightweight steam engine. Lightweight for that time at about 400 pounds with water. This could still be carried by a hydrogen balloon. On September 24, 1852, Giffard took off from Paris and flew 17 miles. During the flight, he managed to steer his airship in circles, making this the first ever powered and controlled flight. Unfortunately, the steam engine couldn’t take him back but he started the idea of controlling airships.
Computer – Charles Babbage
If they needed to use mathematical calculations in the 19th century, many professionals were involved. Any calculation was done by hand and copied by hand, which allowed for fatal consequences. Charles Babbage came up with the idea of a mathematical calculating machine called the Difference Machine. The original, funded by the British Government, weighed in at 4 tonnes. In 1833 Babbage had a fall out with a colleague and the machine was melted down. He began working on a bigger machine and designed an Analytical engine. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the world’s first computer programmer, worked on this with Babbage.
The mechanical complexity of the designs and Babbage’s often cantankerous personality meant that the Analytical Engine and the Difference Engine 2 were never built at the time. However, two working replicas of Difference Engine 2 now exist, one in London and one in California.