Why do some people fail after early success
April 18, 2012 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Two questions: What are some tech or science discoveries that quickly became outdated? Two: What are some of the stories of early tech innovators whose genius flamed out quickly?

Why do you think these things happened, in their particular way to these particular people? What did they not see coming? Did hubris play a part? I've become interested in how early success, in some people, can lead to a lifetime of failure because of how that success impacts the way they perceive themselves and approach problems.
posted by generic230 to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Do Faxes count? I'm having trouble believing the day of the fax is already over...
posted by Ys at 12:24 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Melismata at 12:27 PM on April 18, 2012

How specific and what fields are you interested in? There are 8 million examples of computer programs and hardware from 1990-present which were rapidly outdated due to rapid incremental progress, eg I own iomega disks which were useful for about 6 months before CD-Rs became super cheap. There are lots of bench techniques in biology that had a lifespan of a few years before being largely supplanted, but live on for isolated cases.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:30 PM on April 18, 2012

Perhaps string theory? I don't know much about it, but from what I understand it was all the rage for a brief period and then faced a backlash.
posted by imalaowai at 12:33 PM on April 18, 2012

Response by poster: -Ys, that's awesome, yes, faxes count. I never even thought of that. Now it's CD's as well, which were even shorter lived.

-Robot, I'm interested in any field. Software, floppy disks, all great innovations that are obsolete now.

-String theory is also great. I'm going to try to learn more about it. Thanks.
posted by generic230 at 12:40 PM on April 18, 2012

What about those typewriter-type things with small displays that existed between typewriters and computers?
posted by taltalim at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Do Faxes count? I'm having trouble believing the day of the fax is already over..."

Faxes have been around since the 1843, and they'll likely continue to be around for longer than we will.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:48 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps string theory? I don't know much about it, but from what I understand it was all the rage for a brief period and then faced a backlash.

This is not correct. It's still where most of theoretical physics is at right now.
posted by empath at 12:49 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by meronym at 12:49 PM on April 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

taltalim - I believe they were called word processors, and boy were they ever short-lived, at least in retail...not sure about commercially.

robot - also CD-RWs, and to a lesser extent DVD-RWs, as the cheapness and burning speed of write-once discs made rewriteables not worth the hassle for almost everyone.

I can't remember if it was Sony or another company, but someone briefly made 2.88MB floppies as a double-capacity replacement for the 1.44MB 3.5in discs, but doubling such a small capacity didn't make sense in the start of the writeable CD era.

going back further - 8 track tapes?
posted by trivia genius at 12:50 PM on April 18, 2012

Luminiferous Aether.
posted by empath at 12:51 PM on April 18, 2012

This is a tough one. A lot of now-obsolete scientific or technological ideas don't become quickly outdated so much as "fail to catch on", don't live up to their potential, or just become isolated in a limited niche.

Some examples:

The Josephson Junction, which was an example of how superconductivity can be used to create a highly efficient transistor. The concept promised the possibility of something revolutionary, but now only exists in extremely small niche applications.

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) -- back in the 80s, in the days of 300-1200 baud models, ISDN promised HUGE data speeds of 56 kilobits per second. But it was a big challenge to get it actually deployed at your house, and it was pricey. And eventually, modems caught up to that speed, and then cable modems and DSL made it obsolete.

I'm tempted to add massively parallel computing, which was all the rage in the early 90s, and most supercomputing today is massively parallel computing, but it's not the huge promising research field it used to be. It found its niche and stayed there. It turns out that there aren't many problems that are easily parallellizable.
posted by deanc at 12:54 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have to be careful what you mean by "outdated" when speaking about technology and science. Innovation in both fields is almost always cumulative and one invention or idea often directly leads to another.

For instance, without Newtonian Physics, we wouldn't have General Relativity. Without the compact disc (CD), we wouldn't have the digital versatile disc (DVD).
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2012

Faxes were invented in the late 19th century and didn't go "out" until the late 20th century, so I wouldn't call that "quickly".
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:00 PM on April 18, 2012

Polavision, the instant movie system that Polaroid launched in 1977, just prior to the advent of videotape.
posted by alms at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2012

Seconding Minidisc. It enjoyed brief popularity, and a kind of second life as a robust field recording tool (I did a bit of pick-up work for Canada's national broadcaster, the CBC, back in 2003 or so, and they were standard equipment even then despite having been considered far, far over the hill for years by then).

Neo's bootlegs in The Matrix (when he is still Mr. Annnnnderson) are Minidiscs.

The failure of Minidisc is a fascinating story in and of itself (I should make a FPP, when I have time to do the research): a brilliant format that simultaneously ran into a physical limitation and was completely crippled by Sony's obsession for proprietary recording formats and distribution models. I still think the physical limitations were secondary to Sony not understanding its own product, and getting hit by the truck of digital distribution models.

I still have some MD recorders, players, and an entire desk drawer full of media. I'm sure there are Zune devotees out there, and Betamax aficionados, but I'm not sure any recent technology has fans that feel quite as burned as Minidisc users feel. Felt. Feel.
posted by Shepherd at 1:04 PM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and on the "disc" front, Laserdisc. I'm not nearly as well versed in the history of Laserdisc as I am with Minidisc, but it was a kind of stepping stone from VHS to DVD that shone brightly very briefly, but died in minutes once DVDs were introduced.
posted by Shepherd at 1:06 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Zip Drives.
posted by drezdn at 1:08 PM on April 18, 2012

What are some of the stories of early tech innovators whose genius flamed out quickly?

I'm going to say David Gelernter, who did some great work in CS in the early 90s, becoming pretty much a rockstar, and then, after falling victim to the Unabomber, pretty much just stopped doing CS work, outside of a company which folded. He does productive intellectual work in other areas, publishing books, but as a CS thinker, he made his big splash and then (granted, for reasons not his fault and likely the fallout from being attacked and maimed) faded out of the field.

Another CS concept that didn't go anywhere: Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) processors. The idea was that you had a very advanced compiler which would intelligently compile the code into long "Words" containing multiple instructions for maximum paralellizability. It was sort of the anti-RISC. They tried to commercialize this by founding a company in the mid-80s called Multiflow which, after muddling along for a while, ended up folding.

It turned out that instead of investing massive amounts of effort to create very complex processors and advanced compilers, it was cheaper to use simple processors, regular compilers, and place a fair amount of obligation to make the code parallel-processing-friendly onto the programmers. You can argue that this wasn't "better", technologically speaking, but it was definitely easier and cheaper and accomplished a lot of the same results.
posted by deanc at 1:09 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, before Laserdisc, there were vinyl videodiscs.
posted by empath at 1:12 PM on April 18, 2012

Vacuum tubes.
posted by JimmyJames at 1:30 PM on April 18, 2012

Arguably, whole classes of drugs called proton pump inhibitors and h2 blockers.

Prior to the mid-eighties, peptic ulcers and gastritis were viewed as incurable conditions, largely caused by stress and lifestyle (weight, diet, smoking). Gastric and duodenal ulcers could mean pain until you died, with the possibility of progressive surgeries to remove more and more of your digestive system as time went on.

While the causes of ulcers were poorly understood, stomach acids were well known to be the immediate cause of pain, irritating the ulcer and preventing it from healing. So, governments and drug companies put a lot of effort into managing stomach acid levels, eventually being enormously successful, developing whole new families of drugs, which suppressed the production of acids, free protons, in the gut. Several kinds were developed, including H2-receptor antagonists and protein pump inhibitors. Billions of dollars were spent on development.

Drug sales could have been huge. Estimates from the early nineties had something like 0.5% of all of Britain taking antacids daily for seven years or more. There was the potential for millions of daily customers, worldwide.

Meanwhile, research into the causes of ulcers continued, but was significantly less well funded than the drug research.

There were many false starts and near misses. However, in the early 1980s, a pair of researchers in Australia, Marshall and Warren, noticed that ulcers responded to antibiotics. After several rejected papers, one of the researchers, Barry Marshall, infected himself with the organism they had found, H pylori, then cured himself. To cut a long story short, eventually their view prevailed, and they were awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 2005.

For the last decade, many of these diseases, peptic ulcers and many types of reflux, have been found to be very treatable by a course of antibiotics. The H2 blocker and PPI drugs were originally thought to be maintenance, lifelong drugs, like statins used for managing cholesterol. These would have lifetime customers, big dollars for the drug companies. Instead, H2 blockers and PPIs have become part of short-term therapy to manage pain and promote healing while many, if not most cases of GERD and PUD are cured by long out-of-patent antibiotics.

So PPI and H2 blockers aren't exactly obsolete, but they certainly didn't turn into the goldmines the drug companies thought they would be.
posted by bonehead at 1:51 PM on April 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Vacuum tubes were used, and still are for some niche applications, for nearly 60 years before solid state electronics started to replace them for most applications. Hardly technology that became quickly outdated.
posted by Quack at 1:55 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

What are some of the stories of early tech innovators whose genius flamed out quickly?

Shoot, how could I forget William Shockley, inventor of the transistor? He was the inventor of what is perhaps the most important technology of the 20th century, only to end up basically harassing all of his employees away from his startup company, pursuing a dead-end path of developing a three-state transistor, and then developing an obsession with IQ tests and eugenics which he considered his "most important" work.
posted by deanc at 1:56 PM on April 18, 2012


Electricity distribution via direct current. Edison championed DC, Nikola Tesla wanted to use AC (which is superior for the task). Edison's clout is the reason DC was used for as long as it was.

String theory is still around and doing just fine, although the hype has died down.

Isaac Newton championed some really crackpot ideas(PDF) later in life.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:01 PM on April 18, 2012

taltalim: "What about those typewriter-type things with small displays that existed between typewriters and computers?"

The Word Processor
posted by Bonzai at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2012

One of the problems here that makes this question difficult is that popular technologies can't become obsoleted quickly because their established presence represents a lot of capital investment. They don't simply evaporate so much as gradually get upgraded over time (frequently upgrades of a form that are as close as possible to what they're replacing), while the older technology gets relegated to a niche. Cars didn't wipe out streetcars, subways, and trains over night (or at all).

Though Zip disks represent something where the capital investment was small enough that once CD-Rs became viable, Zip just evaporated.

Film cameras are an example, too: there was a tipping point in digital camera quality and price, I would guess around the mid-2000s that suddenly obsoleted film cameras almost overnight, even though digital cameras were an available consumer technology since the mid-90s.
posted by deanc at 3:48 PM on April 18, 2012

One of the big technological advances in transportation was canals. Before the canals, the only way to move cargo from one place to another was with wagons, pulled by oxen or horses or mules. And in most places the roads were mud half the year, and dust the rest of the time. Movement speed was poor, capacity was lousy, a lot of drivers were needed, and thus it was too expensive to use for many kinds of things.

The canals permitted large loads to be moved long distances, with small crews, and maybe only one or two horses pulling the barge. It was a huge advance, and arguably set off the industrial revolution, because it meant that large quantities of coal could be taken to where the iron ore was -- or vice versa.

Canals were a really big thing, and a lot of money was invested in digging them. But anything the canal could do, railroads could do better. That's why the golden age of canals was only about sixty years. Once the iron works started producing steel rail in adequate quantities, railroads started being laid, and the days of the canals were over.

Some of them are still in use, of course. The Erie Canal is still used for cargo, a bit, but mostly it's used by recreational boaters.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:52 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

"...the only way to move cargo from one place to another overland..."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:53 PM on April 18, 2012

Per flameouts, there's the tragic case of Phil Katz. He invented the ZIP archive. He died at age 37 of side effects of acute alcoholism.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2012

Scientific discoveries: The best example of that I can think of is Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, released in stages between 1609 and 1619.

They were a tremendous achievement, and Kepler is rightly honored for them. But they were completely superseded by Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, in 1686.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:43 PM on April 18, 2012

Betamax was going to be the next big thing after videotapes.

Sony dropped the ball on that and portable audio cassette players. Walkmans could have become as popular as iPods are now.
posted by misha at 4:58 PM on April 18, 2012

Betamax. Eight track cartridge. DAT. The Mellotron.
posted by Decani at 5:22 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disc film
posted by SisterHavana at 11:00 PM on April 18, 2012

4-wheel steering was a bit of a fad in cars of the late 80s/early 90s that never really went anywhere.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:34 PM on April 19, 2012

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