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Forms of Transportation that Were Supposed to Change the World (But Didn’t…)

Written by Kevin Jennings

From the dawn of civilization, mankind’s survival was an uphill battle. We are not the strongest, the fastest, or the most agile. What humans lack in physical capabilities, we have always had to make up for in ingenuity. Through the use of tools and later machines, humanity has conquered the world as the dominant species, and we are always striving to be faster and more efficient, especially in our modes of transportation. From boats to bicycles, automobiles to airplanes, many technologies have truly changed the course of human history. Some of these technologies, however, have fallen quite a bit short of their creators’ expectations.

The Monowheel


              Bicycles are great, but are two wheels really necessary? The answer, it turns out, is yes, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. There is of course the unicycle, but that was never taken seriously a mode of transportation due to being unstable in all directions and incredibly difficult to learn to ride. The monowheel was different, as it was designed in the late 1800s as a way to ditch that pesky second wheel while still having a stable and reliable mode of transportation.

              Unlike a unicycle where the rider sits on a seat precariously balanced on top of a single wheel, the monowheel driver sits inside the wheel itself. There was the inner wheel where the driver sat, and the outer wheel. The inner wheel was intended to remain stationary under the weight of the driver, who would use either hand or foot pedals that were connected to the outer wheel to propel the contraption forward. The first models were patented in 1869, and had cool, old-timey names like the “Flying Yankee Velocipede”.

Unfortunately, the monowheel had a number of issues. Like a bicycle, it is stable in the direction a person is traveling, but not horizontally. This was problematic as the driver’s position inside the wheel meant they had limited visibility without leaning to the side. The monowheel was heavy enough that their lean wouldn’t necessarily cause it to topple over, but it decreased stability and could become uncomfortable quickly. Another major problem was steering. Without any additional wheels, changing direction was a difficult proposition that relied heavily on the driver leaning, which of course had potential stability issues.

All of that may have been forgiven, however, were it not for the monowheel’s other fatal design flaw. It was a little something the inventors referred to as “gerbilling”. If a driver were to accelerate or brake too quickly, the inner wheel that was only anchored by their weight would wind up spinning inside the outer wheel like a gerbil that stopped running on an exercise wheel. While that may be hilarious to spectators, it’s undoubtedly both dangerous and unpleasant for the driver.

Despite all these flaws, the fascination with monowheels has never gone away even if they never took off. In the 1930s, companies began making motorized monowheels with very limited commercial success. Over the decades they have been tried and tried again, but nothing ever sticks. There are companies manufacturing small numbers of monowheels, but none of the major issues have ever been solved. Stability, steering, and yes, even gerbilling are all still problems with modern day monowheels. Even if someone wanted one as a novelty, with an average price tag of $7,000 or more, it’s unlikely that you’ll be seeing any on the road near you anytime soon.

Amphibious Cars


              Have you ever wanted to drive down to the ocean for a quick cruise around the harbor but couldn’t be bothered to get out of your car? Then amphibious cars are the vehicle for you! 

The Volkswagen Schwimmwagen was first produced in 1941 for use in World War II, but they were designed exclusively for military use. It wasn’t until 1961 that Hans Trippel would launch his Amphicar for commercial use. The Amphicar was the most mass produced amphibious car available to the public, though there were only 3,878 total cars produced. Of those, just over 3,000 were imported to the United States where the extravagant vehicle was most popular.

The Amphicar was a stylish convertible, suitable both for driving on roads and in the water. It had immediate commercial success in the US, and President Johnson was a huge fan of pranking unsuspecting visitors to his Texas ranch by driving them in his convertible into the lake. It seemed like the truly all terrain vehicle was going to be the wave of the future, at least until flying cars gave consumers domain over not only land and sea, but air.

Despite the massive initial popularity, the fad would end before the 1960s would. Your first instinct might be that the car was doomed by being an overly expensive luxury vehicle, but at $2,800 (around $20,000 today) the Amphicar was a perfectly average priced automobile. What sealed the fate of amphibious cars was that the dream was much more appealing than the reality.

The Amphicar was functional as both a car and a boat, but its performance was pretty mediocre in both regards. It was fine, but contemporary cars and boats both drove better. It was also extremely high maintenance. Any time the car went into the water, there were 13 parts on the car that needed to be greased afterwards, one of which involved removing the back seat of the car. If it was driven in the ocean, it would need to be thoroughly cleaned to remove any remnants of the corrosive saltwater from the car.

After the initial popularity from the shock and awe of such a novel vehicle died down, marketing and consumer confusion became a bit of a concern as well. Was this a car or was it a boat? Neither consumers nor the marketing team could answer this question, nor who their target demographic should be. Even once people had the vehicles, taking an Amphicar for a spin on the water was not as easy as one might think. The car had to be driven directly into the water, but most bodies of water don’t have ramps or access roads leading directly to the shoreline.  

Though novelty was beginning to lose out to practicality, the ultimate defeat of the Amphicar came at the hands of the US Government. In 1968, the Department of Transportation enacted new emissions standards that the Amphicar did not meet, meaning the company was no longer able to sell their vehicles in the US. It is unlikely that amphibious cars were going to continue to see success as it was, but this sealed the deal. Of the nearly 4,000 Amphicars created, less than 400 are known to still exist.

Moving Walkways


              Before smartwatches made everyone obsessed with getting their 10,000 steps in every day, engineers and scientists had been trying to figure out how to help us walk less. The first patent for a moving walkway, often referred to at the time as “moving pavement” was submitted by inventory Alfred Speer in 1871.

              The original concept was for a tiered system of three elevated walkways. The first would be stationary, the second would travel at about 3 mph, and the third at about 6 mph. This general principle remained the same for the next hundred years of designs, though later engineers envisioned all three levels of the walkway moving. The idea was that by using multiple levels, a person would only ever increase or decrease their speed by a few miles per hour at a time, yet at the highest level could travel much faster than a taxi on a congested road. It was a practical implementation of Einstein’s theory of relativity decades before the scientist would even propose it.

Speer also envisioned parlor cars on the fastest level of the walkway every hundred feet or so, smoking cars for men and drawing rooms for women. None of the versions ever built included these cars, instead replacing them with benches.

Though originally planned to appear at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, the first moving walkway would not appear until the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was an interesting novelty, but it was unreliable and frequently broke down. At the 1900 Paris Exposition there was a much more reliable version built. Thomas Edison sent one of his producers to Paris to film the contraption, footage which is available on YouTube.

Over the years, designs were drawn up and proposed, but nothing was made outside of fairs and expositions. The world’s attention was pulled away from such luxuries as the result of two world wars and The Great Depression, but by the late 1940s companies were looking into the idea again. Goodyear was a firm believer that this was the way of the future and did their best to ensure a spot on the ground floor of this industry that would never come to be.

Despite all the hype surrounding the near hundred years of anticipation for these amazing future technology, the failings are pretty obvious. The first is that they are expensive. To restructure pedestrian areas in major cities would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, plus the cost of power and maintenance. Governments have no problem spending money on public works programs, but normally there needs to be some sort of tangible benefit.

That was the second big problem: the benefit was virtually non-existent. Despite how theoretically wonderful and efficient moving walkways are, the reality as seen in Edison’s 1900 footage is much different. The moving walkway isn’t any faster than walking. Studies have been done at modern airports where moving walkways do exist, and it was found to either be slower or only negligibly faster. While the theory is that people would walk at a normal pace, the reality is that people walk slower on a moving walkway to compensate, thus creating no benefit and sometimes even a detriment.

If the idea of spending a ton of money for barely any benefit wasn’t reason enough for these not to expand in usage, they are also dangerous. The first commercial moving walkway was installed at Love Field airport in Dallas, Texas in 1958. Less than two years later on January 1st, 1960, a two year old died on the walkway.

Though some attempts were made at higher speed moving walkways to counteract the lack of benefit, these were only found to result in even more injuries as a result. Despite considerable effort by some of the best inventors and engineers in the world as well as that of major corporations, it would appear that we’ll still all have to travel the city of the future using the power of our own two legs. Or perhaps with our next entry.

Codename: IT

              If you’re old enough to remember the late 1990s well, you probably remember the incredible marketing campaign. Inventor Dean Kamen had built a machine that was going to change the face of the world and modern transportation as we knew it. Kamen was already a successful businessman and inventor, so he should have known better than to make such bold claims. Perhaps it’s because he should have known better that the claims were given such attention.

              Advertised predominantly under the codename of “it” but also using the codename “ginger”, this revolutionary technology was going to change how cities were structured and transform everyone’s daily life for the better. A book was written about the launch of the new technology, and excerpts of the book were leaked before the launch featuring quotes from Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos praising how brilliant and revolutionary the new product was. Bezos was actually much more negative about the product overall, but out of context quotes were cherry picked to make it sound like a ringing endorsement.

              With such high profile endorsements and the project wrapped in total secrecy, the media was left to their own devices, and they hyped the invention, of which they had no more knowledge than the general public, to levels that it could never possibly live up to. Finally, on December 3, 2001, Kamen appeared on Good Morning America to unveil “it” to the public. So what was it? The fucking Segway.

              One look at the device was enough to instantly kill the enormous amount of hype that had been built up around it. The fabled “it” was a 100 pound motorized scooter with a $5,000 price tag, the cost of a decent used car at the time. Given the choice between a car and an awkward, bulky motorized scooter that provided no protection from the elements, could only travel 12.5 mph, and made you look fat and lazy was no choice at all for the average American. That last part may sound harsh, but American pedestrians were rather unilaterally vocal towards Segway riders about how lazy they were.

              The idea that infrastructure and city design was going to change for these devices is fairly laughable by today’s standards, but also is something that could have been anticipated. The average city council is still in the middle of a 30 year debate over whether or not to add a bike lane to major roads, and bicycles have been around for over 200 years. It would be a long time before any city was ready to make changes to accommodate the Segway. And until then, where were you even supposed to ride a Segway, on the sidewalk or in the street?

              The Segway was also heavily promoted for its gyroscopic technology and as being self-balancing. While Kamen and Segway may have never made the specific claims themselves, it was widely believed that the Segway was supposed to be impossible to fall off. So when high profile individuals such as Piers Morgan (who broke 3 ribs) or President George W. Bush fell off the device, it was going to cause some damage to what little good will the company had left.

Segway tour at Washington DC https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Segway_tour_DC_02_2010_9177.JPG

              They expected to sell 50,000-100,000 Segways within the first 13 months. In double that time they only sold 6,000. If there had been any hope that the product was just ahead of its time and perhaps still had a chance to become the next big thing, that died with the company’s owner Jimi Heselden in 2010 when he did his impersonation of the company’s bottom line and drove his Segway off a cliff.

              There are of course still Segways and other motorized scooters out there, they just haven’t replaced people’s cars as was predicted. They have a variety of niche uses such as for mall security guards and tour groups. They’ve even been put to great use by police departments for officers who would otherwise be patrolling on foot. Not only does it allow the officer to cover more distance in less time, it has psychological benefits as well. Innocent bystanders can be made to feel wary or uncomfortable by a police presence, but it’s impossible to take anyone seriously when they’re on a Segway.

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