Game-Changing Technologies That Failed

Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.

Many technologies begin life as someone’s vision of an ambitious, perhaps audacious, technology that is expected to have a revolutionary impact on consumers—whether families, companies, or societies. However, if this highly touted technology fails “prematurely” at some point in its life history, it becomes a spectacular flop.

Employing a behavioral perspective, this book presents a sample of twelve spectacular flops encompassing the past three centuries—ranging from the world’s first automobile to the nuclear-powered bomber. Because technologies may fail from many different causes, spectacular flops pose a special challenge to the author’s long-term project of furnishing generalizations about technological change.

Instead of constructing generalizations that apply to all spectacular flops, this book provides limited generalizations that pertain to particular groups of technologies bounded by parameters such as “long-term development projects” and “one-off projects.” The reader need have no prior familiarity with the technologies because basic principles are introduced as needed.

From the reviews . . .

“[T]welve case studies . . . provide interesting stories, ideal for inserting into a class lecture, but also excellent examples of the many ways technologies fail. . . . Schiffer provides a very useful theoretical framework for exploring the lives of technologies both successful and unsuccessful . . . . His major analytical tool is assembling the five-stage ‘life history’ of each technology: invention, development, manufacturing, adoption, and use.”
Jonathan Coopersmith in Technology and Culture

This book . . . reports on technological inventions that failed to meet their inventors’ or investors’ initial hopes. Using his background in behavioral archaeology, Schiffer seeks patterns of failure that may help generalize, at least to a limited extent, what causes certain grandiose innovations to fail. . . . Readers interested in odd examples of sometimes inspired, at other times harebrained, ideas that began with high hopes but eventually crashed will find this a rich source of case studies over several centuries of spectacular technological flops.
J. W. Dauben in Choice

“The reader of this work will no doubt greatly benefit from Schiffer’s voluminous knowledge regarding electrical and mechanical devices. . . . [E]xcellent illustrations and careful, explanatory text . . . . [The author] does an outstanding job explaining the technology to the layperson reader. . . . Schiffer’s choices of the different technological failures are particularly well thought out, described, and chosen.”
Howard Schneider in Business History Review

Spectacular Flops examines just that: ideas, in this case science and technology, of great potential and perceived innovation that ultimately fail in a spectacular fashion. . . . This volume would be an excellent addition to both local and university libraries and will be of particular interest to introductory courses on the history of science and technology and for all enthusiasts of such histories.”
Robert James Stark in Canadian Journal of Archaeology


Chapter 1
Introduction: Understanding Technological Issues

Chapter 2
Secret Project: Nicolas-Joserph Cugnot and the First Automobile

Chapter 3
Too Little, Too Late: The Atmospheric Railway

Chapter 4
Putting Electromagnetism to Work

Chapter 5
Audacious Engineer: Isambard Kindom Brunel and the Great Eastern Steamship

Chapter 6
Ferdinand de Lesseps’ Panama Canal

Chapter 7
Crackpot Invention? Nikola Tesla’s World System

Chapter 8
Visionary Inventor: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World

Chapter 9
The Nuclear-Powered Bomber

Chapter 10
Domesticating the Bomb: “Geographical Engineering” and Project Chariot

Chapter 11
Chrysler’s Turbojet-Powered Automobile

Chapter 12
The Concorde: Supersonic Airliner

Chapter 13
Fusion, Hot and Cold

Chapter 14
Conclusion: Several Limited Generalizations



ISBN 978-0-9898249-9-6/paperback/322 pp./illus./January 2019/$32.95