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An Edsel By Any Other Name Is Still a Failed Invention

"I have not failed. I have merely found 10,000 ways that won't work."
-- Thomas Edison

By Paul Niemann

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[April 10, 2008]  We all know who created some of the more well-known inventions: Bell and the telephone, Edison and the incandescent light bulb, Ben Franklin and the discovery of electricity. Some inventors, such as Mark Twain, had their inventions overshadowed by their "other" careers.

There's also Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press, Ruth Handler and her line of Barbie dolls, Samuel Morse and his telegraph, Wilbur and Orville Wright and their flying machine, and so on.

Three of the above inventors are connected with at least one failed invention -- one that was sent back to the old drawing board, where it stayed. See if you can match the following clunkers with the correct inventors mentioned above: Edison, Franklin and Twain.

Talking movies and electric vote counters

Harry Warner, president of Warner Studios, once denounced the idea of movies that had sound by saying, "Who the (heck) wants to watch movies with sound?" We take this for granted now, but the earliest movies had no sound. One very successful inventor tried -- and failed -- to combine movies with sound. He also created an electric vote counter that failed. Actually, the electric vote counter worked just fine, but no one wanted to use it. Who was this inventor who had multiple failures?

Thomas Edison. Yup, even the greatest inventor of all time had a few failures along the way. The vote counter was a turning point in Edison's career, though, as it caused him to decide to "only invent things that will sell." He received 1,093 patents in his career, which is more than any other inventor in history.

The "Rittenhouse" stove

The original inventor of this cast-iron stove figured that if it could be placed in the middle of a room it would produce more heat than a fireplace could. Unfortunately, he designed it so the smoke would come out from the bottom. Since smoke rises, this made it impossible for his stove to work.

By the late 1780s, inventor David Rittenhouse had successfully improved the original version of this stove, so he named it after himself. Even though he succeeded, it was his predecessor whose name is on the stove -- Ben Franklin, inventor of the Franklin stove.

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The Paige typesetter

Who invented the Paige typesetter? Who was buried in Grant's tomb?

The Paige typesetter was a very complex invention, one whose patent application was the longest in history at the time. James Paige is the machine's inventor, but this portion of the story is about a successful inventor who invested his own money in the invention. In fact, he invested in a number of losing inventions, causing him to personally turn down the opportunity to invest in the most valuable patent in history -- Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. Who was this inventor-investor?

None other than Mark Twain. There were a couple of reasons for the failure of the complex typesetting invention, which was in demand by most of the leading newspapers and publishing houses at the time. First, the patent took more than eight years to issue, as one of the examiners died while the case was pending, another patent examiner died insane, and the original patent attorney died in an insane asylum; and second, James Paige refused to give up enough of his ownership rights to the necessary investors when it was ready to hit the market.

So if you ever find yourself looking at certain failure squarely in the face with your own electric vote counter, Franklin stove or Paige typesetter, you're in pretty good company!


Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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