Thursday July 20, 2017
Summer Series - The Frankenstein Factor: Inventors Who Regret Their Inventions
*Our Summer Series airs Thursdays and Saturdays on CBC Radio One.*
This week, we analyze inventors who later came to regret their inventions. Sometimes it's because the product ended up being harmful. Other times it's because of the way their product was used. And in most cases, the creators simply lost control of their creations. We'll look at why the inventor of the K-Cup doesn't own a Keurig machine, why the creator of Mother's Day later tried to have it rescinded and how the Wright Brothers lost control of the airplane. It's one of the most unwieldy aspects of marketing - you create a product, you inform the public, you put it into the marketplace, and it's out of your hands.
This little known movie, released in 1969, changed a fundamental aspect of Hollywood.
Star Richard Widmark wasn't getting along with director Robert Totten and arranged to have him replaced with director Don Siegel.
Both directors claimed Widmark had overruled their decisions, and neither director was happy with the final film.
More important, neither director wanted to take credit for it.
A Director's Guild meeting overseeing the dispute agreed that the film did not represent the vision of either director.
So a proposal was tabled: The directing credit was to be changed to protect the reputations of the filmmakers. Instead of using their real names, a fictional name would be used. The name Al Smith was suggested. But it was discovered there was actually a director named Al Smith, so the Director's Guild settled on "Alan Smithee."
From that point on, whenever a director had lost creative control of a finished film, he could file a grievance, take his name off the film, and "Alan Smithee" would be credited instead.
So within Hollywood, whenever a director's credit said Alan Smithee, it was instantly understood the original director had disavowed the film.
If you search the Internet Movie Data Base, you'll find over 20 very bad Alan Smithee films.
In 1998, director Arthur Hiller shot a mockumentary on this very subject called An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
The plot revolves around a director named Alan Smithee who directs a film starring Sylvester Stallone. The studio eventually takes control of the film away from Smithee and re-edits it.
Smithee wants to disown the film, and when he tries to take his name off the movie, he discovers that his name is the same pseudonym the Director's Guild uses when a director wants to take his name off a movie. So he has no option but to steal the film and burn it.
But get a load of this: The director of this mockumentary, Arthur Hiller, didn't get along with the producer on the film. The film was taken away from Hiller and re-edited. It was art imitating life imitating art.
So guess what Arthur Hiller did? He took his name off the film.
Which meant that An Alan Smithee Film – in the end - was directed by Alan Smithee.
Believe it or not, there are quite a few Alan Smithee's in the world of business, too.
Inventors and business people who created products they later tried to distance themselves from.
Sometimes it's because the product ended up being harmful. Other times it was because of the way their product was used, and in most cases, the creators simply lost control of their creations.
And it just may surprise you to learn what those inventions are…
Architect Victor Gruen had an interesting idea...
As cities started expanding to the suburbs, he wanted to create a place where shoppers could run errands without the drawbacks of driving downtown.
He wanted to model these communal areas like the old town squares of yesteryear with promenades, green spaces, fountains, supermarkets, schools and post offices. He prioritized pedestrians over cars.
Gruen's creation became known as… the Shopping Mall.
The first one Gruen designed was in suburban Detroit in 1954.
It caught on, and Gruen quickly became one of the busiest architects in the country.
But other cities took Gruen's idea and began twisting it into something he hated and opposed. They took out the green spaces, enclosed the malls, packed them with stores and surrounded them with seas of asphalt parking.
Over time, Gruen went from being the shopping mall's inventor to its most vocal critic.
He called them harmful, hideous, soulless shopping machines that alienated people instead of bringing them together.
The "father of the shopping mall" refused to claim paternity.
To his dying day, Victor Gruen despised what became of his invention.
He wouldn't be the first inventor to feel that way.
One day back in 1995, John Sylvan was sitting in his car outside an ATM when he started feeling ill.
His heart was pounding.
His head throbbed.
He began experiencing tunnel vision.
He suspected he was having a heart attack.
So he rushed to the nearest hospital.
In the Emergency Room, doctors did a number of tests on Sylvan and determined he wasn't having a heart attack.
So they began asking him questions.
Are you sleeping well? Are you eating properly? Are you exercising?
Then they casually asked him how many cups of coffee he drank a day.
Sylvan answered, "Around 30 or 40."
The doctors just stared at him.
37-year old John Sylvan was suffering from caffeine poisoning.
But you have to understand something.
Caffeine poisoning was an occupational hazard.
For the three years leading up to that hospital visit, John Sylvan had been trying to revolutionize coffee making.
Previously, Sylvan had been working a low-level job at a tech firm in Massachusetts. Part of the job entailed going around collecting money from his co-workers for the office coffee fund.
More than that, he hated the office coffee. Everyone did.
And the coffee vendors not only delivered bad coffee every week, they had a monopoly on the office market.
Every day, bad coffee would sit in the pot, growing stale and cold.
As coffee companies will tell you, the biggest consumer of coffee… is the kitchen sink.
So Sylvan had an idea to create single-serve coffee pods. That way, people could brew one cup of coffee of their choosing. Coffee and water wouldn't be wasted. All he needed to do was invent a machine that could brew single cups.
First, Sylvan created single coffee pods, then tried prototype after prototype of coffee machines to brew them. Many of them exploded, plastering his kitchen with coffee grounds. Sylvan was also the official coffee taster – hence the 40 cups per day.
When he finally managed to create a semi-reliable brewing machine, Sylvan christened the company Keurig - which was a Dutch word for "excellence."
The coffee pods were to be called K-Cups.
When he started looking for investors, no one was interested. As a matter of fact, major coffee companies told him his invention would never catch on.
But Sylvan believed in the potential of single-serve coffee pods. Even if he just managed to capture a fraction of the $40 billion coffee market, it would mean untold millions.
And Sylvan had his eye on the office market.
Eventually, Keurig found investors.
The plan was to make inexpensive coffee brewing machines.
The real money was in the K-Cups.
Early Keurig machines kept breaking down. But an interesting thing happened – when the machines broke, office workers would beg for a replacement.
The convenience was catching on – and catching on in a big way.
Sales started to explode. But so did the relationship between Sylvan and his investors. It got so bad that Sylvan left the company in 1997, selling his shares for just $50,000.
By 2010, Keurig was on track to sell 3 million K-Cups.
By 2014, that number jumped to 9.8 billion.
The reason: The company had cracked the home market.
But even though his idea became a multi-billion dollar operation, Sylvan doesn't look back with pride.
The problem: Those 9 billion K-Cups aren't biodegradable and can't be recycled.
Founder John Sylvan never imagined K-Cups would be used outside offices.
But today, 40% of Canadian homes and 25% of American ones have single-serve coffee makers in their kitchens.
Recent estimates say the amount of non-recyclable K-Cups currently in landfills could circle the Earth more than 12 times.
And that's why John Sylvan regrets his invention.
While Keurig says it is working on a sustainable K-Cup, Sylvan doesn't believe the product will ever be fully recyclable.
He says he feels bad sometimes that he ever invented it.
And today, John Sylvan doesn't even own a Keurig coffee maker.
Back in the late 1800s, Milton Wright was a travelling preacher.
He would often bring home toys for his children from his travels.
One day, he brought home a toy whirlybird. Made of cork, bamboo and paper, the whirlybird was powered by a rubber band, which twirled its blades and made it airborne.
It fascinated his two sons… Orville and Wilbur.
When they grew up, Orville and Wilbur started a bicycle repair shop and began coming up with their own designs.
The Wright brothers were tinkerers.
But they never lost their fascination with flight.
Around the world, some other inventors were having moderate success with gliders.
That's when the Wright brothers decided to experiment with motorized flight.
Through many prototypes and designs, the Wright brothers continued to refine their idea.
Then, on December 17th, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history with the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight, remaining airborne for 59 seconds at an altitude of 852 feet.
It was an extraordinary achievement.
Surprisingly, their invention didn't find a receptive audience in the U.S. Many people didn't believe the accomplishment. The press said the flights were too short to be important. One headline said, "Flyers or Liars?"
So Wilbur travelled to Europe and found a much more receptive audience there. Almost immediately, they started selling planes in Europe.
Eventually, the Wright brothers sold their first airplane to the U.S. army in 1909. Even though Wilbur died in 1912, Orville continued with the company. He sold 14 more planes to the army for "observation" missions.
Orville truly believed airplanes would prevent wars. He felt with aerial observation, it would be impossible to have surprise attacks. And because both sides would know what the other was doing at all times, the desire for war would wane.
However, the military had other ideas.
In 1911, Italy became the first country to use airplanes in warfare. It was in a war with Turkey and dropped hand grenades on enemy troops from the sky.
While it's kind of shocking to imagine, early aerial dogfights were really pistol duels.
Pilots actually carried handguns and rifles to try and shoot other pilots.
In one noted encounter in 1914, a British airman ran out of ammo and simply threw the handgun at a German pilot...
By the end of WW1, there were observation planes, fighter planes and multi-engine bombers that could carry thousands of pounds of bombs.
Orville Wright was mortified at the destruction his beloved planes were inflicting.
During World War II, over 300,000 warplanes were built.
On his 74th birthday in 1945, Orville Wright's life-long optimism about the role of the airplane as an instrument of peace had faded.
While he loved his invention, he deplored the destruction it had caused.
He said: "We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the Earth. But we were wrong. We underestimated man's capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end."
It would be a sentiment shared by quite a few other inventors in history…
Even as a kid, Philo Farnsworth was fascinated by electricity.
At 13 years of age, he figured out how to use electricity to operate his farm's washing machine, sewing machine and barn lights.
One day, he found a stash of Popular Science magazines in the attic of his family's Idaho farmhouse, and read about the possibility of television for the first time. The thought of sending pictures through the air enthralled him.
By age 14, he had theorized the principles of electronic television.
Everyone in his family had farm chores, and young Philo's was to plow the family potato field - which gave him a lot of time to think.
One day, he stopped to survey the parallel rows of crops behind him. In that moment, he realized that a large image could be composed from smaller repeating lines if they were viewed from a distance.
It was a profound insight.
He noodled that insight for the next few years, and in 1927 – at the age of 21 - he generated the first electronic television image through the air – from one room to another – by scanning the image in a series of lines going back and forth. A breakthrough inspired by his potato plowing.
Television as we know it was born that day.
Philo Farnsworth had a hope for his invention.
He saw television as a marvellous teaching tool that could help eliminate illiteracy. He wanted it to allow people to see and learn about each other. That way, differences could be solved around conference tables without going to war.
But it didn't turn out that way.
When Philo Farnsworth looked back at his invention many years later, he wasn't a happy man.
He felt he had created a monster.
He believed very few people were being educated.
That the world's problems had not been solved.
He believed people wasted their lives spending so much time watching television because there was nothing worthwhile on it. He regretted his wonderful invention.
Philo Farnsworth lived until 1971. When he died, the average TV set still contained over 100 components he had patented.
By that time, almost every house in the nation had a television set.
Except one. Philo Farnsworth never allowed a TV set into his home.
When WW2 ended, industry boomed in North America.
With that came expanding workforces.
Most office spaces at that time were open bullpens, with only executives enjoying offices with doors.
Industrial designer Robert Propst felt the open concept office was a wasteland. He believed it sapped vitality, blocked talent and wasted effectiveness, health and motivation.
So in 1968, he offered a better solution.
He came up with a flexible, three-walled design that could be re-shaped to any given need. It included multiple work surfaces, and the moveable partitions provided a degree of privacy with a place to pin up works in progress. It let companies react to change quickly and inexpensively.
He called his new design "Action Office."
The world called it cubicles.
Initially, cubicles launched to great reviews. People who had worked in noisy, open areas welcomed the change.
But that applause didn't last long.
Soon companies looking to save money began cramming a lot of people into small spaces.
The cubicles got smaller and smaller… and smaller.
Robert Propst didn't like what he saw. First, cubicles were never designed to be square. They were meant to be fluid and interesting.
Secondly, his movable walls were designed to be raw material to be built on. But office managers saw them as finished furniture.
Where the Action Office was meant to be shapeshifting, motivating and inspiring, cubicles ended up being boxy, boring and soulless.
Propst was outraged. He said the "cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations was monolithic insanity."
He said the egg-carton geometry created "barren hellholes" and a "rat maze of boxes."
Even though it was hated by workers and cursed by interior designers, the cubicle still claims the largest share of office furniture to this day.
By the time Robert Propst died in 2000, over 40 million people were working in cubicles.
It would be the biggest regret of his career.
One day at Sunday School, Anna Jarvis's mother told stories about notable mothers in the bible, ending the lesson with a prayer that maybe someday someone would create a day to celebrate all that mothers have done for humanity.
That lesson had a profound impact on Anna.
When her mother passed away years later, Anna Jarvis was devastated, and decided to work to promote a day that would honour all mothers.
In 1908, Anna celebrated the first Mother's Day with a speech in the church where her mother had taught. She designated white carnations as a symbol of a mother's love, as carnations were her mother's favourite flower.
The concept of Mother's Day caught on quickly because Jarvis was a zealous letter writer. She wrote to the President, she wrote to politicians, she wrote to dignitaries.
She was soon assisted by deep-pocketed backers like John Wanamaker of Wanamaker's Department Store, and H.J. Heinz of ketchup fame.
The floral industry fully supported the movement, and Anna Jarvis accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation officially designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.
Anna Jarvis had finally realized her dream.
But that dream started becoming a cash cow for corporations.
In the beginning, carnations cost half-a-penny each. Four years later florists were charging 15 cents each.
Greeting card companies started issuing Mother's Day cards. The confectionary industry began creating Mother's Day chocolates.
Soon, Anna Jarvis quit her job as the first female advertising editor at an insurance company to campaign full time against the commercialisation of Mother's Day.
To her, Mother's Day was to be a day of sentiment.
She encouraged people to spend the day with their mothers or write them loving letters.
Now all she saw was profiteering.
Beginning in 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers. She couldn't stand those who sold or used greeting cards.
She turned against her commercial supporters. One day while dining in Wanamaker's department store, when she saw they were offering a "Mother's Day Salad." She ordered it, dumped it on the floor…
…left the money for it and marched out.
She threatened lawsuits. She tried to trademark a carnation with the words "Mother's Day" but was denied.
Jarvis referred to florists, greeting card companies and candy makers as "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest and noblest of celebrations."
FTD, the floral company, offered her a lucrative commission on the sale of all Mother's Day carnations as a peace offering – which only infuriated her further.
She spent the next years going door-to-door for signatures to rescind Mother's Day.
Older, worn and frail from the long fight, Anna Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt, living in a sanatorium.
She regretted the commercialisation until the day she died in 1948.
Anna Jarvis was the mother of Mother's Day, but never married and never became a mother.
And she was never told one interesting fact:
The bill for her time in the sanatorium was paid for by a group of grateful florists.
When directors lost control of their films, they were able to take their name off the credits, use the Alan Smithee pseudonym, and walk away anonymously.
But inventors rarely get that option.
Victor Gruen's shopping mall became a suburban cliche. Orville and Wilbur Wright's invention has become a big chapter in military history. Philo Farnsworth's invention was often referred to as an idiot box. Robert Propst's cubicles have been called "satanic offices." And Anna Jarvis's beloved Mother's Day has turned into a $21 billion dollar sales frenzy.
That was the consistent theme today: Each inventor lost control of their creations. And the way their inventions went on to be used and misconstrued broke their hearts.
That's one of the most unwieldy aspects of marketing. You create a product, you inform the public, you put it into the marketplace, and it's out of your hands.
The world will do with it what the world wants. As they say, "The herd will be heard."
It makes you wonder what kind of world it might have been if only we had listened to those inventors. But it's hard to hear them…
…when you're under the influence.