This car, a Ford Edsel, was one of the greatest technological failures in history. It’s failure cost Ford nearly three billion in today’s dollars making the name “Edsel” -- the first name of Henry Ford’s son -- shorthand for any wildly ill-conceived product that fails. Yet the Edsel had many “firsts” that now appear in our cars, things like seat belts and child-proof locks. And this reminds us that although we want to be very pat and trace failure to a single cause in reality technological things fail in the marketplace for many reasons. So, in this series I take a deeper look at the failure of three famous engineered objects.
First the Picturephone, called by some the Bell System’s Edsel because the company lost half a billion dollars in promoting and developing it. The PicturePhone highlights what we really should appreciate about failures: How often they fail by being ahead of their time: this device came tantalizing close to creating a revolutionary technology that we now use today. Next, I’ll look at the Dvorak keyboard.
While the Dvorak arrangement of the letters was likely faster than our current QWERTY arrangement, the latter still dominates. And usually we explain this away quickly by noting that the QWERTY keyboard got there first and thus simply became locked in the marketplace, but the important lesson is that to dislodge an existing technology requires a significant change in performance, and likely an increase in functionality.
And third, I’ll look at how the Betamax video cassette recorder lost to this VHS machine made by JVC. Often the winner is not the “better” or more powerful competitor, but the one that is just good enough.
To explore these three failures I take a cue from the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s great Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike,” he wrote, but “each unhappy family is unhappy in it own way.” Which means that instead of looking for a simple uniform explanation for each of these failures, I’ll tell you a richer story of their short life and eventually demise. Please join me.
I’m Bill Hammack, the EngineerGuy.
When we look at the failure of technological objects in the marketplace we tend to be very pat and trace failure to a single cause. Yet technological things fail in the marketplace for many reasons. So, in this series Bill takes a deeper look at the failure of three famous engineered objects: the Picturephone; the Betamax video cassette recorder, and the Dvorak keyboard.