What famous inventions have non-famous alternatives or competitors?
March 15, 2009 12:53 PM   Subscribe

What famous inventions have non-famous alternatives or competitors?

I'm trying to develop an alternate earth where history went a little differently thus technology is a little different. Im looking for alternatives to commonly used technology. For instance, the V8 engine and the Wankel engine. Helicopters and ornithopters. Edison wanted to electrify homes with AC power and Tesla with DC power. The early web and gopher.

I'd love to hear more. Thanks.
posted by damn dirty ape to Technology (35 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Aeroplanes vs airships.
posted by iviken at 1:00 PM on March 15, 2009

Use of airships took a big hit after the Hindenburg. I like to imagine that if such an accident wouldn't have happened, the safe use of hydrogen as a lifting gas would've had several decades of R&D, and today dirigibles would be as common as planes & trains.
posted by todbot at 1:02 PM on March 15, 2009

You've got your Edison and Tesla preferences reversed. Tesla was all about the AC. Whoops!

Aversive stimulus electric shock coming your way!
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 1:07 PM on March 15, 2009

vhs vs. beta?
posted by andshewas at 1:17 PM on March 15, 2009

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray?
posted by the dief at 1:20 PM on March 15, 2009

You could have Studebaker and Tucker automobiles!
posted by the dief at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2009

Not sure if you want equivalent quality, or less advanced, but here's a few. Note that they may not all exist in the same universe. One or two may be my own "inventions.":

DVD vs. Vinyl video disks. (Way worse technology.)

Commonly available internet vs. Commonly available teletype-like device.

Home-processed film for home movies instead of video tape/digital

Multi-disk CD (or mini-disk) Walkman instead of iPod/MP3 players

Dreamcast as the dominant video game system.

Electric cars have actually been around a long time, but never caught on.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2009

People claim all sorts of things how early cars used to use electricity and in fact ethanol rather than gasoline. In fact, I'm pretty sure T1 worked on ethanol.

There is LaserDisc and some DVD Audio standards (although I heard DVD Audio is actually used in a few settings still).

This seems pretty interesting by the way. I love this sort of alternate future stories.
posted by the_dude at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2009

Ternary computers instead of binary computers! Instead of 100110110 we'd have 1 0 -1 -1 0 1 1 -1 0 1 -1
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:27 PM on March 15, 2009

Roman numerals vs. Arabic numerals

The Gregorian calendar vs. the Hindu/Julian/Hebrew/Chinese/Buddhist/Mayan, etc calendar systems.

Chopsticks vs. forks
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:27 PM on March 15, 2009

Sega not shooting themselves in the foot. This is obviously my opinion, but I've always felt that Sega was ahead of the curve as far as video game technology.

Alternatively, think about a world where Sega never existed and Nintendo was able to sit around create on their own schedule instead of being pushed to keep up.

Sega CD and Playstation can go the same way.

To go along with andshewas answer, you can throw Laserdisc into the mix.

Depending on when you want to set this, you could even possibly use the current switch to digital television. I'm not sure what kind of long term impact it will have, but I doubt people really know that kind of thing anyway.

Before there were iPods, there were models made by Rio, Eiger Labs and Compaq. Wikipedia Article for some reference there.
posted by theichibun at 1:31 PM on March 15, 2009

Another interesting twist would be if Xerox and IBM had not screwed the pooch in competition against Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Dell.

We'd all be using Xerox PARC operating systems in our IBM desktops.

I imagine under that scenario, Netscape might not have died if Microsoft didn't exist to kill them with Internet Explorer...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:39 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm expanding your question a little in my answer, to focus on more general alternate paths for technologies, not just technologies that had a direct competitor...I hope it qualifies:

Maybe you could make something of the different stages of the development of calculus...if you want to consider a set of mathematical principles and techniques a "technology" (arguably, I think you can). It'd be interesting to examine what would have happened if it had been nailed down earlier by a different civilization, or if Newton or Leibniz had been out of the picture (if Leibniz hadn't been around, perhaps Newton never would have published it?). And considering how important calculus is to modern science, this could have had very interesting and huge ramifications.

As an example of what you're talking about (which you may very well be aware of if you are writing such a story) have you checked out The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson? Again, it doesn't exactly have the binary opposition you are looking for but is in the world of "alternative history because of technological innovation" lit.

Fun stuff!
posted by dubitable at 1:52 PM on March 15, 2009

There was a doctor named William Coley who performed a promising (in the 1890's, at least) series of experiments on patients with cancer. His method involved injecting a weakened pathogen into the patient which would stimulate a broad-scale immune system response, which would then go after the cancerous cells.

His line of research received little attention after the discovery of radiation treatment, and most modern research has been on chemotherapeutic agents.

There is an interesting account in American Scientist. It appears that their take-home conclusion is that Coley's methods were no magic bullet, but there is enough there to merit further study.

Quick googling seems to show that researchers are starting to put a little more time into revisiting his idea of stimulating the immune system to attack cancer, but by using modern methods to craft pathogens that might stimulate a more specific response.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 1:53 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

During WWII plans were drawn up and experiments held to make an aircraft carrier out of pykete, a form of ice mixed with wood pulp which is almost as strong as concrete, slow melting, and fast to manufacture. See project Habakkuk for details.
posted by furtive at 2:00 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mechanical television succeeds over electronic television.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:04 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Microscopy develops in the 1600s, but we don't get germ theory until the 1800s. What if Leeuwenhoek developed germ theory early, and it became established? History would be utterly changed, and millions wouldn't die. We're really the dunce timeline here, sticking with bad theories for 200 years.
posted by WPW at 2:06 PM on March 15, 2009

If Henry Ford hadn't found a way to manufacture automobiles profitably (mass-produced, instead of the hand-crafted one-offs that were coming out of Germany) you wouldn't have the push for a giant highway system, the creation of which fundamentally altered our rural landscapes, while in the cities resulted in the destruction of vast swaths of pre-industrial neighborhoods—most of which had become thriving ethnic enclaves of immigrants by the turn of the century. The railroads—already working with an eighty-year head-start, would have pushed for light rail in response to natural urban growth. The air would be vastly cleaner, and city streets would probably be more walkable. Already large American cities would rapidly grow into megalopolises because the lack of easy mobility—and because it's harder to move around, you wouldn't have seen the effects of white flight and the rise of suburbia, at least not nearly to the extremes we see today. Politically, the Middle East would be a slightly-wealthier version of South America, and about as politically influential, as you wouldn't have the extremely concentrated wealth that resulted from the higher demands for foreign oil, (which begets coups, which begets political extremism, which begets the current shit-storm you see).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:07 PM on March 15, 2009 [9 favorites]

Beds vs. hammocks.
Antibiotics vs. bacteriophages.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:19 PM on March 15, 2009

Suspenders vs. belts.
posted by box at 2:32 PM on March 15, 2009

We could count on our fingers and toes.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:41 PM on March 15, 2009

The early web and gopher.

For a time a lot of people got online through single-company 'walled gardens' like Compuserve and AOL. These services provided web access and e-mail, but also a large array of forums, downloads, chat rooms and suchlike available only to their subscribers.

If the web didn't take off at the time it did, we could have ended up with walled-garden services from a handful of companies being the dominant internet content model, which needless to say would make the internet a very different place.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:07 PM on March 15, 2009

Autogyros instead of helicopters / fixed-wing aircraft.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:10 PM on March 15, 2009

If Edison's nickel-iron car battery was not considered "too good."
posted by adipocere at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2009

What you're talking about is what steampunk is all about.

Generally speaking, the main differences are steam instead of internal combustion, brass instead of steel, and dirigibles instead of wings. But there are a lot of other differences (gas lighting instead of electricity). Steampunk is by now a well-developed mythos which is the collective creation of a lot of people who wanted exactly the same thing you're asking about. It should be a good source for you to mine for ideas.

(Also, NNDP is right. Edison was all about DC. George Westinghouse was the one who made AC the standard.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:14 PM on March 15, 2009

What if Leeuwenhoek developed germ theory early, and it became established? History would be utterly changed, and millions wouldn't die.

All von Leeuwenhoek might have needed to do was read Fracastoro:

During the last century of the Renaissance, Girolamo Fracastoro gathered and interpreted information about the scourges of his day: smallpox, typhoid, leprosy, bubonic plague, syphilis, and typhus. In 1546, he published the idea that diseases were caused by disease-specific germs that could multiply within the body and be transmitted directly from person to person, or indirectly on contaminated objects, even over long distances; moreover, he proposed that variations in the intensity of epidemics could be attributed to changes in the virulence of germs.
posted by jamjam at 4:02 PM on March 15, 2009

The Stirling engine, an early rival to the steam engine, is currently getting renewed interest because of its efficiency and its ability to run on "waste" heat. Definitely a plausible alternative technology and it was invented in 1816 so it's not exactly space-age engineering.
posted by Quietgal at 4:12 PM on March 15, 2009

Thought of another: Peltier cooling (a.k.a. thermoelectric cooling), rather than compressor-type cooling systems. But Peltier cooling is really inefficient, so it's not used very often. (However, it's handy if you want the same gizmo to both heat and cool.) Also, it's electronic so may be a little too high-tech for your scenario.

An example of alternative technology that was rightfully abandoned when something better came along is the chain-stitch sewing machine. The earliest machines formed a chain stitch, rather than the lock stitch we use now. A chain-stitch machine is easier to build but the resulting seam is highly failure-prone - one missed stitch and the whole thing just "unzips". Which could be used to hilarious effect in your story, perhaps.
posted by Quietgal at 4:30 PM on March 15, 2009

Response by poster: Also, it's electronic so may be a little too high-tech for your scenario.

High tech is good. Im focusing on the modern world or at least post WWII. Thanks.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:35 PM on March 15, 2009

Oooh, this is fun. Wind power! No need to stop at medieval technology for grinding flour, you can generate electricity with wind turbines. You can even build a better sailing ship, like the Cousteau Society's Alcyone. (Um, OK, Alcyone uses wind as a supplemental energy source for propulsion, but your alternative-history engineers will do better than us, right?)
posted by Quietgal at 5:10 PM on March 15, 2009

nuclear energy instead of coal/fossil fuels - on a scale where every house and office would be heated/lit/run on nuclear energy. as if chernobyl had never happened. i imagine the world would be pretty different, for better or worse!
posted by skaye at 9:44 PM on March 15, 2009

How about the US using the metric system?
posted by carpyful at 10:01 PM on March 15, 2009

Tesla nearly invented radio, but Marconi beat him to it, though Tesla famously quipped "Yes, but he was using 20 of my patents to do so." He, however, called it something like "thought transmission."
posted by Muffy at 8:10 AM on March 16, 2009

Dvorak vs. Qwerty
posted by cass at 8:58 AM on March 16, 2009

Waren Ellis' Ministry of Space has Wernher von Braun surrendering to the British, leading to the UK dominating space, setting up bases on the Moon and Mars, etc, as a result of going through with von Braun's original plans for space exploration.
posted by Scoo at 11:55 AM on March 16, 2009

« Older Measuring relative heights of two points that are...   |   Did Jerry Lewis threaten to "blow the head off" of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.