Inventions People Thought Would Change the World for the Better (but didn’t)
- The Candy Bar. In BackStory episode “Sweet Talk: A History of Sugar,” guest Steve Almond explained that products like the “Chicken Dinner Candy Bar” were sold and advertised as meal replacement bars. “The essence of the idea of the candy bar,” said Almond, “was that it’s quick, and it’s portable. You can eat it while you’re working, and the way candy bars were advertised was as quick energy, a replacement for lunch. [They were great for when] you’re on the go–you don’t have time to sit down and have a whole meal.” Chicken Dinner Candy Bars epitomized the successful early candy bar. Although they contained no chicken–they were made of nuts and chocolate–the imagery on the package suggested wholesome, nutritious food, which was especially tantalizing for Americans strapped for cash after the Great Depression of 1929. Chicken Dinner bars were seen as a cheap (the price fell from 10 to 5 cents a bar after 1929) alternative to a “real” meal in an age before America’s obesity epidemic.
- The Flying Car. In 1973, Henry Smolinski developed the Advanced Vehicles Engineers’ “Mizar,” a roadable aircraft which was essentially the combination of a Ford Pinto and aircraft wings. Smolinski, a graduate of Northrop Institute of Technology’s aeronautical engineering school, wanted to develop a vehicle that could appeal to many. The Mizar airframe could detach easily from the car upon landing, and then “take the businessman to his meeting, a family of four on an outing, or a fishing foursome on a drive to a remote mountain lake,” according to a May 1973 report from the Van Nuys News. Smolinski wanted to begin production in 1974 and sell three different models of the vehicle for prices ranging from $18,300 to $28,058. Unfortunately for him, the program was terminated when he died in a fiery crash after the car detached from the airframe during a test run on September 11th, 1973.
- Plastic Grocery Bags. Plastic grocery bags were popularized in the late-1970s when many shoppers exchanged them for paper bags because they seemed easier to carry, and many companies adopted them because they were cheaper than paper. Their introduction was strangely polarizing, the L.A. Times wrote in 1986, with one supermarket employee claiming, “Some customers become real irate and start shouting if they can’t get the kind of bag they want.” Another UCLA marketing professor claimed, “[American consumers] have become resistant to change.” To this day, both options remain in groceries nationwide, although plastic bags have become default. Although the bags provide “sturdiness and convenience,” non-biodegradable plastic bags fill landfills and pollute the world’s waterways.
- DDT. DDT was a pesticidal agent developed by Swiss chemist Paul Herman Muller in 1939. It was used successfully to control malaria, typhus, and dengue fever. The chemical seemed to be a highly promising pesticide and disease control agent, and it earned Muller a Nobel Prize in 1948. However, American conservationist Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” called attention to environmental dangers of DDT abuse: birds were poisoned, ecosystems altered, and even humans showed neurological and fertility-related toxicity symptoms. DDT was banned in the United States by 1973.
- Hydrogenated Oil. Partially hydrogenated oils, or “trans fats,” were developed by German scientist Wilhelm Normann in 1901. Normann introduced it to America through Procter & Gamble, which then began to sell it in the form of hydrogenated shortening derived from cottonseed oil, under the name “Crisco.” Hydrogenated fats like margarine gained appeal in the early-to-mid-20th century because they could be preserved longer, were more spreadable, and suited baking better than lard. However, studies in the 1990s began to show “strong evidence that trans fatty acid intake is causally related to risk of coronary disease” and could be responsible for up to 20,000 deaths in America annually. It wasn’t until 2003, however, that the FDA required companies to include trans fats in nutritional labels. In recent years, many companies have reduced or eliminated trans fats from their products.
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BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist