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.