Recently, Time released its list of the 50 worst inventions of all-time, a dumping ground for well-meant ideas — however pathetic —that never really hit the ground running. In fact, many of them simply hit the ground, and from a long way up. Time’s list ranges from the macabre (Agent Orange), to the annoying (Facebook’s Farmville game), to the nostalgia-inducing (Olestra and Microsoft Word’s Clippy).
We can be certain that none of these inventions are the absolute worst mankind has ever offered up, as they at least had enough legs to survive through mass production. Any of the ideas that dash through my head on any given day could all qualify for this list, probably with more credentials than all the Segways and subprime mortgages out there.
Many manufacturers search for the sort of worldwide, ubiquitous success that a select few brands treasure: the food companies, multi-national electronics conglomerates, the automakers. You know, all those iPods and Ford Fiestas and everything made by Kraft. But I’d wager just as many smaller manufacturers out there are simply hoping to never make a product that will reach Time’s next edition of the 50 worst inventions. It makes me glad that some of my crazy ideas, like a motorized cheese grater, aren’t being brought to market. Oh, wait, someone already invented that.
But rest assured, it’s going to be awfully difficult to beat out the likes of those abdominal-strengthening belts that more or less shock you into submission.
It’s interesting to see how some of these products are used fairly commonly, despite being held in such disregard. Take tanning beds, for example. For some Wisconsinites, or at least people immigrating from the much-sunnier coasts, tanning beds are a must. And when it comes to reducing the nationwide occurrence of skin cancer, the only thing that hurts us more are nice summer days at the beach. Or in Wisconsin’s case, the tourist-trap-masquerading-as-water-park. Let’s not even talk about how ridiculous it looks to be tanned during the deep northern winters.
Or Crocs. Does any one seriously like wearing those things?
Or my favorite: the Pet Spa. It’s pretty self-explanatory, which is why I’ll just include this video for your viewing pleasure:
If your desire is to torture your pets, look no farther. It’s a great way to detach yourself from responsibility as a pet owner while getting your kicks at their expense.
But people always say that the next invention to take the world by storm will be something so entirely revolutionary and unheard of we’ll all be absolutely flabbergasted. That’s simply untrue. Think about all the innovations that we’re tracking right now. Take electric cars—not a single aspect of a Tesla or Chevy Volt is revolutionary, particularly insightful, or innovative—especially when one considers that electric cars have been around for more than a century.
The problem with the “50 worst” inventions is that their ideas are too insightful, in that they generally create a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist in the first place. Case in point: the Segway. We already have a plethora of ways to transport ourselves from one place to another. A car, a bike, the bus. Our feet. Hop on a skateboard if you’re 14, or some rollerskates if you’re 45 and very comfortable with how strangers perceive you. Although Dean Kamen is a visionary in a number of other fields, it’s no surprise the world revolted against his product, when he created a problem no one experiences and then threw a $5,000 price tag on it.
Likewise, the world simply was not ready for “Baby Cages.”
It could be argued that any technology we enjoy using, and actually consider a good invention, is simply a rehashing of existing technology. Take one circuit board from there, drop in a LCD display from this other thing, and maybe some buttons, and you’ve got yourself a brand-new iPhone 4, which is going to “change the way we communicate, forever.” Right. Or put some laptop batteries on wheels and you’re “revolutionizing” the automotive market with an electric car.
As manufacturers, it’s not always your role to make the Baby Cages and Segways of the world. Too many companies have drowned in mockery because they became too ambitious. Leave the impossibly big dreams and impossible solutions to the manic mad scientists types. In many cases, all you need is to take what already works, find its flaws, and make it better.
Speaking of which, here’s Clippy himself.
“It looks like you’re writing an editorial. Would you like some help with that?”
Yes, Clippy. Yes, I would.
Should we stick to fixing the flaws in what already works pretty well, or is there an obligation to really think outside the box? Do you disagree that good innovation is just rehashing old ideas? And are some of these “worst inventions” getting a bad rap? Shoot me your innovative ideas at Joel.Hans@advantagemedia.com.