6 Products That Were Ahead of Their Time
Not even early adopters were ready for the initial versions of these products.
1. The Hybrid Car
In 1900, a young Ferdinand Porsche used both a battery-powered wheel hub drive and a petrol gas engine to create a hybrid 100 years before you started feeling guilty for not buying a Prius. The Lohner-Porsche Hybrid could reach speeds of 22 mph, and go 124 miles on a single charge/tank. Not bad for 1.7 tons of turn-of-the-century innovation.
2. Picture phones
If there is one thing all retro future predictions had in common, it was picture phones—and in the mid-'60s, it seemed like they might actually become a reality. Western Electric spent years researching and testing the Western Electric Picturephone®. They brought it to the World’s Fair in 1964 to see what people thought of the prototype. They hated it. Undaunted, Western Electric continued to develop the Picturephone and put it on the market in 1970. Everyone still hated it; it was big and ugly and offered little advantage over telephones.
3. The VCR
There was a flurry of confusing and unsuccessful attempts at a home video recorder in the early 1960s, and among them was the 1963 Telcan (television in a can!). The Telcan was connected to your television in a manner I can’t possibly understand, and could record 20 minutes of grainy television (40 if you switched the reels at the end). It cost a reasonable-ish £60 (around $3000 in today’s money), but came in a kit you had to assemble yourself. It was put on the market in 1963 to a completely dumbfounded public, appealing only to wealthy tech nerds. By 1964 the company that made Telcan was liquidated, and only two Telcans are believed to exist today.
4. Edison Talking Doll
This creepy little darling, made in 1877, wasn’t just the first talking doll. She also contained the first phonograph intended for home use. The child would wind the handle of the phonograph inside the doll’s body, causing the needle to cross over a wax record of a nursery rhyme. It cost the equivalent of two weeks' salary, and was entirely too fragile for children. The steel needle wore out the wax quickly, and of the 500 dolls sold, most were returned for a refund. In fact, they were only marketed for a month before production ceased. As for Edison’s own opinion: “The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear."
5. Washing Machine
Some historians say that the invention of the washing machine was the greatest thing in history to further women’s rights. They aren’t being funny; laundry was an all-consuming torture before the washing machine. Women had to scrub every sheet, napkin, diaper, and dirt-caked pair of work pants in the house, on a washboard, in endless cauldrons of boiled water, with lye soap that burned their hands raw, before moving on to the hoisting, hanging, drying, and ironing. The first washing machine to use a drum and agitator (like we use today) was invented by William Blackstone in 1874 as a gift for his wife. Other inventors had tried variants, but Blackstone’s hand cranked design would be the model for all to come after. Long after. It would take about 50 years for the machines to become properly electronic (in a way that didn’t cause constant outages and shocks from the water) and thus a household staple.
6. Microwave oven
The first microwave ovens, produced in the mid-1940s, were intended for restaurant use—which was the only viable option because they were six feet tall, weighed 750 pounds, and cost $5000. But they allowed restaurants to keep food in the refrigerator until it was ordered, increasing freshness and decreasing waste. The Radarange, intended for home use, came out in 1947. It was still the size of refrigerator, but more reasonably priced at $3000. Microwave ovens remained unpopular for nearly 30 years, as people associated them with radiation and horrible cooking. By 1975, microwaves had had a few years to shrink both in size and cost, and to prove they didn’t cause brain tumors. That was the year they outsold traditional ovens.