Of all the things that have been invented around the world over thousands of years, it makes sense that some inventors have “regretted” inventions. An idea may seem good at the time of its inception, but years of alterations and interpretations by people and governments can taint even the most well-intentioned invention.
Although many of these inventors could not have predicted what their products would turn into, there are lessons to learn from their actions. As an inventor, it is important to have a sense of social responsibility, which says an individual has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large. Just because you can invent something, doesn’t mean you should invent something if it will be harmful to a large number of people. Many inventors have become famous for their innovative products, but grew to regret their inventions later in life because of the way their inventions were misused or transformed by society.
Philo T. Farnsworth: Television
Although he came from humble beginnings, it was clear Philo T. Farnsworth was a man ahead of his time when he theorized the basic principles of electronic television at age 14. Farnsworth had an idealized vision of what the television would do. It would allow people to learn about each other and would settle world problems. He thought people could be educated from television as well as entertained through sports and cultural programs.
Farnsworth lived until 1971, and he saw television take a turn he hadn’t expected. People were not being educated through his invention nor had the world’s problems been settled because of it. Today, many people watch television for dozens of hours each week. Farnsworth’s son said his father felt people wasted their lives by watching television, telling him, “There’s nothing worthwhile on it, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.”
John Sylvan: K-Cup
The Keurig has undoubtedly changed the way we view coffee. K-cups enable us to have a cup of joe in the morning without visiting expensive cafes or brewing an entire pot. But does the convenience of a K-cup warrant the environmental impact each plastic pod makes? John Sylvan, K-Cup inventor, thinks not.
Despite Sylvan anticipating K-Cups being used mainly in offices, nearly one third of all American homes now have a Keurig or other pod-based coffee maker. Although Keurig sold over 9.8 billion coffee pods last year, they have yet to make them recyclable or biodegradable, and considering their popularity and widespread use, this means they are generating tons of waste.
After the Keurig patent expired in 2012, other brands created K-Cups which are biodegradable or reusable, but the original coffee pod innovators have yet to come out with an environmentally friendly product. Sylvan told The Atlantic, “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.”
Alfred Nobel: Dynamite
Alfred Nobel was a great man. The Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, and dynamite inventor held 350 different patents. After his death, his fortune was used to create the Nobel Prizes. His family had always been in the armaments business; his father owned an explosives factory in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Looking for a more stable alternative to nitroglycerine, Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, intending it to be used for mining and creating transport networks.
Although he wasn’t naïve enough to believe dynamite wouldn’t be used for more sinister purposes, Nobel truly believed dynamite’s potential destruction would bring about world peace. “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions,” he said. “As soon as men will find in one instant whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.” Nobel’s regret inspired him to donate nearly 95 percent of his fortune to create awards in his name.
Think About the Big Picture
So, what can you learn from these inventors and their regretted inventions? None of them intended for their products to numb people’s minds, fill landfills, or hurt people—could they have predicted that? When you have an invention idea, no matter how small it might seem at first, don’t ignore your responsibility to society at large. Research your product idea, talk to experts, hold panel discussions, and keep in mind other technology and cultural trends which may one day affect your creation.
Innovation and progress are normally wonderful things for society, but those inventors who fail to see the big picture can sometimes find themselves remembered in a less-than-favorable light by the history books.