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You know their creations, but these inventors aren’t proud of their handiwork.
1. Victor Gruen: The Shopping Mall
Back when cities were smaller and more concentrated, everyone lived downtown, so everyone was close to all the shops.
But as suburbs developed, it became harder and harder for people living outside the city core to shop.
In 1954, Victor Gruen’s solution first appeared in Detroit. It was meant to be a communal area where people could easily walk around and do all their shopping and other errands. It was meant to have green spaces, art, and other happy things. It was the shopping mall.
It caught on like gangbusters. Then some smarty pants decided it would be even better if it was enclosed in a single building, and if all the green spaces and art and pretty things were removed to make room for more stores. It became the shopping mall we know today.
Gruen, the father of the shopping mall, was appalled. In 1978, he said: “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”
He died in 1980, and perhaps mercifully: one can’t help but wonder what he would have thought about things like Black Friday and online shopping.
2. John Sylvan: The Keurig K-Cup
John Sylvan hated the office coffee. More than anything, he hated having to dump most of it down the sink. So he thought, why not find a way to make good coffee one cup at a time? So he did. The Keurig coffee maker, with its ubiquitous K-cup pods. And he sold billions of the things, but therein lies the problem.
Those little pods are not recyclable.
And they’re not biodegradable. All they do it sit there in landfills for a long, long, long, long time. Billions of them. Sylvan feels bad about it. And you know what? He doesn’t even own a Keurig himself.
3. Orville Wright: Co-Inventor of the Airplane
The Wright brothers famously became the first to fly in a powered airplane. They knew it would revolutionize the world.
Trust the army to see the potential in such an invention as a weapon. And while the Wrights did well planes to the US military, they only imagined that they’d be used for observation.
Orville Wright lived to see planes used in combat in the First World War and was appalled.
“The aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war,” he wrote after WWI. “The aeroplane, in forcing upon governments a realization of the possibilities for destruction, has actually become a powerful instrument for peace.”
Then came World War Two. After witnessing the devastation his invention wrought from the air, he said that he and his brother had “dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong.”
4. Philo Farnsworth: The Television
Philo Farnsworth was only 14 when he conceived of the television.
He thought it would help people by enabling them to learn about each other and settle world problems.
Farnsworth died in 1971, which was plenty long enough to see how his invention was really used. He died feeling that instead of learning and enriching their lives through it, people just wasted them watching it instead.
He told his son, “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.”
5. Robert Propst: The Office Cubicle
As hard as it might be to believe, the office cubicle was actually intended to provide more freedom and privacy to workers.
They started out quite large and offered a nice balance between interaction with other employees and private personal workspace.
But then the corporations got involved. By making them a little smaller, they could fit a few more people into the same space — it saved money. So they got a little smaller. Then a little more smaller. And a little more. And more. What started as an Action Office had become a Cubicle Farm.
The man who invented them, Bob Propst, the former president of Herman Miller, eventually spoke out against what his creation had become. He still liked the simplicity and flexibility of his design, but lamented that he had not anticipated the implications. “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” Propst said. “Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes.”