- Spectacular Flops: Game-Changing Technologies That Failed by Michael Brian Schiffer
By Michael Brian Schiffer. Clinton Corners: Eliot Werner Publications, Inc., 2019. Pp. 308.
One reverse salient in the history of technology is its coverage of failure, or more precisely, its lack of coverage of failure. We tend to focus on success, if only because the sources are better. Yet failure is more normal than success in the evolution of technologies.
Anthropologist Michael Schiffer addresses the literature's shortcoming in his Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Approach by analyzing "the most conspicuous examples of failed technologies," the "spectacular flops" (p. 3). His twelve case studies range from the first steam-powered automobile by France's Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot around 1770, through the half-century of efforts to harness nuclear fusion that continue to function as a sinkhole for advancing science and technology today. Together they provide interesting stories, ideal for inserting into a class lecture, but also excellent examples of the many ways technologies fail.
Despite his disclaimer to do no more than offer a "handful of limited, carefully qualified generalizations," which look awfully like a historian's conclusions, Schiffer provides a very useful theoretical framework for exploring the lives of technologies both successful and unsuccessful (p. vi). His major analytical tool is assembling the five-stage "life history" of each technology: invention, development, manufacturing, adoption, and use. A successful technology will experience a full life. A failed technology will die somewhere along the way.
What causes failure? A lack of resources, especially financial, is the usual suspect but often not the main cause. A technological function may not be needed—peace caused the French army to stop funding Cugnot's fardier for hauling artillery. Competitors may produce a better product: improvements in steam engines reduced the theoretical advantages of the atmospheric railway engine, and better internal combustion engines derailed Chrysler's turbojet motor for cars. The anticipated performance of a new technology may prove unattainable—peaceful nuclear explosions never met expectations and instead generated intense local opposition. Or changes in the legal and economic environment may destroy the technology's financial, social, or ideological attractiveness as happened with the airliner Concorde SST.
What makes a failure spectacular? It's not quite as clear-cut as the book implies. In some cases, it's clearly the famous inventor whose earlier or later successes sharply contrast with this failure, like Brunel's Great Eastern steamship, Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house and cars, or Nikola Tesla's World System. The sheer size and resources devoted to the failure also qualify, whether technological hubris like the U.S. Air Force's nuclear-powered [End Page 1235] airplane or physical scale like Ferdinand de Lesseps's Panama Canal venture.
One uber-assumption is that the proposed technology will have, as the book's subtitle indicates, a game-changing impact. Some of the cases seem less an example of failure on a grand scale than the "normal" failures seen in the early stages of a technology where the underlying principles and concepts are still fluid. Electric motors and automobiles clearly evolved into key components of industrial society, but their initial lack of commercial feasibility was neither unusual nor, at the time, noteworthy. Indeed, Schiffer did not know about Cugnot's vehicle until he received the Cugnot Award of Distinction from the Society of Automotive Historians. Like a good scholar, he investigated.
Fame, whether public or professional, helps in obtaining resources, as does invoking a goal that resonates, however impractical it may be. Indeed, a promoter's irrational exuberance—or the ability to generate that from patrons and other stakeholders—may keep a project going long after a more sober appraisal would have killed it. If Schiffer had looked more at military technologies, he would have found many more spectacular flops, like the hafnium bomb justified by the rubric of national security.
Almost inadvertently, Schiffer reveals the existence of dedicated reconstructors who have recreated Cugnot's automobile and Fuller's car. Possibly Schiffer can take up his keyboard and benefit us with a book about that community—if indeed it is that organized—and...