Notes on Failures


  1. In the 17th century, phlogiston was supposedly a colorless, odorless, weightless substance (did it have any properties?) given off by combustion of flammable materials. Refuted in the 18th century by Lavoisier. (From The Columbia Encyclopedia.)

  2. N-rays, "discovered" and studied by Blondlot around 1903, were supposedly rays emitted by some metals (like X-rays, only more so), which (only?) Blondlot could see in a darkened room. Debunked during an exhibit in 1904 when a visiting scientist surreptitiously removed a prism from the spectroscope from which Blondlot was taking measurements, said removal not having any effect on said measurements.

  3. Chisenbop was a method for doing arithmetic with one's fingers; like using an abacus, only without the abacus.

  4. Enthusiasts claim there are two million Esperanto speakers worldwide. Still a failure.

  5. Don't get me wrong: I think the NeXT is an outstanding system. I still use mine on occasion, and it's good to see the ideas alive in Mac OS X.

  6. Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were minted from 1979-1981, and looked too much like a quarter for anybody to be comfortable with them. The U.S. Mint began circulating a new dollar coin (gold-colored, with little blinking lights) in 2000. (...Production of which was reportedly suspended in April, 2002.)

    While we're on the subject, the $2 bill was not really a failure, as is commonly believed. It was never removed from circulation (a new series was printed in 1996); it's just hard to find.

  7. DasImperator reports that Betamax VCRs are still available in Japan, which stretches the rule that a product has to be no longer available to be listed here. (The Beta format is reportedly alive and well in the Betacam format used by video-production companies. I seem to be incapable of grasping the technical differences between Betamax and Betacam, or for that matter the differences between Betamax and VHS, so I have to leave that explanation to someone else.) The chances of my ever going to Japan are very slim, and the chances of my ever going to Japan to pick up a Betamax machine are zero; since Betamax is somewhat notorious in the U.S. as a flop, as judge and jury I'm going to let this one slide. [Update (August 2002): Turns out we don't have to let it slide; Sony has officially discontinued production of Betamax players.]

  8. Anyone have statistics on how much of the country was actually "crossed"? (The most impressive part was the group connecting Anchorage to Honolulu, har har.) Jim T., a regional coordinator for Hands Across America, estimates that 70% of Illinois was filled in, and perhaps 35%-40% of the entire country.

    Jim also points out --- if I may get sentimental for a moment --- that this clearly wasn't a total failure, since it achieved the goals of raising awareness, making people feel better, and all that.

Some ground rules

  1. The failure has to have been somewhat notorious, so that the average reader will have heard of it. For the purposes of this page, the average reader is me.

  2. If it's a product, it has to be no longer obtainable. For example, a few distributors apparently still carry Quisp.

  3. I'm not counting technology that was the state of the art for a while, then became obsolete (e.g., 5-1/4" floppy disks, vacuum tubes), nor will I count fashions that became unfashionable (fondue makers, Garanimals).

  4. I'm also not including chemicals that turned out to be deadly or dangerous (DDT, thalidomide, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, lead tetraethyl), disasters and near-disasters (Titanic, Hindenburg, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez, Endurance, Apollo 1, Apollo 13, Challenger, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge), hoaxes (Piltdown Man, Bigfoot), things I just plain dislike (cellular telephones, voice mail, leaf blowers, telemarketing, car alarms, cars), or people (your name here). Too easy.

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