Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Yesterday's Failure = Tomorrow's Breakthrough

A recent PBS show on the challenges of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable contained a historical factoid that shows how long it can take good ideas to germinate.

One challenge was having a boat large enough to carry such a huge coil of cable that would span the thousands of miles from the Irish coast to Newfoundland in Canada. After a massive ship, the Great Eastern, failed as a British tourist vessel designed for luxury travel to Australia, it was chartered 'for 2 percent of its construction cost' to unspool the trans-Atlantic cable in 1865.

Now for the payoff: The ship was the largest in the world -- six times larger than any rival -- when initially built and had a double-hull construction that would be "rediscovered" a century later as a way to make ships safer against hull damage (from, say, icebergs. . . .) and to make oil tankers more secure against leaks.

Talk about your lemons into lemonades.


Anne Rogers said...

Great story!

Katie Konrath said...

It's definitely true that a product created by one company can fail miserably at first, and then be succeed at a later time in a different context. Thanks for writing about this story... I've never heard it before and it's a great example. I'll have to remember this post!

Coincidently, I just wrote today on my blog about one of 3M's big failures that has now become a common household product... for another company! What a day for articles about first-time failures