Written by Kevin Jennings
Previously on this website we looked at ancient innovations that were well ahead of their time. From automatic doors to flushing toilets, the creativity and ingenuity of ancient peoples knew no bounds. Today we’re going to be stepping a bit forward in time past the ancient world to look at even more inventions that were still well ahead of their time.
Anyone who has walked outside with an unzipped jacket on a particularly windy day can tell you that the idea of a parachute seems pretty simple and intuitive. Indeed, the first evidence of someone attempting to use a parachute dates back to 852 in Spain, but the attempt was extremely unsuccessful. It wasn’t until Leonardo Da Vinci circa 1485 that we find the first sketch of the modern day parachute. There was at least one other drawing of a similar style parachute from the 1470s, but that design was flawed to the point of meaning certain death, so we’ll give Da Vinci the credit on this one. The first modern parachute wouldn’t be used until 300 years later in France.
What made this invention so ahead of its time, other than the 300 year gap between Da Vinci’s sketch and the parachute’s actual invention, is that it was solving a problem that didn’t even exist yet. There were no airplanes or helicopters. The first hot air balloon wouldn’t even be invented until 300 years later, probably not so coincidentally the same year as the parachute. Even if Da Vinci built his parachute successfully, what purpose would it even serve as there was no means of air travel?
Humans have always dreamed of flying, but this was not an aircraft or glider. It was a device with the sole purpose of allowing someone to fall straight down without injury. Theoretically it could be used to quickly travel from the top of the cliff to the bottom, but presumably the jumper would need to return home so they would now have to carry the massive parachute all the way back up.
Of course, Da Vinci also drew designs for a helicopter, so perhaps he was solving a problem he thought was going to exist soon. While his helicopter design was far too heavy and would not have worked, the same cannot be said for his parachute. Despite skepticism from experts, a phrase you never want to hear when testing a parachute, daredevil Adrian Nicholas constructed Da Vinci’s parachute and tested it in 2000. Not only did it work, be he claimed it was a smoother ride than traditional parachutes.
While Leonardo Da Vinci’s work inspired this idea, French scientist Rene Descartes is the one to first create a pair of at least slightly functional contact lenses. Da Vinci had speculated that submerging a person’s head in a bowl of water would alter their vision. This isn’t exactly incorrect, but it’s not very helpful, either. Rather than focusing on creating a wearable fish tank for the vision impaired, Da Vinci scaled down his idea to just a glass tube with a funnel to insert water, but this was still impractical and unwieldy.
In 1636, inspired by Da Vinci’s ideas, Descartes took the idea one step further. He proposed a small glass lens filled with water placed in direct contact with the cornea. This direct contact makes them the first official contact lenses, over 250 years before the invention of modern contact lenses.
So did Descartes lenses work? Well, sort of. The glass used wasn’t designed to improve vision, so the only thing altering the wearer’s vision was the water itself. They helped a little bit, but they also created a problem: the glass was too thick for the wearer of these lenses to blink. Despite Descartes brilliant idea of lenses applied directly to the cornea to improve vision, the technology he needed just wasn’t there yet.
In order to efficiently cut and mold glass thin enough to make functional contact lenses Descartes would have needed to wait until advances in the glass industry that didn’t take place until the 1880s. Even then, while glass contact lenses were effective, they were too uncomfortable to gain widespread popularity. It wasn’t until the invention of synthetic plastics that contact lenses became comfortable enough for people to actually wear.
In 1936, exactly 300 years after Descartes shoved lenses so big the wearer couldn’t blink into someone’s eyes, the first plastic contact lenses were manufactured. Within a year, thousands of people would have adopted the technology to replace their glasses.
While the previous entries were ahead of their time by centuries, with the rate technology advances it’s important to remember the difference that just a few years can make. Such is the case with Audio Highway’s portable digital music player, the Listen Up. The idea came from CEO Nathan Schulhof who wanted the MP3 player to replace the popular Walkman and Discman portable devices. The device was first announced in 1996. It won the Innovation Award at the 1997 Consumer Electronics Show and the People’s Choice Award at the 1998 Internet Showcase Conference.
If you haven’t noticed yet, there was one obvious problem with the Listen Up. If you told someone in 1996 that you had a brand new portable MP3 player, they would have stared at you blankly and asked “What’s an MP3?” While the MP3 coding format was created in December of 1991, no one actually knew what it was yet. Napster wasn’t created until 1999. Even for the OGs of music piracy, Scour Media Agent didn’t exist until December of 1997. Schulhof had just invented a device that everyone would want, they just didn’t know it yet.
Just how good was the world’s first MP3 player, you ask? Well, we’ll never really know. It is estimated that, at most, only 25 total units of the Listen Up were ever produced. In addition to MP3s not being familiar technology yet, there were a few other problems that held the product back from success, despite critical acclaim.
The Listen Up could only hold 60 minutes of music. That’s not great, but at the same time it was about the length of a CD or cassette anyway so that shouldn’t have been a dealbreaker. The retail price was also $299. Again not great, but while cheap portable CD players were only $100 in 1996, top of the line players were upwards of $250 so it’s only a little bit of a stretch, and it would avoid skipping! So far things aren’t looking incredible, but not enough to justify only 25 units ever being made.
The key factors came from how the music was put onto the MP3 player. Obviously it would have to be connected to a computer, but the music was to be downloaded from the Audiowiz store, created by Audio Highway to facilitate use of the player. It was essentially iTunes before iTunes. That’s incredibly forward thinking, but the store didn’t have any music people wanted. Oh, and your enjoyment of the track list you curated would also be interrupted with 30 second advertisements.
The iPod would launch only five years later, and of course be a massive commercial success, as was the iTunes store. With the exception of using the device the consumer paid for to interrupt the music they also paid for with advertisements, it really seems like Schulhof’s ideas were almost entirely right. It’s amazing what a few years difference makes. Had he only waited a few more years, larger harddrives would have been available to store more songs, he could have gotten more licensing deals for the Audiowiz store, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would have shutdown Napster. Instead, Schulhof will have to console himself with the fact that he got to sell his company and patents to Sony.
Charles Babbage, a British mathematician, inventor, engineer, and philosopher had a simple dream. He was sitting in his room at the Analytical Society, a club he and his friends had founded, checking over a table of logarithmic functions produced by the French government. He was annoyed by how riddled with mistakes the table was, and his dream was for the calculations to be done and printed by an infallible machine. Not at all a lofty goal for 1812.
Babbage set to work on his design, and by 1821 it was ready for construction. The first computer, named the Difference Engine, was going to require 25,000 individual parts and weigh approximately 8,000 pounds. Eleven years later, Babbage would receive one seventh of the part of the machine that performed calculations. A year later, that would be all that remained of the world’s first computer. In 1833, work ceased on the project over a disagreement regarding compensation, and 12,000 of the computer components were melted down for scrap.
The entire ordeal was funded by the British government, who were none too happy about the colossal failure. The uncompleted project had cost them as much as 21 brand new steam locomotives. Considering the project was nowhere near completed at the time it ended, it does beg the question of just how many trains a computer would have been worth in the 1830s.
With the Difference Engine project stalled out, Babbage set to work designing something new. Something essentially incomprehensible. It was later named the Analytical Engine. While the Differential Engine was designed specifically to calculate polynomials, the Analytical Engine was to be a general purpose, programmable computation machine. Essentially, a giant mechanical calculator that could perform any complex function. Babbage spent years on this design, but he never attempted to build it. The engines were powered by a crank, and the Difference Engine would have been able to be cranked by hand, but the Analytical Engine would have been so large and heavy it could only be cranked by steam powered machines.
His newer engine may have been far too ambitious, but he learned a lot from it. From 1847-1849, Babbage set forth designed a new machine, the cleverly named Difference Engine No. 2. This updated design utilized a lot of the techniques he had developed while designing the Analytical Engine. His design was pared down from an unwieldy 25,000 different parts to only 8,000. Despite being able to eliminate much of the complexity and over two thirds of the moving parts, the new design was going to weigh approximately 10,000 pounds, 2,000 pounds greater than the more complex design. For reasons unknown, Babbage never attempted to build this final engine either.
Babbage was 100 years ahead of his time with the first programmable computer not being developed until 1938. So why did he fail? Babbage was independently wealthy, had high social standing, had the backing and funding of the British government, and had access to the best engineers available. With so much time and money invested, how could Babbage never see one of his engines built to completion? There are a myriad of small contributing factors, but ultimately the failure all comes down to a single reason: Charles Babbage was kind of a douchebag whose brilliance was matched only by his ability to alienate people.
It’s a shame too, because his design worked perfectly. In 2002, construction on the Difference Engine No. 2 was completed by a private party who then lent it to the Computer History Museum. The 10,000 pound machine of brass, iron, and steel can be programmed with a polynomial function and will calculate it with total accuracy to 31 places, then both print out a copy of the answer on paper with ink so the user can see the result as well as imprinting the answer into plaster to be used as a printing plate for tables. It’s a remarkable feat of mathematics and engineering, and it begs the question of what the world would have looked like had construction completed 153 years prior when it was first designed.
For as long as reality has existed, humans have sought a way to escape it. Be it plays, movies, music, or any other form of entertainment, escapism has been a central driving force in our motivation to seek out these activities. As a result, few things have been more appealing since the explosion of digital technology than the dream of leaving reality, even if momentarily, to enter an alternate, virtual reality. Enter the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
Except, not really. The virtual reality users were actually being offered was a red, monochromatic nightmare. The wearable headpiece cost $180 at release, roughly the same price as a Super Nintendo system, but the experience fell fall short not only of what was advertised, but of basic expectations of video games at the time. The price would have been a bargain for a better experience, but the system was riddled with problems.
One of the first things people noticed in demos was that moving your head didn’t do anything while using the Virtual Boy. A wearable piece of technology that covers your vision and is billed as virtual reality has a basic expectation that, should you look around, what you are seeing will change. All the user would see was poor quality graphics, similar to a Tiger handheld electronic game of the time. The gameplay experience offered was nothing different than a normal video game, either. The user still had to use a game controller, meaning that the only change this offered from normal gaming was that the screen was taped to your face for no apparent benefit.
Not only was there no apparent benefit, there was very apparent detriment. Reviewers and consumers alike complained that the uncomfortable headset combined with the monochromatic display resulted in dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Several prominent scientists stated that there could be more serious long-term effects, and some industry professionals speculated that extended use could result in permanent brain damage. That is extraordinarily farfetched and really just baseless speculation, but it’s still not the sort of publicity a company wants.
Flash forward to modern day, and the Oculus Quest 2 has sold over 10 million units, and it’s not even the only VR headset on the market. Nintendo has long had a history of innovation and trying new things while other companies stick to a formula, but unfortunately in this instance their ambition had far outpaced the technology available. To their credit, while it was a product ahead of its time, Nintendo has ever tried to spin the Virtual Boy as anything other than what it was: a complete a total failure.