A brief history of failure.

Irresistible article by Ryan Bradley on The New York Times Magazine of 12 Nov 2014 (thanks to Cynthia K. Fioretti for highlighting it) on a gallery of 19 technologies we lost. Good ideas never disappear forever; the Stirling engine didn’t pan out in the Industrial Revolution, for example, but it can keep the lights on for a small village. Here is my selection of the most interesting five of them (here is the complete article).

Pneumatic rail

2015_02_27-01 pneumatic railThe pneumatic railway began as a 150-foot-long tube, built by John Vallance on the grounds of his home in Brighton, England, using atmospheric pressure to carry a passenger car at 2 m.p.h. In 1844, London and Croydon Railway built a 7.5-mile pneumatic rail line. A trial run the following year achieved a top speed of 70 m.p.h. A pneumatic tube was underneath the car, between the rails. It closed in 1847, unable to connect to more traditional rails. The idea was revived a few decades later by Alfred Ely Beach, the editor and co-owner of Scientific American, who built a 294-foot line in Manhattan shown here. Rides cost a quarter, and ticket sales brought in $2,805 the first two weeks. But corrupt politicians, a stock-market crash and the construction of the cheaper elevated lines foiled Beach’s dreams.

Stirling engine

2015_02_27-02 stirling engineIn 1816, the same year that he became a minister in the Church of Scotland, Robert Stirling patented the Heat Economiser, which could take heat from anything — a fire, say, or the palm of your hand — and turn it into dynamic energy through the use of two pistons. Stirling and his brother, James, spent decades improving the engine before it was able to power a whole iron foundry in Dundee. But steam, which was an inefficient and dangerous power source when Stirling started, had improved and would provide the power and scale to drive the Industrial Revolution. Stirling’s idea would be confined to use as a backup generator (like the Philips model, shown here) for a century or so until Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, brought the Stirling back as the basis of his Beacon generator, a 1,500-pound, washing-machine-size system that can be tied to solar panels or natural gas to power a small business, a rural village or, in his case, a very large eco-friendly home.

Direct current

2015_02_27-03 direct currentEdison lost. People forget that. Yes, he had stray dogs, cats and a circus elephant electrocuted using alternating current, to demonstrate its dangers and promote his own direct current. But it didn’t matter. Alternating current could send out a large voltage from a single power plant on small wires across great distances and, with the help of transformers, be converted to higher or lower levels of voltage for homes and businesses. Direct current couldn’t travel like AC; it suffered significant power losses over long distances. AC, which G.E. adapted in 1892, largely triumphed. But today, with the rise of smaller, alternative-energy sources (solar especially), a distributed DC-based grid could again challenge AC.

Personal helicopter

2015_02_27-05 personal helicopterThe aerocycle was intended for beginners. It was supposed to be possible to steer it simply by shifting your weight, as on a surfboard, riding a wave of air, a few feet above two contra-rotating propellers. A de Lackner aerocycle, shown here, was favored by the United States military and took test flights out of the Brooklyn Army Terminal in the 1950s. But the blades would wobble, then crash together. Close to the ground, they would kick up all manner of dust and rocks. The core idea, however, of an easy-to-operate, low-flying aircraft held the military’s interest for decades, and it eventually brought us to the drone age.

The time machine

2015_02_27-04 time machineGordon Earl Adams was a London-based engineer, scientist and seeker. In the late 1920s, he built a machine with dozens of flywheels, some perhaps weighing several tons and looking as if they could spin so fast that they would set off powerful electrical charges into the atmosphere. His goal was to control time and space. Adams worked for years in his basement in Shepherd’s Bush and died in 1933, at 68, his machine lost to history. Eight decades later, notes from his project (shown here), along with photographs, were unearthed, highlighting its technical wizardry and spectacle. It was deemed conceptual art far ahead of its time.

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