Low-level Bureaucrats Prevented Britain from Getting the Tank (Before WWI)

Over 10 million soldiers died in WWI, many because of outdated tactics. In 1912, an Australian, Lancelot de Mole, invented the tank and submitted it to the Munitions Inventions Department, but it was rejected three times.

First, they wouldn’t consider looking at it without a working model. He tried to get a working model, but an official on the local inventions board didn’t wouldn’t fund it because he didn’t get the idea, saying “it might fall in a hole,” leaving him with nowhere to go. He sent it again in 1915, but they failed to pass it on to the group currently working on a new tank.

After the war, the British government admitted it was better than what they came up with and apologized, lied that the plans had just gotten lost, and awarded him an honorary rank by way of thanks.

Image by Anonymous photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times archives, May 10, 1950.


Perhaps it was all too complicated for the British War Office as they returned some of his sketches in 1913 with a letter rejecting his idea and the comment that they were no longer experimenting with chain rails… [NOTE: chain rails <> tank]
In any case, the British authorities failed to pass on his design to the Landship committee. One can only speculate why the plans were not made available to the people who were working on the tank. It’s possible the Munitions Inventions Office knew nothing of the Landship Committee because of great secrecy that surrounded what they were doing or perhaps there was some form of inter-departmental rivalry. […]
The official in charge could not understand the plans. The idea was rejected with the weak excuse that there might be a hole and the vehicle might fall in it.
http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/DeMole/designnotpassedon.htm [Includes image & model]


[…] the commissioners considered he was entitled to the greatest credit for having made and reduced to practical shape as far back as 1912, a brilliant invention which anticipated, and in some respects, surpassed that which was actually put into use in the year 1916. The commissioners went on to say that it was the claimant’s misfortune and not his fault that his invention was in advance of its time and failed to be appreciated and was put aside because the occasion for its use had not yet arisen [in 1912].
Google Books


De Mole’s plans were not merely received and then pigeonholed. They were, on the contrary, examined, and deliberately rejected at least three times – once before the war and twice during the war, or, to be exact, in 1913, 1916, and 1918.

Air Conditioning AND Refrigeration Were Killed by Big Icebox

Florida physician John Gorrie invented a machine in the 1840s that could create ice, which he used to cool down his office to comfort fever patients. It was simultaneously the invention of refrigeration and air conditioning, two of the most important underrated inventions in history.

He patented it in 1851… and immediately crashed and burned. He couldn’t get funding because he went head-to-head with the powerful ice lobby, which smeared him and his company until they both died. It took slow progress and a whole other way of refrigerating for the idea to recover over the next 70 years.

Image By Ebyabe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But the notion that humans could create ice bordered on blasphemy. In the New York Globe, one writer complained of a “crank” down in Florida “that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.”
Having found both funding—from a Boston investor who remains unknown—and a manufacturing company willing to produce the contraption, Gorrie became the first person to create a commercially available refrigeration machine. But he quickly fell on hard times.
In 1851, the year Gorrie received a U.S. patent on his ice machine, his chief financial backer died. With his invention being ridiculed regularly in the press, his other investors fell by the wayside. Gorrie suspected that Frederic Tudor had spearheaded a smear campaign against him and his invention.


He looked for financial support for his invention, but had trouble.
[…] “The ice business was controlled by people in places like New England, where in the winter they would chop big slabs of ice out of the water,” Ackermann says. “That’s what people would use in iceboxes to keep their stuff cold. So the ideas of some guy from Florida trying to make things cooler was not necessarily something that the bigwigs, the people who actually had the power, would want to have happen.”
Northern ice makers — who made lots of money shipping ice to the South during the summer — lobbied against Gorrie, and Northern newspapers made fun of his invention.
The patent went nowhere and he died a poor man at the age of 52.

A Corrupt Patent Official Indirectly Stifled Telephone Adoption for Two Decades

Alexander Bell is famous for being the inventor of the telephone. Less known is that he invented it at the same time as a totally different guy, Elisha Gray.

However, Bell had an edge: the patent examiner owed a debt to Bell’s attorney. As soon as Gray’s patent arrived, one of Bell’s lawyers (who had been sitting on the patent for arcane international patent law reasons) was mysteriously tipped off and delivered Bell’s patent as well. Then, while Gray’s patent sat in a pile, Bell’s got timestamped immediately.

The resulting monopoly and ridiculous phone rates charged by Bell limited adoption of phones by 1894 to only 250,000 phones. Bell’s company didn’t see widespread consumer adoption as a priority.

As soon as the patent expired, phone adoption expanded 12 times more in 10 years than they did in double that time under Bell. While it seems no one asked Grey how he’d do it differently, he couldn’t have been more aggressive than Bell, whose company ignored expansion in favor of low-cost city centers and refused to connect independent providers until competition forced them to. And Grey’s 70 other inventions, including one (used mostly by banks) that lets people sign things remotely, didn’t suffer from the same bottlenecking.

Imagine the U.S. during the 20th century if its communication revolution had happened 20 years earlier. Then feel free to make Alexander Bell as hated by the Internet as his contemporary, Edison.

Bell and his partners almost surely got inside information and favorable treatment from the patent examiner, who was in deep debt to Bell’s attorney. By March 1874, when Bell famously did succeed in transmitting speech and summoning his assistant Watson, his supposed invention resembled not his original patent but that of his rival Gray, who—by virtue of that time-stamp—Bell had beaten to the patent office by hours.
[quote]Bell Telephone’s monopoly stifled the growth of phone service. There were 250,000 phones in the United States when the company’s monopoly ended. Five years later, by 1899, the number was over one million—and in the following five-year intervals the numbers leaped to three million and seven million.


Service was provided by use of iron wire or on grounded circuits with a local battery power source’ 3 and was directed to customers located within a mile of the wire center. Since central offices were usually located in the center of a large urban community’s business-industrial area, residential, suburban, and rural service went largely undeveloped. Public relations were usually ignored during the patent monopoly period while the System concentrated on reaping large profits. As later assessed by the FCC, “the System’s attitude toward the public was characterized by arrogance and indifference.”

Mismanagement Killed NYC’s First Electric Car Cab Company (Over 100 Years Ago)

Around 1900, there was a giant company called “The Electric Vehicle Company,” with over 2000 electric vehicles in operation,mostly in NYC.

The company spread out into Boston, NJ, Newport, and even Chicago. While the range of the batteries was awful for America’s sprawl, they did just fine in major cities where they could operate out of hubs and swap out batteries to recharge.

Most sites out there blame gasoline and automatic starters for making electric cars less viable in the 1920s and 30s, but electric cars were already dead for 20 years at that point (since around 1900). The company was acquired by people who overvalued the company stock, expanded too rapidly to maintain to drive up the stock price, and undercut all R&D and maintenance to cut costs. The company collapsed under poor management and gave electric cars a bad name. Ford moved into gasoline cars, made the Model T, and the rest is history.

We don’t know if electric cars would’ve taken off with more investment, but the chance to find out was killed right then.

In New York the service remained profitable, but the other cities suffered from poor management and operations. The batteries were not properly cared for, nor were the drivers trained well.
Automotive historians of the 1950s have tended to see the problems as simply the gurgling death cries of an electric vehicle industry being taken out by the insurgent gasoline-powered car; they see the death of the EVC as a demonstration of the technological impracticality of the battery-powered vehicle. But contemporary historians like Gijs Mom and David Kirsch have taken the company more seriously. Kirsch sees the scheme, if not the actual company, as “the seed of an alternative transportation system for motorized road transport.”

Electric Vehicle eventually issued more than $20 million in stock, with authorization for an additional $80 million in the various regional companies under its umbrella. With such intense dilution, especially for a company making modest profits, only a huge success would make public shareholders any money. Whitney and the rest, of course, had awarded themselves enormous blocks of stock, for which they had paid nothing, and they could sell at the very moment the speculative fervor that they had stoked was most intense.
The only way to make the venture succeed, then, was through continued innovation, […] just the sort of things at which Isaac Rice had proved particularly adept.
But the Whitney team did not buy into electric vehicles to laboriously improve on an emerging technology. They were interested only in the sort of rapid expansion that could lead to an equally rapid and profitable turnover.

The Guy Who Inventer Copying Machines Couldn’t Sell Water to a Drowning Man

Chester Carlson invented Xerography. As in Xerox machines/copiers. They aren’t the sexiest of inventions, but trillions of copies are made a year for a good reason. The modern world couldn’t exist without them.

Yet, between 1938 and 1944, over 20 groups turned down his invention, saying they just didn’t get it, including IBM and the US Navy. He finally lucked his way into finding a small company in Rochester NY that was interested, and what would become Xerox was born.

The invention was so out of the blue and unique at its time (most attempts at copying were using chemical photography) that if Carlson was just a little less lucky, his crappy salesmanship could’ve made modern offices continue using hand-copying for decades.

“Electrophotography had practically no foundation in previous scientific work. Chet put together a rather odd lot of phenomena, each of which was obscure in itself and none of which had previously been related in anyone’s thinking. The result was the biggest thing in imaging since the coming of photography itself. Furthermore, he did it entirely without the help of a favorable scientific climate. There are dozens of instances of simultaneous discovery down through scientific history, but no one came anywhere near being simultaneous with Chet. I’m as amazed by his discovery now as I was when I first heard of it.”
— Dr. Harold E. Clark, Battelle Memorial Institute, New Yorker, 1967

The road to Carlson’s success—or that for xerography’s success—had been long and filled with failure. He was turned down for funding by more than twenty companies between 1939 and 1944. He tried for some time to sell the invention to International Business Machines (IBM), the great vendor of office equipment, but no one at the company saw merit in the concept—it is not clear that anyone at IBM even ‘understood’ the concept. His next-to-last attempt to garner the interest—and funds—he needed to commercialize the physics was a meeting with the Department of the Navy. The Navy had a specific interest in the production of dry copies, but they did not “see” what Carlson saw.

Carlson obtained the first of many patents for the xerographic process and tried unsuccessfully to interest someone in developing and marketing his invention. More than 20 companies turned him down. Finally, in 1944, he persuaded Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio, a nonprofit industrial research organization, to undertake developmental work. In 1947 a small firm in Rochester, N.Y., the Haloid Company (later the Xerox Corporation), obtained the commercial rights to xerography, and 11 years later Xerox introduced its first office copier.

The Worst Possible Person Discovered Medical Handwashing

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women in childbirth attended by doctors died a lot more than women attended by midwives. His subsequent investigations inspired him to introduce sanitizing and hand washing to his clinic.

Unfortunately, he had awful social skills, and all of his peers hated him. First, he refused to publish any of his findings because his ideas were “self-evident.” Meanwhile, he neglected his job and berated his bosses, pissing them off too much to listen to him.

When he finally did publish – 13 years later – he was unsurprisingly spurned. Finally, after some mental deterioration, he was lured to an insane asylum and was beaten while trying to escape. He died from the wounds.

His shenanigans cost 21 more years of people dying from unwashed hands in hospitals (the tens of thousands of soldiers who died of infected wounds in the American Civil War, for example).

A remarkably difficult man, Semmelweis refused to publish his ”self-evident” findings until 13 years after making them despite being urged to do so repeatedly by those who supported him. To make matters worse, he hurled outrageously rude insults to some of the hospital’s most powerful doctors who deigned to question his ideas. Such outbursts, no matter how well deserved, never go unnoticed, let alone unpunished, in the staid halls of academic medicine.
Becoming more shrill and angry at each detractor’s critique, Semmelweis lost his clinical appointment at the Vienna General Hospital and in 1850 abruptly left for his native Budapest without even telling his closest colleagues. In 1861, he finally published his work…

This is the story of a man whose ideas could have saved a lot of lives and spared countless numbers of women and newborns’ feverish and agonizing deaths.
You’ll notice I said “could have.”
And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies.


Our best evidence indicates that guards beat him trying to escape an insane asylum, leaving lethal injuries and infected wounds

In the light of the principles of social marketing today, his major error was that he imposed a system change (the use of the chlorinated lime solution) without consulting the opinion of his collaborators.