7 Failed Products (That Are Commonly Used Today)

  • Sometimes you have to make a detour to Failure Valley to reach success.

Have you heard about the battery-powered whackadoodler that failed horribly? Of course it did — who would ever need a battery-powered whackadoodler?

Now, excuse me, let me use my time machine to hop 60 years into the future. What’s this? Everyone has a battery-powered whackadoodler!

This is a tale as old as time. Many of the most mundane products we use today were at first utter failures and laughingstocks, especially in the tech sector.

Here are seven products that were simply too far ahead of their time.

7. Umbrellas

Rain on umbrella

You might find it strange that anyone would make fun of an umbrella. But when it arrived in Europe from Persia in the 18th century, nobody took it seriously.

Take, for instance, Jonas Hanway, the first known man to walk the streets of London with an umbrella in the 1750s. People laughed and jeered at him, and even threw trash and animal waste on him.

People at the time thought an umbrella looked way too much like the ladies’ parasols for any respectable man to use them. It took more than 50 years before umbrellas became common.

And Mr. Hanway’s case happened in England out of all places. You’d really think a country where it rains 90% of the time would be more open to the idea of an umbrella.

6. Bubble Wrap

In 1957, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes ran two shower curtains through a heat-sealing machine, creating a sheet of plastic with air bubbles trapped in it. What could the two men use this new invention for?

Of course! They had in their hands a new type of wallpaper!

We probably don’t need to tell you that this venture quickly went down the drain. And you can’t really blame people for lacking enthusiasm for it — come on, bubble wrap-covered walls?

Fielding and Chavannes went through 400 more product concepts before they heard that IBM had started using their plastic sheet as wrapping. Sometimes, it’s really hard to find the obvious answers.

5. Video Calls

Long before Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype, there was AT&T Picturephone. And, boy, did that thing suck.

Introduced in 1964, the Picturephone was a neat concept. The time just wasn’t ripe for it yet.

The thing cost a fortune, it had atrocious picture and sound quality, and it was big and clunky with a tiny screen. But the worst part of it was that no one simply wanted it — in the pre-internet age, the Picturephone added absolutely nothing to the convenience of a regular phone call.

It would take until the early 2000s that modern webcams brought video calling to the mainstream. We’re sure that had some by-then-retired AT&T engineers fuming.

4. Flushing Toilets

Some might think of flushing toilets as a modern luxury, but they’re way, way older. The Minoan civilization already used above-head tanks to flush poop down into their immaculate sewers in 1800 BCE.

The Romans, too, were big about flowing water carrying away their waste. But after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the toilets just… Disappeared.

They didn’t completely vanish, but it took centuries before flushing toilets came back into the mainstream with the onset of the industrial revolution. You really have to wonder why.

Fun fact, many of the technologies that make modern toilets work were developed in the 1880s by the Englishman Thomas Crapper. Talk about an appropriate name.

3. Smartphones

Photo: Mike Mozart, Flickr

Apple brought smartphones to the modern age with the iPhone, but the concept was already old by the time Steve Jobs introduced his wonder device. The first true modern smartphone was Simon, made by the bubble-wrappers at IBM.

Launched in 1994, Simon had most of the features of today’s smartphones. It had a touch screen, could run third-party applications, and was able to send e-mails, faxes, and more.

So why was it discontinued in only six months? Much like with the AT&T Picturephone, the technology just wasn’t quite there yet.

The touch screen was unresponsive and had poor resolution, the phone was big and expensive, and its battery died in an hour. It was just so much easier to do everything Simon did with a different, dedicated device.

2. Electric Cars

Electric cars are getting more and more common, but Tesla didn’t invent them. That honor goes to Gustave Trouvé, who built the first electric vehicle in 1880 using a new invention — the rechargeable battery.

Over the next couple of decades, many other inventors developed their own electric cars. They were actually the fastest vehicles on the planet at the time, reaching speeds above 60 mph.

Yet, the internal combustion engine soon overtook electric motors by virtue of being cheaper and more reliable. Funnily enough, the electric starter motor for gas-powered cars was the final nail in electric cars’ coffin.

We’ve now pried that coffin wide open. Wonder if Elon would ever admit that Tesla is basically grave robbing?

1. Personal Computers

I’m writing this list on a personal computer and there’s a fairly high chance that you’re reading it on one — or one of it’s offshoots like a tablet or the modern smartphone. But back in the ‘60s, few people believed things could be this way.

Although there were more primitive machines before it, Xerox Alto was the first computer with a mouse, and graphical user interface resembling a desktop. Yet, it wasn’t a success because come on — who would want to use a “mouse?”

Well, Apple sure did, and Xerox paved the way for the Macintosh. But even Apple, Microsoft, and many other current huge tech companies had to answer one difficult question in the ‘60s and ‘70s when trying to woo investors to put money into their personal computers.

That question was, “What the hell would a regular person ever use a computer for?”