The Top 10: Brilliant Ideas Before Their Time

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The cure for scurvy  (Getty)
The cure for scurvy (Getty)

Steven Fogel was inspired to suggest this list by Tim Harford’s article in the Financial Times in February about delayed recognition for scientific theories, such as Karl Jansky’s discovery in 1933 of radio noise coming from the Milky Way, Gregor Mendel’s theory of plant genetics in 1866, and Thomas Bayes’s theorem, developed in the 1740s.

1. Steam engine. A toy invented by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st century. (Not actually an engine as it couldn’t power anything, but it could have given someone the idea.) Nominated by Don Brown London, Tom Joyce, George Peters, Richard Mylles and David Gentle.

2. Cure for scurvy. The beneficial effect of citrus fruit was known around the time of Vasco da Gama’s voyage from Portugal to India in 1497, but had to be re-learned several times before becoming accepted by the end of the 18th century.

3. Inoculation for smallpox was in widespread use in Turkey when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived there in 1717-18. She promoted inoculation on her return to England, inoculated her children, but the idea was widely ridiculed, including by the medical establishment, before it was taken up by Edward Jenner in 1796. Thanks to Jane Roberts.

4. Solar cell. Invented by Edmond Becquerel in 1839. Nominated by Steven Fogel and Carlo Giannone.

5. Fax machine. Alexander Bain, a Scottish inventor, patented an “electric printing telegraph” in 1843. The first commercial telefax service was between Paris and Lyon in 1865, 11 years before the invention of the telephone. Thanks to Simon Lord and Alasdair Bain.

6. Global warming. Eunice Newton Foote, US scientist, described the possible greenhouse effect of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1856. From David McClure.

7. Electric car. William Morrison, Scottish-born chemist, built one in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1891. It could carry six passengers at a top speed of 14 miles per hour. Nominated by Steven Fogel and Barry Still.

8. Plate tectonics. Theorised by Alfred Wegener in 1912 because continents looked as if they would fit together (in a single land mass later called Pangaea), but much derided before being confirmed in the 1950s.

9. Financial instability thesis. Hyman Minsky’s research into the causes of financial crises – he wrote in 1974 that “the financial system swings between robustness and fragility and these swings are an integral part of the process that generates business cycles” – was largely ignored until the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.

10. Digital audio player, invented by Kane Kramer in 1979, the size of a credit card with an LCD screen. Followed by portable MP3 players in 1998, and then the Apple iPod in 2001. Thanks to John Peters.

Pet passports were originally advocated by Screaming Lord Sutch, who also wanted all-day Sunday opening for pubs, the Scottish Parliament on wheels and abolishing work before lunch.

Honourable mention for David Gentle who nominated the can opener for a Top 10 ideas behind their times – it was invented 50 years after the can (previously opened with a knife or chisel).

Next week: False details of real events, such as David Mellor’s Chelsea shirt in his affair with Antonia de Sancha.

Coming soon: Bass guitarists.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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