In the history of technological innovation, many inventors and businessmen showed a foresight that was wise beyond their years. They envisioned new techniques and business models that for many seemed incomprehensible. Almost every new product or idea meets some form of adversity along the way, but some of the rejected everyday items on this list will have you in disbelief. Though we cannot live without them, these inventions were at first surprisingly snubbed.
One of the biggest trends before the invention of the automobile was the bicycle, but during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that’s all they were — a trend, or passing fad. Far from being everyday items people habitually used, early bicycles were not practical at all. They were regarded more as a fashion trend than a mode of reliable transportation.
A 1906 article in the New York Sun declared cycling dead, stating: “Few individuals now ride for all the good they claim to see in the pastime when it was fashion.” The Sun turned out to be wrong, however, and as improvements were made to bicycle designs over the years, they became easier to ride and more appealing to everyday consumers.
A turn-of-the-century article published in Literary Digest accurately predicted that the cost of automobiles would eventually go down, but that they would not surpass the popularity of bicycles (around 1900 there was a surge in the popularity of bikes). Two years later, the New York Times echoed the sentiment of Literary Digest, which set both publications up to be proved drastically wrong.
By 1914, Henry Ford was churning out thousands of Ford Model Ts per day, which made the automobile affordable to the masses for the first time (at an average price of about $216). The Model T created such a buzz that Ford didn’t need to pay for any advertising or marketing plans. It held the title of being the most purchased car in history until it was surpassed by the Volkswagen Beetle in 1972.
Though there is some debate, Lionel Sternberger is commonly credited for being the inventor of the cheeseburger. It all began in 1934, when he decided to drop a slab of American cheese onto a cooking hamburger patty while working at his father’s restaurant, Rite Spot in Los Angeles. In due time, the cheeseburger became a staple in American restaurants, as well as the rest of the world.
But while the cheeseburger is one of the everyday items you’ll find on most fast food menus, at the time, some believed it wouldn’t catch on. The New York Times published an article in 1938 calling the cheeseburger an eccentric, California novelty. They were wrong. Once fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King put the cheeseburger on their menus, it soon became one of the most popular foods on the planet.
4. Personal Computers
Computers capable of being operated by a single, albeit highly trained, individual have existed since the late 1940s. The first computers were mainly used to solve complex mathematical formulas. In the beginning, people were skeptical that computers had any practical applications for regular consumer’s everyday lives.
In 1977, Ken Olson, founder of the computer company Digital Equipment Corporation, proclaimed: ‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” By 2012, 80% of all American households had at least one computer. Today, these have become such widely used everyday items that it’s nearly impossible to imagine living without our computers and cell phones.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and his partners offered to sell their patent for the telephone to Western Union for $100,000. Their proposed offer followed their first-ever successful telephone conversation between Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson, who were each standing in Boston and Cambridge, respectively.
The then-president of Western Union turned down Bell’s offer, remarking that his invention was little more than a toy. Just two years later, he admitted that if he could purchase the patent in hindsight at $25 million, it would be a deal. The rejection inspired Bell to create the Bell Telephone company one year later, which later evolved into the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, more commonly known as AT&T.
Umbrellas or parasols have been used to shield the carrier from the sun for thousands of years. The more modern use of the umbrella as a means of protecting oneself from rain did not come into existence until the 17th century in Europe — and took almost one hundred years to catch on.
At first, coach drivers were intimidated by the device. They thought of it as competition. Reportedly, long before they became everyday items during a downpour, the first man who used an umbrella in Britain was on the receiving end of insults and trash being thrown at him by drivers and passersby alike. At least he had the umbrella to shield himself!
Competing legends exist regarding the discovery of the coffee bean and its subsequent capability to nourish and energize when properly boiled. In all likelihood, the first coffee was consumed in either Ethiopia or in Yemen. It was also regarded as medicine for a variety of ailments and illnesses. Despite its growing popularity, at varying points in history, rulers sought to ban the black beverage for a different reasons.
Some saw coffeehouses as a gathering spot for political dissent, while others banned the coffee in order to control trade. Brits dropped their coffee habits in favor of tea, which was readily available to import from India. But today, it’s hard to imagine starting the day without a cup of coffee at home, or being able to pick up a cup at Starbucks or any local café.
8. Talking Movies
As the silent movie era came to a close, there was some initial skepticism surrounding talking movies. Newspapers claimed that they were a gimmick and that talking didn’t belong in pictures. Even the top brass in the movie business didn’t buy in. While discussing the new sound pictures, Harry Warner of Warner Bros. once remarked, “Who the Hell wants to hear the actors talk?!”
Oh, how wrong they all were. The first feature film to utilize synchronous sound was The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. And while fans today are not likely to be fond of actors appearing in blackface, the overwhelming majority of movie-goers approved of the new technology behind the experience, flocking to box offices in record numbers. Aside from a handful of indies, the movie business by and large has switched to sound and is not looking back.
9. Online Shopping
In 1966, Time magazine surmised that, “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.” Perhaps the author wouldn’t have been quite so convinced if he could have somehow predicted the advent of the Internet, the digital camera, and the faster pace of life in the new millennium.
Even in the 2000s, well after companies like Amazon and eBay had established themselves, people were skeptical whether or not the online shopping industry would take off. Perhaps Amazon’s massive growth is emblematic of a deeper trend of consumers deciding to go digital. In 2011, Amazon had 30,000 full-time employees in the US. By the end of 2016, that number had ballooned to 180,000 in order to fill demand.
In 1901, after several failed flight attempts, Wilbur Wright declared that it would take fifty more years before man would fly. Within the next decade he would register his first hour-long flight, proving a host of critics wrong, including himself.
Although humans have always been fascinated with flight, not all people were convinced of their benefit, or perhaps their detriment. One French general during World War I remarked that airplanes are nice toys, but have no military value. Beyond transport, planes would of course go on to change modern warfare as we know it. The earliest planes used in battle were in the Italo-Turkish War and the First Balkan War, which collectively took place between 1910 to 1913.
11. Copy Machine
Copying is the hallmark of civilization. Eons before the copy machine became an everyday item in our offices, the oldest form of copy was language, starting when humans transposed speech onto stone tablets in the form of stylized markings. Up until the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, copying meant writing everything out by hand.
Everything changed when Chester Carlson invented a process known as xerography, whereby black or colored powder adheres to parts of a surface remaining electrically charged after exposure to light. Shortly after his discovery in 1937, he offered his invention to over twenty American corporations, including IBM, General Electric, Kodak and RCA. All of them turned Carlson down, effectively passing up on what would become one of the most successful products in America.
While working on his alternating current, Nikola Tesla realized that he could transmit and receive powerful radio signals if they resonated at the same frequency. Just as Tesla was ready to launch his first radio test, his lab caught fire, destroying all his work inside. Luckily, at the same time, another Italian inventor had been working on a similar device.
Though his patent was at first rejected due to officials claiming that some of the Tesla oscillators he was using were unsafe, Guglielmo Marconi persisted and established his own company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. Marconi eventually secured a patent for the invention of the radio in 1904. In the next decades, as it became an everyday item in households across the globe, radio would radically change the way people consumed their news, sports, and entertainment.
One of the pioneers of radio, life-long inventor Lee De Forest summarily stated in 1920 that regardless of any technological improvements in the future, man would never be able to travel to space. Even today, humans have a difficult time comprehending the notion of space travel, despite the fact that our modern lives are completely dependent on it.
In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut to travel into outer space, and famously in 1969, American spacecraft Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Today, companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are dedicated to further exploration of our solar system, and making space travel more accessible and affordable for future generations.
14. Alternating Current
In the late 19th century, inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were wrestling with the best way to generate electricity. Each man was thoroughly convinced that he had developed the better method. Edison, who had already proved the capabilities of direct current, was very critical of Tesla’s alternating current, which in the beginning was highly volatile and dangerous.
Today, the situation is the opposite. On a massive scale, alternating current has not only proved to be more efficient, but also a safer alternative to direct current. Most households today run on AC, as well as electric engines that power green cars, including, you guessed it, the Tesla motor.
15. Light Bulbs
In 1878, a British parliament committee noted that Edison’s work on the first light bulb was good enough for Americans, but unworthy of earning the attention of learned British scientists. Lucky for the rest of us, Thomas Edison was a man who was used to dealing with adversity. When he was a child, his teacher had told him that he was too stupid to learn anything.
Edison would go on to patent over 1,000 inventions in his lifetime, but perhaps none were more important than the light bulb. By 1879, Edison had built his first incandescent light, and less than a decade later, this soon-to-be everyday item would serve as the basis for the first electric power station in New York City.
Mac computers and Apple as a company have come a long way since Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first introduced the Apple I personal computer in 1976. Initially, Mac sales performed well. However, soon after, they began to taper off due to the unsuccessful launch of other products like digital cameras and speakers, as well as aggressive competition from Microsoft. In the ’90s, most people thought they were about to go under.
Apple was losing market share because of their tendency to focus on richly engineered products that were more expensive, compared to the simpler, more cost-effective ones being built at Microsoft. Many skeptics thought Mac would never recover. Ironically, Apple turned itself around in large part thanks to focusing on a slew of new products. Now everyday items we see everywhere, the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV (among other inventions) substantially raised the popularity of the brand.
In 1898 Heinrich Dreser, head of Bayer’s Pharmacological Institute, outright rejected Felix Hoffman’s invention of aspirin. He called the pill and its compound totally useless, and instead favored their best-selling painkiller, diacetylmorphine, which is modern-day morphine. Nevertheless, Bayer’s chairman intervened, effectively allowing the production of aspirin.
Bayer began advertising its heroin-laced aspirin as a cure for sore throats, coughs, and the common cold. But it didn’t take long for doctors to start understanding that the pills also produced side effects, namely addiction. The FDA banned heroin in 1914, which forced Bayer to find a new compound. It would take years for doctors to understand the full benefits of aspirin, including the capability to reduce fevers and as a preventive treatment to combat heart attacks and strokes.
18. Overnight Delivery
In the mid-1960s, when Fred Smith was an economics student at Yale University, he wrote a paper arguing that the modern consumer society which was hungry for electronic products was at the same time stymied by a decentralized cargo system. The idea was shunned by his professor, who deemed the idea unfeasible.
In spite of his teacher’s criticism, Smith pursued his vision. He founded Federal Express with his $4 million inheritance, plus an additional $91 million in venture capital investment. Overnight delivery operations began in April 1973, with a fleet of fourteen jets that connected twenty-five cities in the United States. Three years later, the company was in the black, delivering some 19,000 parcels per day.
The evolution of taxis in the United States is perhaps one of the best revenge stories ever told. When they were first introduced, drivers could charge you whatever they wanted for fare, and in general, you couldn’t trust the person behind the wheel. After being charged the modern-day equivalent of $128.50 for a five-mile ride, one man decided to get even.
Businessman Harry N. Allen responded by immediately purchasing a fleet of cars and establishing the first taxi company, eliminating price gouging. Recently, the increased popularity of phone applications has allowed companies like Uber and Lyft to change the way we go about ordering our rides. Still, in New York, taxis make up 400,000 trips per day — twice the volume of Uber and Lyft usages combined.
When we consider how essential these everyday items are for our meals, it might be surprising to learn that humans got along fine without forks for thousands of years. It is estimated that Persian nobility might have used some form of the fork in the 7th or 8th century CE. What is certain is that by the 11th century, forks were in use in the Byzantine Empire, though their implementation was not widespread in Europe until the 19th century.
By the early 1800s, the fork had successfully established itself on the European table and beyond, and was used by the middle class in addition to aristocracy. Almost all of the early fork designs were two pronged, like a miniature pitchfork. With the advent of silver-plating, different fork designs began to emerge for specific foods and uses.
Despite a recent gain in popularity during the 2010s thanks to the backing of several celebrities, anti-vaxxers have been around almost as long as vaccines themselves. Sometime during the 1760s, British physician Edward Jenner heard stories that rural dairy workers in China had stopped falling ill from smallpox because they had already been stricken by cowpox (which is far less severe).
In 1796, Jenner administered an inoculation of pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox sore into the arm of an eight-year-old boy. The boy never caught smallpox and Jenner continued his studies. Yet, despite multiple successes, Britain banned the practice of vaccination in 1840, only to reverse the decision forty years later.
22. Silly Putty
In the 1940s, scientists were looking for a synthetic substitute for rubber in order to help the war effort. James Wright was hopeful that his combination of silicon oil and boric acid would do the trick. But after observing how the material stretched and snapped completely, it was clear it would not be used as a replacement for a rubber tire.
Several years after the war’s end, in 1949 ad man Peter Hodgeson packed the putty inside of a plastic egg, and marketed the product at retailer Neiman-Marcus. Since then, silly putty has been sold successfully as a toy and to stop up holes. It was even put to use in space: astronauts aboard Apollo 8 used it to secure their tools in zero gravity.
23. Nail Polish
When Cutex released nail polish in 1917, it was a flop. Even a decade later, the New York Times declared it a passing fad. Vogue magazine went a step further to question the safety of using such a product, claiming that then-popular nail paste and powder was a healthier option.
In the 1930s, an Atlanta-based periodical said that while still a fad, nail polish was noticeably gaining in popularity. Over the years, it became obvious that nail polish was here to stay. With the emergence of new colors and marketing techniques, the nail polish industry blew up. By the year 2024, it is estimated that the nail polish industry will be worth over $15 billion.
A newspaper article dated 1985 claimed that marketers of laptop computers were missing the mark in terms of what consumers needed to get from their computers. The authors mentioned that users would rather read the newspaper during their commute than have to lug a heavy computer with them on the train or airplane.
It took a few more years for laptops to become more practical, but it is clear that technology improved to allow for better overall design, while still keeping the computer reliable and durable. Today, laptops have overtaken desktops as the most popular choice when purchasing a new computer — a trend that has existed since 2009.
25. Answering Machines
In 1934, an employee at Bell Laboratories invented the first answering machine. This was kept under wraps for years by AT&T (the owner of Bell). The company feared that large-scale adoption of answering machines would result in the public making less phone calls. In the 1940s, in fact, most companies banned the machines.
Even after the FCC passed legislation finally allowing answering machines to reach the masses, they were viewed as a niche luxury item. A 1991 article in the New York Times entitled “For Yuppies, Now For Plain Folks Too”, describes the transition. Along the way technology, improved allowing for widespread use.