THE TV – I’ll switch channels from the Rockets, who are in overtime, to another channel to see the last football game this season. “It was the long bomb! Hail Mary!” Missed it. I go back to the Rockets. “What a fantastic three-pointer! The end of the game of the century!” I need a split screen so I can watch two shows at once. My father-in-law had a TV that could show four programs simultaneously – four small boxes – so that the viewer could flip around to see what was happening and when, but that system didn’t seem to catch on, and was abandoned. Oh well, it was one of those good ideas that didn’t work out.
History is filled with such failures. A few years ago a company was pushing a household vacuum system. Your house was wired with pipe, or piped like wire, so that each room had a small hole in a wall that, when activated, sucked air. You simply walked into a room with a vacuum hose, plugged one end into the outlet, or inlet, and proceded to vacuum up the aardvark hairs. It never caught on. A vacuum guy told me, “Don’t buy it. Too much trouble.” Besides, who wants to tear up a house to run pipes through it?
Pet rocks were all the rage until owners discovered they had to walk them twice a day – and the rocks left unvacuumed little pebbles all over the floor. I have a new stainless steel refrigerator which is wonderful, but magnets won’t stick to it. What’s the point of having a new FrostBite fridge if you can’t stick grandchildrens’ pictures on them, or notes reminding you not to buy an aardvark? One time a company came up with a telephone with a small TV screen so you could see who you were talking to. But nobody wanted to be seen talking on the phone, and the idea died. There was TeleFood. You called a store and ordered your groceries and they were delivered right to your door. A good idea ahead of its time. The company went broke here, but is still active in Karachi, honest. The rest of the world uses the metric system, but not us. A miss is as good as a meter? I’d walk a million kilometers for one of your smiles, my mammy? We never embraced the meter.
It’s not just small stuff that went to the dumpster too early. Ford wanted a new model sedan to compete with GM and Chrysler. Executives hired the brightest minds to develop the car, but it needed a catchy name. Thousands of titles were floated until the executives decided to name the car after Henry Ford’s only “recognized” (I love that designation) child, Edsel. Production lasted only two years and just 116,000 were produced. Ford lost $350 million, or the equivalent of $2.3 billion in today’s dollars, on the venture.
Big companies should know better, as I was telling Coca-Cola. In one of the monumental flops in business history, with great fanfare, New Coke — the unofficial name for the reformed Coca-Cola – was introduced in April 1985 to replace the original formula of Coca-Cola. Production of the original Coke ended later that week. New Coke lasted for only 77 days before Coca-Cola Classic was brought back. So great was the return of the original drink that ABC News’ Peter Jennings interrupted “General Hospital” with the news. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, David Pryor called the reintroduction “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.” Conspirators whispered that the company intentionally changed the formula, hoping consumers would be upset, and demand the original formula to return, which in turn would cause sales to spike. Coke President David Keough later said, “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.”
Then there was that next step in flying: the Concorde, the first (and last) supersonic passenger airplane. Twenty were built, and 14 flew commercially between 1976 and 2003. Concorde shuttled passengers from New York to London in three-and-a-half hours or less, traveling at Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. The plane was operated by both British Airways and Air France. I got to fly on a Concorde from Washington, D.C., to Paris. The interior was relatively small, two seats on each side of the aisle, all first class, great food and drink. I visited the pilot in the cockpit and asked him if, flying so high, was there anything else up there that he needed to watch for. “Yes. Satellites.” But the Concorde was expensive to operate so tickets were costly – around $12,000 (in those dollars) for a round-trip ticket. They got lousy fuel mileage, were so loud that they caused sonic booms, thus couldn’t fly over residential areas. The final blow came in France, when a chartered Concorde hit a piece of debris left on the runway, puncturing a tire and a fuel tank, killing 113 people. But it was a good idea.
Some ideas are ancient, but no one has come up with anything better, especially when eliminating varmints. My flyswatter looks and works very much like the one my grandmother used. There are several fancy roach killers on the market that electrocute, smother or bore them to death with C-SPAN, but a good pointy-toed boot still works best in kitchen corners.
Today there are many versions of mousetraps: “Humane, high — voltage shock kills mouse in seconds.” “Kills 100 mice per set of batteries.” But the Victor snap-trap, originally patented by William C. Hooker in 1894, is still turned out by the tens of millions in the same factory in Lititz, Penn., now under the brand name Victor. Early TV sets received signals from a gizmo on the roof, then we went to cable, now TVs can receive signals from a gizmo on the roof. That is a re-run. You use shoestrings?
So did cavemen in the late Neolithic Age periods.
Ashby invents at email@example.com