For those with highly creative minds (or just too much time on their hands), it can be fun to come up with wild hypothetical inventions – that is, inventions that never actually get made. People often have conversations based around the “Imagine if…” premise. Whether adult or child, we humans like to come up with new ideas, sometimes for real-world application but sometimes just because we can. After all, it feels good to use your imagination in dreaming up a concept before anyone else.
The Federation Captain in Star Trek VI says, “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily mean we must do that thing.” This quote, reminiscent of other warnings by historic figures, has often proved wise. Ever since the invention of the wheel, man made objects have come and gone; some that have changed the way we live irreversibly, and others that never should have been conceived of at all. ‘New’ Coke, for instance, was very short-lived, calling to mind another apt proverb: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Of a list of the 50 worst inventions in the world, compiled by TIME Magazine, we’ve chosen a top ten of real doozies, and have researched these madcap inventions for your reading enjoyment, amusement and – likely – bewilderment. Some are just plain silly; others were dangerous, and should never have come to fruition. Some will make you smile and others will make you shake your head in wonder. While reading, try and maintain enough faith in the progress of the human race to believe that no one will ever try to trump these ten worst inventions since the industrial age.
10. Hair in a Can
New Yorker Ron Popeil was an inventor and television marketing personality who invented the successful Chop-O-Matic. One of Popeil’s worst inventions, although unbelievably still on the market today, was GLH-9, colloquially referred to as “hair in a can.” GLH-9 is short for “Great Looking Hair: Formula #9,” and was first launched in the 1990s, when it could be seen frequently on late-night infomercials. You can still catch some of these ads lurking in the darker corners of YouTube, showing a colored powder that supposedly sticks to the fine hair follicles on a person’s head when shot out of a can at high speed. Major complaints were that the color came off on everything.
Crinoline originally was the name for a stiff fabric made from horsehair and cotton. By the mid-1850s it had become synonymous with an apparatus fashioned much like a cage and worn beneath women’s skirts, to expand or balloon the fabric out as was the fashion at the time. At its zenith the crinoline could be six-feet wide, making getting through doorways and into carriages quite difficult. Because of the size of the frames worn under women’s garments, the metal used had to be quite light. This created the additional problem of an early “Marilyn Monroe” effect, where a gust of wind could raise a woman’s skirts above her waist. Sitting also became a delicate and potentially hazardous task.
For those who do not want their hand to accidentally come into contact with their “output” when wiping after going to the toilet, this plastic extension arm was devised to do it for you! The end you held was a normal handle, and the other end contained a gripper into which you would insert the toilet paper. When one was finished wiping, a button allowed the release of the used paper into the waiting water below. The company to originally design and test market the item in 2009 discontinued it before even making it onto the market or securing a single sale, but due to applications with the obese or infirm (or the hyper modest), versions of this hygiene wand are still available online today.
Hans Laube of Switzerland invented this infamous flop, used only once in movie history with the 1960 film, Scent of Mystery. Before Laube, others had toyed with the idea of releasing scents into a movie theater at key times in the film to elicit responses from the viewer. The system, however, was extremely cost-prohibitive, costing the equivalent of up to $8 million today to outfit a single theater. Moreover, it didn’t work as hoped. Viewers complained that some scents met their noses after the related action had already been completed on screen. Other times, a hint of a scent would barely reach viewers so that they were trying to inhale more deeply to catch it, and it was a distraction. Although this idea did not take off for widespread use, there are applications today where smells are released in particular venues and rides at Disney World.
If you’re old enough to remember this annoying, animated Microsoft Word mascot who bounded onto your computer screen in the late 90s to oh-so-peppily offer unasked for (and usually unwanted) advice, you may already be scrolling to the next item on our list. Poor, paper-clip-shaped Clippy meant well but, like the friend of a friend who comes uninvited to a party, this little guy was simply too eager to be your best pal. And unlike the friend of a friend at the party, this one couldn’t go get you a beer. Clippy made obvious observations like: “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” then asked if you needed help, even though the fact that you’d begun without him should have been an indication you did not need it. One wonders if his creators had the same over-eager complex.
5. Olestra – ‘Fat Free’ Chips
Also from the late 90s like Clippy, Olestra was an ingredient instrumental in ‘fat free’ chips that would have been best left on the drawing board. Olestra was a fat substitute that claimed to have been constructed in such a way that the fat links would virtually slip right through your body and be eliminated without being at all absorbed. These claims were actually 100 percent accurate; the only problem was, while they were sliding through, these artificial fat chains took a whole lot of other things with them, such as important vitamins and minerals. Olestra caused cramping and diarrhea and is now banned in most of Europe and in Canada. Further research has found Olestra to have petrochemical applications; it is now used as a base for deck stains and as industrial lubricant for power tools and machinery. Delicious.
4. Mizar Flying Car
As if the Ford Pinto on its own were not enough of a hazard (the Pinto, in fact, was on TIME’s list of 50 Worst Inventions due to safety issues with that car), someone decided to make it fly! On September 11, 1973, Harold Blake, president of Advanced Vehicle Engineers, was killed along with the pilot he hired to operate what had been literally called, “The Flying Pinto.” Blake, who was both president and vice president of A.V.E., had been part of a project to design a car that would fly. The cost of the project was $2 million, a hefty sum in those days. The project aimed to attach a 300-horsepower aircraft engine and the wings of a Cessna Skymaster to the car, which retained its own engine for driving on road; clearly, that’s where it should have stayed.
3. Pay Toilets
In the early 1970s America hosted tens of thousands of coin-operated pay toilets. If you had a fifty dollar bill but no coins, as Ira Gessel observed, you had no relief. In a society where urinating in public is an offense that can get you arrested, Gessel felt it necessary to rid the nation of pay toilets once and for all. The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA) was founded and was largely successful, with Chicago being the first city to put an end to them. The country was mostly free of these contraptions for two and a half decades. In 2001 two new pay toilets were installed in midtown, New York, where many were happy to have the option. When your time is up, however, your pants better be, too, because the locked doors automatically slide open.
2. Agent Orange
A toxic chemical originally referred to as Herbicide Orange (HO), this was invented by the U.S. Department of Defense as a defoliant to clear Vietnam’s forests for better visibility from the air. The herbicide, manufactured by Monsanto and DOW, was as bad for people was it was for trees. According to records, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians were killed or maimed by the chemical, which literally burned. 150,000 birth defects were thought to be attributable to Agent Orange in Vietnam, as well as an extremely high incidence of miscarriage among humans and livestock. Back home, U.S. army veterans exhibited high rates of cancer, respiratory, nerve, skin and digestive disorders attributed to Agent Orange, but their government only granted 486 of 39,419 claims.
1. Baby Cage
In 1922 a patent was recorded in Washington by a woman named Emma Read for a literal cage meant to hold an infant (one per cage), which could be placed outside windows in high-rises and apartment buildings in general. The cage was designed “to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed…A great many difficulties rise in properly housing babies…in crowded cities…from the health viewpoint.” Mothers and nannies could then have unhampered floor space for cleaning and walking about, while baby got fresh air, multiple stories up. These cages were distributed to members of the Chelsea Baby Club in London, England, which seems to have been one of the few places where they were actually used.