NPF: BAD IDEAS GONE GOOD

(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.

Quasicrystals
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.

Reservoir Balls
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.

Easy-Off
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.

Dolphin Rescue
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.

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25 thoughts on “NPF: BAD IDEAS GONE GOOD”

  • I remember reading about the ersatz bus stop before and being struck by both how clever and how humane the idea is. It's nice to see an idea that doesn't involve drugging or restraining people suffering with dementia while still recognizing that that means occasionally they are going to escape from busy staff.

  • That 27th Amendment item reminds me of my sister's story. She was in high school back in the late 1960s and needed to write an essay proposing some new law or civic change. My mother suggested she propose passing a law to get people to clean up after their dogs. My sister wrote the essay. She got a B for the writing, but the teacher noted that it was extremely unlikely to become an actual law. Nowadays, there are more dogs than ever in New York City, and it is hard to remember just how much dog shit there was on all so many sidewalks. Kudos to my sister, the legislators and the dogs and their owners.

    I had heard that the Chrysler turbine engine's big problem was that it was noisy. It's actually a great idea, especially a hybrid turbine that generates electricity to drive the wheel motors. The thermodynamic clue is its white hot exhaust. Engine efficiency is all about the difference in temperature between the gozinta and comezouta. From an emissions point of view, however, it can be a nightmare. High temperatures mean all sorts of PITA reaction pathways.

    Science is full of things like quasicrystals where the idea seems almost preposterous. Einstein ran into it when he destroyed Newton's three-space plus time model. Quantum mechanics runs into it every day. You get long shot theories coming out in front all the time. Back in the 1970s, there was one weird ass astronomer who argued that quasars had something to do with early galaxy formation. That's considered gospel nowadays. (If you look at the quasicrystal story, you'll see that the reaction was more: "Danny, this material is telling us something and I challenge you to find out what it is".

  • I predict that this rejected "Listicle" will go viral and become the most widely read thing you've written.

  • Quasicrystals are great. They have the same quasi-periodic structure as Penrose tiles. Knowing Ed's sense of humour, he may be pleased to know that Penrose tiles are a more sophisticated development from Wang dominoes.

  • Pauling's something of an icon where I work, and I'd never heard that story. He was also partners at one time with our perennial wingnut candidate for governor. Fortunately he also did a lot of good work, his efforts to promote peace were effective enough to get his passport revoked during the Cold War. MAGA!

  • @Kaleberg: I worked on jet engines for 4 years in the USAF and I never heard the terms "gozinta and comezouta" and I thnk that's just beautiful. Thank you.

  • Wankle built and Mazda later ran for many years a "rotory turbine" engine that was both competive and highly fuel efficient, still see a few around. Ford bought up Mazda and discontinued production.

  • Doesn't the 27th Amendment also restrict the Congress from lowering its pay, too? I always think of that when people say "They shouldn't get paid if they don't work!" As I see it, we're stuck with these goofballs and they get paid no matter what.

  • @Ten Bears
    The turbocharged Wankel rotary that Mazda used in its RX cars were completely different than the centrifugal turbine engines Chrysler was using.

    They made great power for their small size, but they're the opposite of fuel efficient. Emissions regulations killed the Wankel rotary, not Ford's buyout. Besides only gear heads want to replace engine seals every 50000 miles.

  • You're right, Tommy – today's Grinned Till I Got A Jaw Cramp award def goes to Kaleberg for the gozinta and comezouta.

    Oh, the possibilities… [hums Johnny Verbeck]

  • Last post, I swear. My personal hero of the "You're Crazy, That's Impossible" list of saints is Boris Belousov, who discovered oscillating chemical reactions.

    It was while seeking an inorganic analog of the biochemical citric acid cycle that Belousov chanced to discover an oscillating chemical reaction. He tried twice over a period of six years to publish his findings, but the incredulous editors of the journals to which he submitted his articles rejected his work as "impossible". He took this very hard.

    Imagine being able to actually demonstrate a phenomenon only to be told it can't happen.

    Second place goes to Alfred Wegener and his theory of Continental Drift.

  • I had an early Wankel-engined Mazda RX-2, and I can attest to the fact that it was *not* fuel-efficient. It did have power, but at first the engine was put in an econobox car, which couldn't make the most of it. The later RX-7 was a much better fit.

    As for turbines, if they can burn almost anything, how about a tiny one coupled with a generator to charge batteries, now that battery technology has progressed so much? Throw in a flux capacitor, and…

  • So … what about the guy that strapped a jet engine to a nineteen sixty-seven Chevy Impala: urban legend or Darwin Award. Those boats were wing-like enough to grab air!

  • IIRC, the Arfons brothers had a little speedster that was basically a pressure vessel on wheels. Its engine was a boiler that generated superheated steam which was then vented through a port to push the vehicle down the 1/4 mile track. I can't find anything about it on line but I remember reading a piece on it, "Hot Rod", back in the mid to late 1960's.

    The car was theoretically capable of 300 mph with expected ET's in the low end of the three to four seconds range. It apparently went airborne after a short distance and crashed, wrecking the vehicle but not killing anyone in the process.

  • I remember the Firebird 1, 2 and 3, my dad was the engineering staff guy at the Tech Center in Warren. They were on display in the lobby of his building for quite a while when I was a kid, I think all three are housed out in Milford these days and I've seen a recent video of one of them (Firebird 3 I think) cranked up and run on the 2 1/2 mile high speed track they have there, a whooshing noise is all you get but the bugger still works after all the decades….

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