TIME magazine produced a list of the 50 worst inventions last year. These ranged from the bizarre (Honegar, a combination of honey and vinegar; spray-on hair; the hula chair, a hula hoop/ chair combo) to the dangerous (Agent Orange; hydrogenated oils; sub-prime mortgages) and simply pointless (New Coke – a sweeter form of the original).
But it’s less usual for inventors themselves to express regrets about projects they’ve worked on, often for most of their lives.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, the world’s most widely used automatic rifle, has said that though he’s proud of the weapon he created to protect his country, he regrets its terrorists and gangsters who mainly use it now.
Dr Jay Chapman, the creator of the lethal injection, similarly regrets his invention as “too humane” for
Professor David Nichols, a chemist, published research on the drug
Wally Conron, the creator of the Labradoodle – a poodle/ labrador cross to provide a guide dog for the blind allergic to dog hair – regrets the subsequent invention of the ‘designer’ lapdog popularised by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston.
Professor Bob Gable, too, regrets what’s become of the electronic tagging system he invented in 1964 as a system of positive reinforcement but since appropriated as a tool for punishment. What’s it like to be known for something you hate? “Of course it’s not pleasant,” he says, “but I’m not in control of the universe.”
And this is the problem. How can the poor inventor be held accountable for things committed by or with their brainchild? The law of unintended consequences kicks in and, once anything is taken up into mass production, control goes out of the window.
And what about all those hopelessly ahead of their time? Inventors like Charles Babbage, the ‘father of the computer’ and George Boole, the ‘founder’ of IT. We can’t say what some of today’s ‘failures’ will ‘create’ for the world long after they’re gone. Edison, that tireless forerunner of the modern world, in his relentless search for a durable filament for what has itself become a symbol of invention – the electric light bulb – tried thousands of possibilities. Rather than give up, he looked at it as: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Nora Johnson’s novel, The De Clerambault Code (www.nora-johnson.com) available at Amazon. Profits to Cudeca