From electric cars to bubble wrap: inventions that the world did not immediately appreciate

    02 Aug 2021

    Sometimes innovations require aging, like expensive wines. Let’s get to know what the most prominent inventions had to wait so long, thanks to the excellent review by Chas News.

    Alexander Bell, the inventor of the telephone, believed in his creation. He thought that the day would come when such a device would appear in every major city in the United States. Bell clearly underestimated his invention. But with innovations, it often happens that they are more promising than they seem at first glance. It’s just that sometimes it takes time to unleash their potential. We remember a few inventions born a long time ago but began to conquer decades and even centuries later.

    Electric cars

    Today, the line of every reputable automaker has an electric car. Some companies are even preparing to convert the entire model line to electricity. The technology, which ten years ago seemed exotic, has become mainstream. But the car industry has experienced something similar in the distant past.

    The first electric car appeared in the 30s of the XIX century. It was developed by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson. Of course, it was not Tesla, but rather an electric carriage, the batteries of which could not even be charged. But it appeared about half a century before Karl Benz developed the legendary Benz Patent-Motorwagen – the first car with an internal combustion engine (ICE).

    Despite the fact that electric cars had a solid advantage, they began to spread en masse at about the same time as their gasoline “colleagues.” And buyers liked it more. Unlike petrol cars, electric cars did not make noise, did not emit unpleasant emissions, and these cars did not need to be started using the clockwork handle.

    Consumers met such cars with particular enthusiasm in the United States. In 1912, 38% of cars in the United States ran on electric traction and only 22% on gasoline (another 40% were steam engines). On the other side of the Atlantic, electric cars were also in demand, though not as noticeable.

    However, soon the cars with internal combustion engines began to make up for a lost time. Their manufacturers offered customers a greater range of the car, and the invention and use of the starter eliminated the need for drivers to turn the handles to start the engine. In addition, gas stations began to appear everywhere in the United States, where you could quickly and inexpensively “feed” your iron horse. So electric cars have gradually left the scene, and only now, in the XXI century, are returning to it.

    The old problem with low power reserve disappears. Modern electric cars can cover 500 km or more – enough for both urban and long-distance travel. More and more electric models are appearing in the lines of car manufacturers. And sales of such machines are growing: according to the analytical agency IHS Markit, in 2020, they sold around the world with a circulation of 2.5 million copies. In 2021, growth is expected at 70%.

    Hydrogen energy

    In 1927, German engineer Franz Lavachek approached the US Patent Office with an idea. According to him, power plants did not work very efficiently at that time – they produced more electricity than needed. The bench was found helpful to use for these surpluses.

    He suggested directing them to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. That is electrolysis. The oxygen we breathe would be just a by-product, and the excess energy would be stored in hydrogen. Gas could be stored and stored or transported and then used as fuel where and when needed.

    It is possible that Lavachek would have gone down in history as the father of hydrogen energy if a dark spot had not appeared on his biography. A few years after filing his patent application, he joined the Nazi ranks and helped create the engineering and technical department. The label of a Nazi scientist is not the best recommendation, even if it hides a bright idea. Lavachek’s name has been lost for decades, but his plan has not.

    Today, the world has mentioned this idea again because it can be a great addition to renewable energy. How? Consider the example of Denmark. Almost half of the electricity there is generated by wind farms. There are days when the element gives even more energy than the country needs. At such times, the Danes share it with their neighbors and could store it in the future in hydrogen to use it, for example, as environmentally friendly fuel for cars or in the chemical industry.

    So far, the technology proposed by Lavachek is just beginning to spread in the world, but it has excellent prospects. According to European Commission experts, by the middle of the century, hydrogen produced from renewable sources will be able to meet up to 24% of global electricity demand. A promising future for a concept born in the distant past.

    Solar panels

    And let’s check another technology that will pollute our planet less. It was “born” long before the world began to think about nature conservation. The basis of the innovation was laid by the French physicist Edmond Becquerel. In 1839, he discovered the photovoltaic effect – the emergence of voltage or electric current in the matter under the influence of light.

    This work inspired inventors from around the world, and among them was the American Charles Fritts. Decades after Becquerel’s discovery, he built a solar panel of selenium covered with a fragile, almost transparent, layer of gold. In 1883, he installed this structure on the roof of a house in New York, where he lived and worked.

    Fritts believed that his device had a great future and even sent a copy to Werner von Siemens, a German engineer, founder of Siemens, and authoritative inventor. Siemens was impressed by the technology, and he urged the scientific community to do its research.

    But no matter how interesting the idea seemed to experts, it had a significant drawback. Fritts’ panels converted only 1% of sunlight into electricity. For comparison, modern devices have an efficiency 20 times higher, and recently scientists from Oxford PV (a division of Oxford University) reached 29%. In addition, by the time Fritts built his device, the world was already beginning to operate coal-fired power plants – the first in 1882 was opened in London by the famous Thomas Edison.

    The invention could not compete with them, so it did not come in the first time, but it was mentioned again in the middle of the XX century. Solar panels began to be installed on satellites, and today they are increasingly used to generate electricity, as Fritts wanted. According to analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, by the middle of the century, 56% of the world’s electricity will be generated by solar and wind power.


    Not only “green” technology was ignored by contemporaries, but then won the descendants’ minds and hearts. Computers also suffered from inattention. More precisely, the kind of machines that had become the prototype of computers. They were invented in the XIX century by the British mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.

    One day in 1821, he helped his friend, the astronomer John Herschel, check the calculation plates. From time to time, friends found mistakes there. At one point, Babbage couldn’t stand it and exclaimed, “God, how I wish steam engines did these calculations!”

    He soon moved from words to deeds. Babbage called his first project a difference machine. It was intended for calculations in tables, and work on it took the inventor about ten years. However, he could not build it. First, the state treasury funded the project, and the crown’s servants decided it was too expensive. Second, Babbage quarreled with Joseph Clement, an engineer who assembled the machine. So the inventor had to stop working.

    But he came up with a new idea. Babbage wanted to build an even more cunning device, which he called an analytical machine. Unlike its predecessor, it could work not only with tables, but its arithmetic capabilities would go beyond the addition operation. Unfortunately, this idea also remained unrealized due to funding problems. Babbage tried to persuade the British government to invest in innovation but failed.

    The inventor was aware of the potential of his ideas. In the 1860s, he suggested that people would realize that they could not do without the tools he had invented in half a century. He was a little mistaken with the terms, but finally, he was right. It is probably superfluous to talk about the role of computers in the life of a modern person.

    Bubble wrap

    But why are we so serious while collecting our stories? The invention must not hide the potential for world change to go from ignorance to recognition. Take at least at bubble wrap. Yes, the favorite anti-stress toy of millions of people also did not immediately find its way to their hearts.

    However, this is not surprising. The inventors of the film with air bubbles, Alfred Fielding and Mark Shavann, undertook its creation in 1957, wanted to make fashionable wallpaper. It is difficult to imagine who would like to decorate their home with such a thing, so the idea failed shamefully.

    But the inventors did not despair. They continued to look for new applications for bubble wrap and published as many as 400 ideas. And only one shot was successful. In 1959, IBM released the 1401 computer and looked for a safe way to deliver delicate equipment. Bubble wrap has become an ideal solution. Other companies soon noticed it, and consumers saw it not only as packaging material but also as a fun way to calm the nerves.

    Anyway, remember about proper disposal and recycling of bubble wrap – Ecolife.You may read about “endangered” technologies that will soon disappear here.

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