Just add time: 11 innovations that were ahead of theirs

29 Apr 2016

Da Vinci's early design for an armoured vehicle akin to a tank. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Next week (2 May) will mark the 497th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. In honour of the esteemed Italian artist, polymath and inventor, we look at some of the great inventions of history that were quite simply ahead of their times.

Some ideas flop when they’re first released. Whether they’re dreamt up before the technology is there to support them, as was the case with da Vinci, or they just don’t capture the attention of the zeitgeist, sometimes it just takes one simple thing to achieve success: the passage of time.

Da Vinci, of course, was the most prolific dreamer-upper of concepts that were just too advanced. His fantastical 15th and 16th century designs were beyond the realms of popular understanding during his lifetime and, in some cases, for hundreds of years after his death in 1519.

While there is much more to da Vinci than his creations – the man was also an accomplished natural scientist, cartographer, mathematician, artist and astronomer – such was da Vinci’s prescience when it came to his designs that many joke about him being the world’s first time traveller.

Sketches found in da Vinci’s famed journals depict designs for helicopters, tanks, gliders, retractable landing gear, parachutes and scuba diving gear, some of which have since been faithfully made reality and shown to work.

Da Vinci is far from the only historical figure to create items that would become ubiquitous in modern life. Hero of Alexandria and Zhang Heng were designing things at the turn of the last millennium that would be (sort of) recognisable to modern consumers.

But beyond distant history, there have been numerous innovations made in the last 50 or so years that acted as – often failed – precursors to present-day success stories.

Here, we gather some of those together. Kicking things off with one of da Vinci’s lesser-known designs, we then take a look at some other techy creations that were ahead of their time.

Da Vinci’s mechanical knight

Da Vinci's mechanical knight

An approximation of da Vinci’s mechanical knight. Image via Krishna/Flickr

The da Vinci innovations listed above probably didn’t surprise you. What may surprise you is that da Vinci designed an autonomous robot centuries before Boston Dynamics and DARPA got to work.

Da Vinci’s mechanical knight operated by means of cables and pulleys, and was able to sit up, wave its arms, move its head on a flexible neck and operate its jaw.

It may be a stretch to call it a robot, by our understanding, but da Vinci’s mechanical knight is a marvel by any standard – all the more so for the fact that the design actually works. Mark Rosheim, a roboticist who has done work with NASA, built a physical model of the automaton for a 2002 BBC documentary.

The designs for the mechanical knight were uncovered in da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a collection of pages from the inventor’s journals and others works, dating from 1478 to 1519.

The steam engine

Hero of Alexandria's aeolipile steam engine

Reproduction of Hero of Alexandria’s aeolipile steam engine. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the first recorded steam engine dates back 2,000 years, to Alexandria.

Early in the first century, Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria – a mathematician and engineer who lived from approximately 10 to 70 AD – described what is believed to be the first working steam engine.

He called it an aeolipile and, in his design, a sealed cauldron of water was placed over a heat source. As the water boiled, steam rose into the pipes and into the hollow sphere. The steam escaped from two bent outlet tubes on the ball, resulting in rotation of the ball – a similar principle to jet propulsion today. Not considered useful at the time, Hero apparently looked on his invention as more of a novelty item.

However, considering it was 1698 before Thomas Savery patented the first practical, atmospheric pressure steam engine, Hero’s idea was truly ahead of its time.


Zhang Heng's seismoscope recreation

A recreation of Zhang Heng’s seismoscope. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known earthquake detector was created by a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, engineer, geographer and inventor called Zhang Heng back in 132 AD.

The seismoscope was a giant bronze vessel about six metres wide, with six snakes streaking down the sides to mark general compass directions.

In the snakes’ mouths rested bronze balls. When an earthquake hit, even if the device wasn’t in an affected region, the snake pointing to where the quake occurred would drop its ball into toad figurines below. The ‘ping’ of the ball, and the frog it landed in, alerted people of the event and location.

A recreation of the original was made a few years back and its results were remarkably accurate.

Electric vehicles

Thomas Edison pictured with an electric car

Thomas Edison and an electric car in 1913. Image via National Museum of American History/Wikimedia Commons

The idea that electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid vehicles are the cars of the future may need to be slightly rethought. Long before companies began producing gas-guzzlers by the thousand, many of the first cars to be painstakingly hand-built were, in fact, EVs.

As far back as 1832, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is credited with inventing the very first EV using a horse carriage and a non-rechargeable battery.

In the decades that followed, EVs became more popular. Pope Manufacturing in the US built more than 500 environmentally-friendly cars in 1897. But, by 1920, petrol was king.

It has taken nearly a century for us to begin shaking off our reliance on fossil fuels, with companies like Tesla and Nissan offering hope for the return of EVs to the top.

Listen Up

Audio Highway's Listen Up

Audio Highway’s Listen Up. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of being able to download and immediately listen to music on the go is something we all take for granted nowadays, but when a company called Audio Highway released the Listen Up player onto the market in 1996, it was quite the revolutionary idea.

Essentially a precursor to iTunes and the iPod, you downloaded the music you wanted from the Listen Up site and then transferred it to your device via software called AudioWiz.

Holding just 60 minutes of audio files and priced at $299, it was a commercial failure, and it’s believed that only 25 Listen Up players were ever produced.

However, its potential was spotted by some, with it winning an Innovation Award at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1997, as well as a People’s Choice Award at the second annual Internet Showcase Conference in 1998.

Mattel Power Glove

The Nintendo Power Glove by Mattel

Mattel Power Glove. Image via Tim Deering/Flickr

An attempt at innovation on the Nintendo platform, albeit one designed by toymakers Mattel, was the ominous-sounding Power Glove.

The Power Glove was a 1989 device that could not have looked more like it was designed in 1989. Much like later (more successful) kinetic-based systems like the Wii, the Power Glove allowed the player to control movements within video games.

The Power Glove was based on another device called the Dataglove, which could detect yaw, pitch and roll, using fibre-optic sensors to detect finger flexure.

However, to make it affordable – it came in at $75 – all of this was scaled back to determine just the user’s roll of the hand within the confines of a sensor angled at 90 degrees.

Two games and 100,000 units later, and after just a year, it was decommissioned, but today much of this tech lies within our phones.

Nintendo Virtual Boy

In 1995, 20 years before its emergence as a must-have technology for gamers, virtual reality (VR) reared its head, as Nintendo brought out its very own VR headset for the consumer market.

Or, at least, it was considered the first gaming device capable of playing games in ‘true’ 3D, which hadn’t even been attempted for home use before then.

Nintendo hadn’t gone into this venture half-heartedly. They had worked on a 3D, stereoscopic, head-tracking prototype called the Private Eye – the designs for which would go into developing the Virtual Boy – but limitations of technology at the time turned it into a stationary viewing device with a stand that looked, frankly, silly.

Given its limitations, its US and Japan only release, and the $179.95 price tag in the US, it might not come as a surprise that the device was a total flop, but you have to admire Nintendo’s attempt.

Viewtron and Minitel

Viewtron bulletin board

Viewtron bulletin board. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The internet is a wonderful thing: a place where companies pop up on the shoulders of their predecessors with slight idea tweaks that become major financial successes. In truth, that’s a fair description of the internet itself.

Viewtron was AT&T’s third attempt at something akin to the modern-day internet, though it was telephone, rather than network, based. Users bought a box that attached to their TV, and the Viewtron delivered news stories to the screen, expensively, before they hit the public airwaves. In 1985, it was a costly failure.

Minitel was a French equivalent, lasting right up until 2012. By this millennium, though, it was acting like a zombie technology. Its peak was 1997, when nine million sets were installed in a kind of France-wide web. It made banking easier.

The internet has made it easier still.

AT&T Picturephone

Skyping somebody might seem fairly standard nowadays but, a few years ago, video calls seemed revolutionary. Those few years ago, though, we were wrong.

It’s 52 years since AT&T’s first Picturephone was developed, after the company’s Bell labs had spent decades working on prototypes. In 1964, at the World’s Fair in New York, three booths were set up to show off the technology. It really caught steam in 1970, though, when this televised demonstration (above) caught many an eye.

The screen size was a strict 16 x 21in frame, within which your face had to sit still. The call receiver sat in a booth elsewhere, chatting away to you at a video frame rate of 30fps. AT&T thought this would be huge, launching in eight companies to appeal to commercial use. However, its crazy cost – and the real lack of need – meant it never truly caught on.

HP Compaq tablet

HP Compaq TC1000 running XP

HP Compaq TC1000 running Windows XP. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s be very clear on one thing: Apple did not invent the tablet computer. The first proper tablet computer actually debuted in 2002, and was the brainchild of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

At the time, tech journalists cooed over the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000. HP at the time said that it predicted a future where doctors and nurses would carry these under their arms as they visited patients.

The reality, in hindsight, was that the TC1000 was a bulky monster that would require pretty firm biceps to carry around the place.

Boasting a hefty $2,149 price tag, the TC1000 had a 1GHz processor and had a snap-on keyboard that let the screen rotate 180-degrees.

Running on Windows XP, it weighed around four pounds with the keyboard attached, and came with its own pen that was prone to breaking.

And then Apple came along in 2010 with the iPad, taking all the glory.

IBM/Olympus headset

Google Glass

Google Glass, slightly less of a commercial failure than the IBM/Olympus venture. Image via Giuseppe Constantino/Shutterstock.com

Forget Google Glass, Siliconrepublic.com editor John Kennedy strapped on his first wearable computer in 1999.

The device was a collaboration between IBM and Japanese camera maker Olympus. The monitor was a 100-gram ‘monocle’ that projected a 10-inch screen right in front of your retina.

This was connected to a 380-gram box that you wore over your shoulder, which was to all intents and purposes a PC – with a Pentium processor and 64MB of memory – that ran Windows 98.

The machine was controlled by a banana-shaped handle, with a mouse with right-left click buttons to control the screen.

The device flopped and the concept disappeared, until Google Glass came along in 2013, heralding the tech as the next big thing. Glass flopped too, and was scrapped in 2015.

Podfather Tony Fadell – designer of the iPod – is understood to be leading a project at Google aimed at reformatting Google Glass for the AR/VR world we are entering into.