Five Innovations That Annihilated What Came Before

Technology is always changing, adapting and expanding. The way we receive, process and create information changes alongside this new technology. It is common practice for a new invention to build upon on the legacies of its predecessors. Often, two technologies — the inferior and the superior — can coexist alongside one another, complimenting each other’s strong points or supplementing each other’s weaker aspects.

Such is the case with rail and air travel, two forms of travel — seemingly mutually exclusive — that have found a way to exist in the same shared space. Air travel, with its shortened trip durations, has become the premier mode of travel for individuals and expedited shipping. Rail travel, on the other hand, has grown to fill the hole in the market created by the limitations of air transport. Focusing on bulk freight, modern trains transport large quantities of chemicals, ethanol, plastics and automobile parts, things that would be prohibitively expensive to ship by air.

On the other hand, some innovations move in and annihilate their less evolved predecessors.

Electronic mail has — perhaps rightfully — been accused of gutting the U.S. Postal Service. Each year, millions — perhaps billions — of messages that would have been sent through the USPS are instead sent through email. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, from 2007 to 2009, the volume of mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service dropped by a staggering 36%. In that same time period, the USPS lost nearly $12 billion, and these numbers continued to grow, culminating in a $16 billion loss in 2012 alone. These losses have led to a number of cuts in the personnel and services once provided by the USPS, from the discontinuation of Saturday deliveries to the elimination of 35% of its employees.

And so, from two companies who signed their own death pacts to a revolution of volunteers, we’ve compiled a list of five innovations that have utterly eradicated the technologies and inventions that preceded them.


5 Telephone > Telegraph

Alexander Graham Bell had just sent speech over a wire. It was 1876 and Bell’s invention — described and patented as “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically — came to be known as the telephone. Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, approached Western Union, the largest communications company in the world, with an offer to sell their invention for the paltry sum of $100,000.

William Orton, the president of Western Union — which was then known for its long-distance telegraph services — declined to purchase Bell’s patents on the grounds that telephone technology was only useful for local calls. Orton famously responded to Bell, saying, “after careful consideration of your invention, while it is a very interesting novelty, we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities.”

After Orton’s rejection, the telephone went on to become the most valuable patent in history. By 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones and by 1904, that number had exceeded three million. In January of 2006, due in large part to the commercial viability of the telephone, Western Union discontinued its telegraph services.

4 Netflix > Blockbuster


In 2000, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph, co-founders of a fledgling company called Netflix, took a trip to Dallas to meet with video rental giant Blockbuster. The pair aimed to pitch a collaborative effort between the two companies, according to Netflix’s former chief financial officer Barry McCarthy. McCarthy remembered Netflix, “had the chutzpah to propose to them that we run their brand online and that they run [our] brand in the stores and they just about laughed us out of their office. At least initially, they thought we were a very small niche business.”

It’s almost a case of historical déjà vu. A case of history repeating itself as Blockbuster executives channeled their inner Western Union. The business, blinded by its present successes, was unable to see the threat that was growing in its own front yard. When Blockbuster was given the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $50 million, it declined, and instead entered into a doomed 20-year video-on-demand deal with Enron Broadband Services.

In 2010, Blockbuster — uncertain of its ability to handle nearly $1 billion in debt — filed for bankruptcy. At the time, Netflix was estimated to be worth $13 billion, while Blockbuster clocked in at a paltry $24 million.

3 Wikipedia > Encyclopædia Britannica

Officially announced on January 15, 2001, Wikipedia added 8,000 articles by August of the same year, and nearly 20,000 by the end of the year. Originally founded as a way to feed articles into Nupedia — an online encyclopedia with content written by experts rather than volunteers — Wikipedia grew to dwarf its parent project in both size and scope.

The age of digital encyclopedias quickly cast a dark shadow across the face of traditional print encyclopedias. Encyclopædia Britannica, whose first printing occurred in 1768, quickly adapted, introducing both digital and online versions of its reference works. A key distinction, however, lies in the open submission, free nature of Wikipedia versus the for-profit, controlled submission model of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Concerns have been raised regarding the quality of articles written for Wikipedia in light of the fact that their content is user-generated rather than sourced from independent experts certified in their field. However, a 2005 investigation by Nature magazine revealed that Wikipedia articles and articles from Encyclopædia Britannica were close in their levels of accuracy. In 2012, Encyclopædia Britannica announced that it was transitioning to an all digital method of distribution.

2 Digital News > Printed News


The advent of online news sources has changed the way the public receives information. The near immediacy afforded by digital distribution completely revolutionized the meaning of “current events” and has fundamentally altered our expectations of news outlets. The modern reader can expect to be made aware of breaking news within moments of its occurrence, something that traditional print newspapers cannot match.

Of course, newspapers have weathered similar declines in popularity before. The introduction of the television in the 1950s marked a decline in newspaper sales, however, this situation can be differentiated from digital news in that television cannot emulate the portability of printed papers. With the creation of more powerful and less expensive tablet computers, digital newspapers can now offer the near immediacy of television coupled with the convenient portability of printed papers.

From 1990 to 2013, employment within traditional newspaper businesses fell from 455,700 to 225,100, while employment in digital publishing and broadcasting grew from 29,400 to 121,200.

1 Digital Photography > Chemical Photography

Developed in the 1820s, chemical photography has a long and storied history. From the earliest permanent photoetchings to the introduction of Polaroid instant film, chemical photography was an integral part of news reporting, advertising, packaging, artistic endeavors, and hundreds of other fields and hobbies.

When the first true digital camera, the Fuji DS-X, was produced and marketed, the story of chemical photography began winding towards its conclusion. In 1991, Kodak introduced the DCS 100, the first commercially available digital single lens camera. Though the DCS 100’s hefty price tag limited its use to photojournalism and professional photography, it heralded the beginning of commercial digital photography.

By 2004, Kodak — thankful that it didn’t pull a Blockbuster — announced that it would no longer be selling traditional film cameras in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. By the end of the next year, sales of digital cameras had surpassed sales of film cameras, with an estimated 22.7 million digital cameras sold in 2010.


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