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One of our favorite subjects here is world-changing inventions that the world just ignored. Almost everything you think of as a recent invention was in fact invented decades or even centuries earlier and promptly forgotten about.

Sometimes it's bad luck, or shady business dealings, or the fact that the world just plain isn't ready. But one way or another, the reason is almost always ridiculous in hindsight. For instance ...

5
They Had Electric Cars in 1899, but Abandoned Them

Electric cars are such a new technology that they still just barely work; it takes hours to charge them, you can't get a charge at a filling station and they're sold only to a select few early adopters who want to outdo their Prius-driving neighbors. But in a world that's running out of oil and getting hotter from greenhouse emissions, the tech can't mature fast enough.

But here's the thing: Electric cars are not as new as most people believe. They've been around for quite a while and in fact, from 1899 to 1900, were more popular than gasoline-powered cars. There were loads of manufacturers and developers, and the fact that they were thought to be a lucrative market was further enforced when notorious glory hog Thomas Edison got in on the action and started developing efficient, affordable electric cars with Henry Ford.

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If 20-inch spinners had been invented back then, we'd still be driving those right now.

With combustion engines seemingly on the ropes, it looked like the electric automobile was destined to become the industry standard.

But the Problem Was ...

Electric cars took a knockout blow when huge oil deposits were discovered in Texas in 1901. America's suddenly giant oil supplies dropped the cost of fuel cars dramatically, which was more than enough to tip the scales their way.

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Back then, the heads were shaped as middle fingers.

Electric cars weren't killed overnight -- Edison and Ford were still trying to collaborate on a commercially viable model in 1914, and one company still produced up to 2,000 of them as late as 1920 -- but the impact of plentiful, cheap oil kicked the electric car's ass right to the margins of the industry, where they remain even today.


Texas: Why driving to work every morning costs more than your rent.

How It Could Have Changed the World:

Do we need to count down all the ways that gasoline cars have become a problem? How about you instead just flip over to one of the 24-hour news channels. Within 20 minutes or so you'll see a story about a war in an oil-rich country, or global warming, or fluctuating oil prices due to a market full of nervous speculators, or car companies on the verge of bankruptcy as they desperately try to come up with more fuel-efficient options.

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Left: Gas prices in May of 2008. Right: Same station in December of the same year.

Now, it's true that when you suggest electric cars as a fix for all that, invariably somebody will pipe up and say, "But the electricity they run on comes from coal. Your 'green' electric cars don't change shit with global warming!"

But you have to understand how electric cars -- especially as they would exist with an extra 100 years of evolution -- would completely change the game. An electric car doesn't care where the electricity comes from -- if they switch your power plant outside town from coal to nuclear/solar/wind, you get to keep the same car. And it's a hell of a lot easier to upgrade a single power plant than it is to slowly, over time, convince a million drivers to buy a new car. Especially one that uses an uncertain new technology.

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Man, we learned our lesson the hard way on that one.

In other words, the transition we could be making -- from dirty electric cars to clean electric cars -- would have been about a hundred times easier than the transition from gasoline to electric. And the world wouldn't have to keep a constant, nervous eye on the Middle East the entire time.

4
A Great Anesthetic Was Discovered ... and Used as a Recreational Drug Instead

18th century surgery was a mess. Operations were so painful and dangerous that they were strictly a last resort and usually lethal all by themselves, made all the worse by the fact that the patient tended to shift around and scream quite a bit. The anesthetics of the time were marijuana, hypnotism, poisonous plants and punches. They worked about as well as you'd imagine.

It was not until halfway through the 19th century when the first proper anesthetics emerged in the form of morphine, ether and nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas. The latter gained a reputation of relative safety and reliability, with only one death out of 500,000 uses. Compared to the previously prevalent anesthetic methods of liquor and hope, this was not a bad score at all.

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"OK, quick, take out his gall bladder and draw dicks on his face."

Laughing gas was, in fact, discovered and isolated way back in 1772 and first proposed to be used as an anesthetic in 1799, nearly 50 years before Ether & Co. emerged.

But the Problem Was ...

If you suddenly figured out how to manufacture a substance that caused a rush and a laughing fit, what would you do? The answer is simple: Laughing gas parties.

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"Maybe we should see if this stuff has some sort of medical application. Y'know, once we float a couple more tanks."

Throughout its early existence, laughing gas was used as little more than a recreational drug. Aside from the parties, it was sold in bags in true drug dealer fashion. There were even theater shows, featuring people inhaling nitrous oxide onstage and stumbling around.

While Sir Humphry Davy did suggest in 1799 that maybe nitrous oxide could be used as an anesthetic, no one actually bothered to test the theory until 1845, when a dentist first attempted a public demonstration ... which was a failure, as he gave an insufficient dose to the poor test subject. When they finally got the dosage right and proved the compound's efficiency, other anesthetics had already come around. Laughing gas had lost its chance to become a life-saving, science-advancing forerunner -- just because a bunch of snobs were too busy imbibing the stuff for shits and giggles.

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"Ma'am, this is just a physical exam. You don't need anesthetic."

How It Could Have Changed the World:

How does medical science decades ahead of where we are now sound?

Keep in mind, this isn't just about keeping patients comfortable. It's hard to overstate just how much the discovery of proper anesthetics affected medical progress. When the whole "Oh God do it quickly he's wriggling" thing ceased to be an issue, doctors could suddenly devote their time to actually maximizing survival rates and the effectiveness of procedures. Imagine where that trend would have taken them by now if they'd been able to start it back in the final years of the 18th century.

Via pmj.bmj.com
"Oh, stop being a baby -- it's just a leg. It's not like you don't have another one."

And that's not even taking into account all the lives that could've been saved during the decades of gory horror surgery, which also could have been largely avoided.

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3
Robert Goddard's Rocket Technology Was Ignored by the USA, Used by the Nazis

Robert Goddard had connections, talent and vision. His area of expertise wasn't exactly unsexy, either: Goddard was a goddamn rocket scientist. In fact, for decades, he was the whole field of rocket science all by himself.

From his start at rocket research in 1907, he made the news. In 1914, he patented rocket fuel and the multi-stage rocket technique. Then he built the first rocket projected by liquid fuel, the first rocket with gyroscopically improved balance, the first rocket fired with scientific instruments on board and the first rocket to climb into the higher atmosphere. The man was handy with rockets, is what we're saying.

Via Wikipedia
"I just like blasting dick-shaped objects as high into the atmosphere as I can. What's psychological about that?"

During World War II, his research was guided by the Navy to applying jet engines to conventional aircraft for use in warfare. In that capacity, he created the lift-off rocket. So the U.S. had the world's only rocket scientist at their disposal, and he was actually working to win the war.

But the Problem Was ...

"Wait a second," you might be saying. "I know enough about World War II to know that it was the Nazis who had the rockets, not the Allies. They were famous for their V-2 rockets they rained down on cities, blowing apart entire city blocks at a time."

Via Wlysack.com
"Wait, they can murder people? Somebody find Goddard and give him billions of dollars!"

Well, where do you think the Nazis got that technology from? That's right.

Agents of the ascending Reich expressed interest in Goddard's missiles in 1939. Worried, he contacted the U.S. Army, gave evidence of the potential of his missiles ... and was promptly shown the door. You see, Goddard was so far ahead of his time that he was considered a lunatic by most Americans. Who cared that the Nazis were after some crazy guy's crazy inventions? They'll probably blow themselves up!

Goddard's mad scientist reputation was not helped by the fact that he drew inspiration from stuff like H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and had an uncanny knack for causing heavily publicized catastrophes with his experiments. His very first experiment blew up the basement of his university's science department, and that first liquid fuel rocket flight of his only lasted 2.5 seconds before it landed screaming in a cabbage patch.

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"Oh, shit ... um ... my bad."

So nobody cared when the Nazis goose-stepped away with copies of his papers and over 200 of his patent applications ... which they promptly used to build their own rockets with an outrageous funding of $2 billion. The grand total of Goddard's rocket research funding, incidentally, was $110,000.

All of this, combined with Goddard's extreme shyness and the media's tendency to pick even his better ideas apart, caused him to become exceedingly withdrawn and doomed to spend his life as a "mad scientist," whose reputation would only be restored after his death, largely by NASA (who eventually ended up using pretty much everything he'd invented).

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Goddard, seen here explaining mathematically how the entire world could kiss his ass.

How It Could Have Changed the World:

Imagine a version of World War II where the Allies, not the Third Reich, develop missiles that can be launched across huge distances with reasonable expectancy to actually hit something. Imagine a history where instead of Nazi V-2 rockets showering London in 1944, the vastly superior Goddard-1 rockets -- backed up by decades of research as opposed to the few years' work spent reverse engineering the V-2 -- bombard Berlin and Tokyo into submission mid-1942. Millions spared, no need for nukes, everyone rejoices.

Also, think of how ridiculously one-sided the Space Race would have been if America had actually tapped into its 20-year advantage properly? It would be like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, only the hare is jacked up to his eyeballs with amphetamines, and the tortoise is a garden gnome. Who knows -- we might now be at the point where we can go casually fly circles around the moon with our low-consumption sports rocket had Goddard been able to show us the way.

2
Robert Galbraith Heath Invented Brain-Fixing Electrodes 60 Years Ago

We've talked about the dickishness of some of Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath's experiments in the past. However, that's not all the man did. A large chunk of his work with Tulane University went a long way to revolutionize depression treatments. For instance, in the '70s, his team successfully treated several people previously labeled untreatable.

With electrodes.

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"'Dead' -- 'not depressed'... it's a matter of perspective."

Yes, his more than slightly supervillainy solution to treating one of the most difficult mental problems around was to hook up to 125 electrodes to a patient's brain. And while the mere mention of the words "electricity" and "brain" in the same sentence conjures images of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Heath's method was actually specifically designed to ease the patient's mind by stimulating the pleasure center of the brain.

And it worked.

But the Problem Was ...

That's right; he found a way to just freaking inject electric pleasure into a human brain. It kind of sounds like the kind of discovery that should have changed civilization.

But Heath kept the experiments at a very low profile instead of going public for the "HOLY SHIT YOU CAN TOTALLY ELECTRIFY YOUR BRAIN INTO PLEASURE YOU GUYS" headlines. A quite possible reason for this was an incident in 1962: Heath was contacted by the CIA to see if his electrode trick could be used for interrogation by exploring the pain center instead.

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"Oh, and is there a way to make another person shit their pants? Just out of ... um ... curiosity."

Heath sanely dismissed the idea as plain disgusting, and proceeded to play his cards close to chest.

Another problem that stood between Heath and the embracing public was the fact that his electrodes needed to stimulate the brain at regular intervals, it wasn't like a one-time thing. This basically amounted to "brain pacemakers" that would have to stay in the brain for years. So the technology remained in the shadows, and even today, we are still treating it like it's barely out of the experimental stage. Though it could still make a comeback -- Columbia University has been toying with the technology in recent years.

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"You know, I think I'm OK with just being depressed."

How It Could Have Changed the World:

Let's talk figures.

Depression is one of the biggest health problems of the modern world, estimated to affect 19 million people in the U.S. alone. Its cumulative costs amount to a whopping $44 billion. And while it can be treated, it's far from an easy task -- medication is unpredictable and comes with side effects, and pretty much everyone needs a different treatment. It's hard to imagine what could have been accomplished with 50 years of evolution of Heath's electrode technology (which was proven to cure other mental illnesses, too).

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Such as the ironic compulsion to randomly shock your own head.

Then again, we guess that's also imagining a world where somebody wouldn't immediately think of some horrifying use for it. It ... kind of seems like the sort of thing a person could get addicted to.

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1
Henry Cavendish Revolutionized Science, but Didn't Tell Anyone

Henry Cavendish is probably the most prolific scientist you've never heard of. He was a talented chemist whose list of accomplishments includes, but is not limited to: the discovery of hydrogen, calculating the density of Earth and establishing his own versions of Richter's Law, Ohm's Law, Coulomb's Law, Charles's Law of Gases and Dalton's Law ... and he did it in the 1700s, many years before any of those guys for whom the laws would be named.

He was also a bit of a hardass. For instance, while Georg Ohm figured out his law about electrical conduction by messing around with wires, Cavendish just flat out subjected himself to electric shocks, using his own damn nervous system as a galvanometer.

So, a fearless badass with a scientific mind that put all his peers to shame? Hell, he's just a vast fortune away from being the Georgian era equivalent to Batman. Wait, he was the richest man in England? Never mind.

But the Problem Was ...

He didn't share his earth-shattering discoveries with anyone. Because he was nuts.

Cavendish more than compensated his talents by having some serious issues. He spent the majority of his time barricaded in his study, communicating with his housekeeper via notes. Female servants were ordered to keep away from his line of sight on pain of getting instantly fired. On the rare occasion he ventured to scientific society meetings, he lurked around wearing strange, out-of-date clothing; if someone addressed or even looked at him, he would scream and run away.

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He couldn't even look at the guy who did his damn portrait.

Knowing this, it's not surprising Cavendish didn't want to draw attention to himself and his little hobbies, lest he have to deal with people. In fact, we wouldn't even know about most of his discoveries had it not been for his private papers being looked through in 1879 by a James Clerk Maxwell ... nearly a century later.

How It Could Have Changed the World:

Cavendish made the majority of his discoveries decades before they were officially invented -- in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the era of the steam engine. And when you look at said discoveries, you'll realize that many of his findings concerned pretty crucial stuff about thermodynamics and electricity.

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Things like, "Warning: Do not lick."

Now, imagine if England had figured out electricity decades before they actually did. With findings like Ohm's Law moved from 1827 to 1781, a vast thermodynamic and electrical knowledge suddenly at the scientific community's disposal and the public mind set in the "industrialize everything" mode that was the spirit of the era, the progress of technology would have been rapidly put to use. Gaslights could have become electrical ones within years, and the steam engine would've gone the way of the dodo. Great Britain might've entered the Victorian era fully lit, amped up and more powerful than ever, at no bigger price than the ruined dreams of potential future steampunk enthusiasts.

Which, now that we come to think of it, might not be a bad thing. There's also another side to the Electrified England scenario: We doubt that they would've been too keen to share their newly found power with America, what with one thing and another going on at the time. So it's entirely possible that they'd used their Cavendish tech against America, who'd have been back to eating tea and crumpets before they even realized it.

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"I heard him say 'robot.' What the fuck is a robot?"

So, thanks for being a grouch, Henry!

Dustin and Adam Koski have written other lists at places like here.

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For more ways the world as we know it could be different, check out 7 Lost Bodies of Work (That Would Have Changed Everything) and 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World.

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