They say necessity is the mother of invention, but sometimes technology just doesn’t line up and make everything practical. Some ideas that are common in the present were thought up in a bygone era that just wasn’t ready for such innovation. It just goes to show a good idea is a good idea, it just needs to wait for its time to shine.
It’s hard to look at some ideas that came before their time without acknowledging the Baghdad battery. If nothing else, the Baghdad battery deserves a spot for being a power source invented in a time before anything actually ran on power. The science was there, and it’s a remarkable feat of early innovation that had almost no practical purpose at all.
These days it’s presumed that they used the ancient battery in the process of electroplating. Two dissimilar metals in a corrosive medium will allow electrons to transfer from one metal to the other. This galvanic corrosion will happen to your boat just by sitting in sea water, but if you make your own in a clay vessel, you create a galvanic cell that can be used for electroplating metals.
The fact there aren’t any surviving examples of electroplated metals from the time means the idea doesn’t hold a ton of water. They could have used it to just give people a buzz. The copper and iron rods inside would have generated a mild current when something acidic was included, and we may never know the true purpose. But it was the basic idea behind a modern battery, and we did not invent those until around 1800. The Baghdad battery dates back to around 2,000 years ago.
9. Vending Machines
In 1857, a vending machine that sold stamps was installed in Britain and later it was followed by a larger one that sold postcards. Today, they’re most popular for buying snacks and drinks but you can also buy pizza, cars, and a new hairdo among hundreds of other things. The sheer variety of products available shows just what a great idea the vending machine is. So maybe it’s no wonder that the 1857 machine was not the first one at all, just the first modern one.
Famous inventor Hero of Alexandria, who innovated so many ideas it could and has filled books, came up with the idea for the first coin-operated machine in the first century AD. The machine was a large urn that dispensed holy water when you put the coin in.
Hero is mostly remembered today for using steam power to get most of his machines working, which itself was a major ahead of its time innovation, but the novelty of a vending machine deserves special mention since, as a part of modern capitalist society, it’s become so widespread and diverse.
8. Flushing Toilets
You never truly appreciate a flushing toilet until you don’t have one. Cleaning an outhouse or a chamber pot is a task most of us never have to do but if you ever have, then you appreciate that plumbing may be the best thing humans have ever created. So the idea of a flush toilet is certainly an innovation worthy of praise, and it can be traced back well before the modern era.
Ancient Romans would have used communal bath houses with toilets that were essentially holes high above a sewer that could have been flushed clean with running water. Close to a flush toilet, but not quite the same.
If you want the first true flush toilet, you need to investigate the Palace of Knossos on the isle of Crete. The palace dates back to 1700 to 1300 BC. Water was poured into the toilet and it flushed it away and out of the palace. Likely this would have been an opulent affair for the palace elite.
The more modern flush toilet, fairly close to what we understand as a toilet today, didn’t show up until 1596, which is quite a gap in flush technology.
7. Flying Cars
When people make jokes about the future, they tend to refer to a couple of very specific things. Robot servants, jet packs, and flying cars. This is all likely related to The Jetsons, which established an idea of the future back in the 1960s. The show was meant to take place in 2062 and showed off a far futuristic ideal which included those flying cars everyone grew up wanting. Over the years many people have wondered, if we have the technology to make cars and airplanes, why don’t we have flying cars?
The truth is, flying cars were invented ages ago. Early versions on paper date back to the 1800s but a real, functional version was rolled out in 1966, just after The Jetsons was on TV. Prototypes of the Aero-Car proved it could drive and fly, and they produced several.
Several companies in the modern era have also manufactured functional flying cars but there are a handful of problems. Any vehicle in the sky needs to meet FAA regulations if it wants to fly in American skies. Other countries have similar laws governing what aircraft can fly and where. In the end, it also boils down to safety concerns. People crash cars all the time in two dimensions. Giving them a third dimension would be highly dangerous. Until the concerns of safety can be overcome, likely by automated flight controls and flight paths that the flying cars can’t deviate from, this idea is still ahead of its time.
6. Da Vinci’s Robot
Robots have been a part of our world for a while but when we think of robots, we need to clarify what we mean. There are two distinct kinds of robots in the world. The very utilitarian ones that may just be an arm with some actuators that can lift or turn or even weld things in factories. And then there are Terminator robots. Those are what everyone is looking forward to. Maybe not the human genocide part, but the humanoid robot part. A thinking machine that looks like us and acts like us but is made by us. They pop up in fiction all the time and have fascinated mankind for centuries, as witnessed by Da Vinci’s mechanical knight.
Da Vinci was a man who came up with a lot of ideas on paper. He never made his mechanical knight, so it likely was not that impressive beyond being a curiosity for many years. But in the early 2000s, using the plans left behind by Da Vinci, they brought his knight to life. And it worked extremely well. It wasn’t chasing Neo with squid arms or wind sprinting after John Connor, but it was a functional machine proving that, even back in Da Vinci’s era, the idea of a robot was viable and very much ahead of its time.
5. Zhang Heng’s Seismograph
For most of us, the science behind detecting earthquakes isn’t very interesting until the moment one strikes where you’re standing. Otherwise, it seems like niche science that is nice to know someone is working on, but not worth thinking about. But Zhang Heng was a man who knew how to make science pretty stylish.
Modern seismography relies on electromagnetism to measure movements in the Earth and determine where an earthquake is occurring. Instruments are able to detect shifting tectonic plates and volcanic activity and sometimes predict when an earthquake is brewing before it happens. But back in 132 AD there was no such technology. Luckily, Chinese mathematician and geographer Zhang Heng was creative.
His ancient seismograph was a massive bronze pot or vase, with a six-foot diameter. He decorated the sides with bronze dragons located at compass points, and each dragon held a small marble or sphere of some kind in its jaws. If an earthquake were to hit, the dragon closest to the direction of the disturbance would drop the ball into the mouth of a bronze toad beneath.
As weird as it sounds, the device was remarkably accurate. When it was remade by researchers in 2005, it proved to be about as accurate as modern seismographs.
4. Electric Cars
Automobiles have been everywhere for over a century now and the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed every minute of it. But from the very beginning, the idea that a car didn’t have to run on a combustion engine was present. The modern innovation of electric cars is not really an innovation at all, just a return to the better ideas of the past.
It was 1897 when the first battery powered automobile was revealed, the Columbia Motor Carriage. It was not quite as snazzy as a modern day Tesla by any means, especially with a top speed of 15 miles per hour. On the other hand, the Model T didn’t come out until 10 years later and it only had a top speed of 45 miles per hour. So there was always the potential for more and better power.
The big issue with the early electric cars was that the battery had to be replaced and not recharged, which obviously limited viability. However, if the technology had been pursued with more seriousness, then perhaps the issue of battery size, cost, and recharging could have been addressed decades sooner than it was. We’ll never know now, but with the electric car boom that’s currently happening, it’s interesting to consider what could have been.
3. Virtual Boy
Virtual reality has been on a long, hard road to somewhere. The gaming industry has been confident, at least on some level, that this was the future of gaming since sometime in the early 1990s. The baffling movie The Lawnmower Man used this as a central plot point and as underwhelming as that movie was, it presented the idea that a virtual world could be world changing. Prior to that, Star Trek: The Next Generation had been using Holodecks as an immersive, virtual reality world that even dignified folk like Jean-Luc Picard could get lost in.
In the real world, the technology was slow to catch up with expectations. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from 1995 tried to make virtual reality a thing and change the face of gaming. Remember,this was back at a time when the first PlayStation had just been released and most people were still rocking a Super Nintendo.
The Virtual Boy wasn’t technically virtual reality, so maybe that’s why it bombed very, very badly. It was more of an uncomfortable 3D game interface that had poor graphics and a limited selection of games. But at least their heart was in the right place.
The next viable VR gaming headset, the Oculus Rift, wouldn’t be commercially released until 2016. That’s a huge gap, especially in terms of gaming where next gen consoles can be released in a matter of a couple of years.
In 2021, there are VR gaming businesses where you can go, strap on a headset, and explore dozens of games. But they’re still pretty niche and while the industry is growing, traditional gaming is still much bigger. Is VR’s time coming? Maybe someday. But for now it’s still plagued with problems that ruin the user experience, from motion sickness to the fact that you need a whole space set up to use it and that it makes some people feel foolish and uncomfortable. But when the day does come, remember that Virtual Boy set the stage.
2. Automatic Doors
The automatic door is a ubiquitous and mostly ignored aspect of modern life. You go to Wal Mart, you expect the doors to open. You only ever notice them when they don’t work properly. But obviously there was a time when this was a novelty, a miracle of modern science, right?
The first installed modern automatic door dates back to 1960, six years after a pair of inventors developed the idea. But our good friends in Ancient Greece liked convenience too so you can go back to the first century to find automatic doors in practical use in Alexandria.
The big difference between modern automatic doors and Ancient Greek automatic doors is that convenience clearly means something different to us. Nowadays when you walk up to a door a motion sensor identifies you moving towards it and opens the doors before you arrive. If all goes as planned, you don’t need to slow your stride. The doors in Alexandria took hours to open, so essentially they were meant to open once to start the day and that was it.
The system was a very rudimentary hydraulic design. A brass pot of water was heated and other pots would fill with liquid, weighting them down. They were attached to a pulley system and that would in turn open the doors. It probably would have been much easier and faster just to have someone push them open, but the novelty of doors that opened on their own was probably very delightful to everyone when they saw it the first time.
1. Tesla’s Wireless System
There’s a reason the internet loves Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk’s car company is named after the man. Eccentric though he may have been, Tesla had genius, world-changing ideas. One of the most amazing things he came up with was his wireless system which was well ahead of its time and has proven to be the cornerstone of modern communication.
Arguably the biggest downfall to Tesla’s idea was the transmission of wireless power. In practical terms, people did not consider what he was suggesting reasonable at all. But there are those who are confident that 5G technology is the foundation for the implementation of wireless power transmission.
Modern devices can be charged wirelessly on things like charging pads and we don’t really think of that as unusual or spooky sci-fi at all. The ability of a 5G network to transfer power has already been proven over short distances, so the possibility of scaling up to Tesla’s dreams may not be that far-fetched. But even now it’s a scientific puzzle that needs to be worked out to make it more viable over greater distances. That said, the fact that it went from the pipe dreams of everyone’s favorite not-so-mad scientist to a functional reality is impressive.