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 ...
5They 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4A 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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.