(I recently wrote this at the behest of an editor who ended up being overruled from above, and now it has no home. I had enough fun writing this that I am not even mad it didn't run. The theme for the Listicle was ideas that sound laughable or insane but end up working well. I think my flaw was not keeping the examples tech-focused (which the Factoid internet reader tends to prefer strongly) and instead including a broader range of examples.
In any case, here is/was my first foray into Weird Useless Information writing.)
Some ideas are too crazy to work; others aren’t crazy enough. History shows us plenty of examples of bizarre ideas that produced predictably terrible results – early flying contraptions, for example – not every idea that sounds laughable is doomed to failure. Here are just a few examples of ideas or discoveries that sounded insane in theory but turned out surprisingly well in practice. You never know – the next ridiculous idea you hear could win someone a Nobel Prize.
Okay, probably not. But there’s always a chance.
The Turbine Car
A jet turbine in a family sedan sounds insane. But Chrysler engineers obsessively tinkered with the concept for decades, culminating in a 1962 pilot program of 50 turbine-powered cars. Amazingly, they were functional and fairly normal cars (Jay Leno still drives one). Drawbacks included poor fuel economy, a power lag when accelerating, and white-hot exhaust. On the plus side, it could run on literally anything that burned including trials with perfume and tequila as fuels. The project didn’t go anywhere, but a turbine-powered car proved not to be nearly as insane as it sounds.
The Nonsense Novel
Combining the disjointed, independent work of 24 different authors into a single hodgepodge work of fiction does not seem like a recipe for a best-seller. Journalist Mike McGrady hatched this plan in 1968 with the hypothesis that with enough graphic sex scenes it would sell no matter how bad it was. His experimental meta-commentary on the trashy appetites of fiction readers enlisted two dozen writers and resulted in the publication under a pseudonym of the crap-masterpiece, Naked Came the Stranger. It sold briskly, and the nonexistent Penelope Ashe was lauded for her vivid prose. When the authors revealed their hoax the next year, it sold even more copies. Turns out Mom wasn’t reading romance novels for the plot after all.
When Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman announced that he had discovered a new kind of crystal that defied all known laws of matter his colleagues literally laughed him out of his job. Shechtman himself thought that what the electron microscope showed him was impossible. When he dubbed his finding quasicrystals, Linus Pauling retorted with the legendarily sick burn, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” But in the end, Pauling was the one being rushed to the ego Burn Unit. After persisting for a decade Shechtman proved quasicrystals’ existence and described their properties, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. I hope Linus Pauling had to hand him the award.
The 27th Amendment
As Amendments go, the 27th is not especially exciting – it prohibits Congressional pay raises from going into effect until after the next election. College student Gregory Watson wrote a paper for his political science class in 1982 in which he suggested that the Amendment, proposed in 1789 but never passed, technically could still be ratified. This thought experiment earned him a C from a teaching assistant who called his idea unrealistic. Watson embarked on a Kill Bill-worthy journey of revenge, pestering elected officials and going public with his idea. Since the public is not thrilled at Congress raising its own salary, the idea gained traction. In 1992 it was ratified and officially became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.
An enormous population and desert climate ensure that Los Angeles is always anxious about its water supply. Open reservoirs in a hot, dry climate lose millions of gallons of water to evaporation. To stop it, engineers proposed filling LA’s Ivanhoe Reservoir with plastic balls to shield the water from direct sunlight. After everyone got done laughing they realized it was actually brilliant. In 2014, 96 million plastic balls were tossed into the pool. They were effective at reducing water loss and contamination. The Water Balls were retired in 2017 when Ivanhoe was drained into another reservoir.
The decommissioned Dounrey nuclear reactor in Scotland left behind, predictably, a good deal of equipment contaminated by radioactive and toxic wastes. Searching in vain for a way to remove toxic plutonium from hundreds of miles of pipes snaked around the complex, one cleanup employee asked (extremely Scottish accent) “Did we try Cillit Bang?” That’s Scotland’s most popular all-purpose household cleanup spray. Turns out Cillit Bang worked vastly better to safely dislodge the plutonium, which was processed out of the wastewater. Score one for Mr. Clean.
In 1978 the San Diego Aquarium was facing the death of a dolphin that had swallowed a large piece of indigestible plastic. As a complicated and dangerous surgery was being planned, someone asked “What if we got a man with really long arms…and a LOT of lube?” Enter 6’9” octopus-armed NBA shot blocker Cliff Ray. He safely removed the objects and his example inspired the Chinese, in 2006, to repeat this trick with the world’s tallest man at the time, Bao Xishun. Sometimes the simplest (and craziest) idea is the best idea.
Phantom Bus Stop
Patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s are a constant source of worry for long-term care facilities. In their confusion they tend to wander off and staff often have considerable trouble finding them again. The Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, Germany came up with a bizarre work-around: they installed a decoy bus stop in front of the facility. Since people actually use public transit in Germany, the confused patients often went no further than the bus stop where they waited for a bus that wasn’t coming before staff gently walked them back inside. It significantly cut down the number of walk-offs who end up in danger.
Turn the Wings Around
The Pentagon is a rich source of insane ideas getting the go-ahead, so when Grumman engineers proposed building a jet with the wings bolted on backwards, “Sure, why not?” was the inevitable answer. The X-29 was so unstable in flight that Grumman had to develop extremely complex technology to keep it airborne – the forerunner of today’s common Fly-by-Wire technologies. It took a truly awful aircraft to push engineers to take the next leap in electronics. The X-29 answered the call (and inspired a totally bad-ass GI Joe version).
The next time you have a crazy idea, don’t reject it too hastily. You might be on the verge of the next big breakthrough. Or you might just be drunk.