About the influence of failed products on technological change

Design failures and recurring non-products is of course a favorite topic of mine. Hence, a paper entitled "The Curious Case of the Kitchen Computer: Products and Non-Products in Design History" by Paul Atkinson appears clearly promising for a Friday afternoon train ride between two European countries.

I wasn't disappointed. This article takes the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, a futuristic computer product that never sold, as a starting point to ask questions concerning design history, the significant agency that non-products can have and the role of a period zeitgeist in design.

The Honeywell H316 was a so-called "pedestal computer", a sort of miniature computer compared to the mainframes, released in the 1960s. They were meant to be used for scientific and engineering calculations, processing business information, file handling and access to pre-punched computer cards. The design of the various models is quite radical with this intriguing pedestal form. As pointed out in Atkinson's paper, "the final result was a futuristically styled, red, white and black pedestal unit that looked as if it could have been taken straight from the set of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey".

(Image of the Kitchen Computer from Life magazine, 12 December 1969. © Yale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images)

What I found interesting in this article is the description of how a non-product such as his Kitchen Computer can influence technological change:

"As a ‘real’ product, the adoption of a science fiction-inspired form provided the means for Honeywell to promote itself as a progressive company, to differentiate itself from its more mainstream traditional competitors such as IBM, and to align itself with younger, more innovative companies such as Data General Corporation. The fact that actual orders were received for the product despite its being purely a marketing ploy is a reflection of its success and the acceptance of such iconography amongst at least some of its customers. As a non-product, the Kitchen Computer had even more agency. It created a huge amount of publicity for Neiman Marcus and, because of its price, reinforced the position of the company as an exclusive retailer to the upper classes. It also reinforced popular cultural representations of the domestic kitchen as the focus of family interactions with technology in the home, in a variety of fora. In addition, it inspired those working at the forefront of computer developments to realize that, despite the limitations of technology at the time, there was real value in seriously considering a domestic market for computer products. Finally, despite the fact that both the product and the non-product were consumed largely as a piece of visual culture, as a part of the cultural milieu or zeitgeist, they provided very pragmatic, positive results for both Honeywell and Neiman Marcus, as well as having a direct influence on the future direction of the computer industry itself."

Why do I blog this? Yet another great reference for my research about technological, product failures and their significance. Which, by the way, recently led to a French book about this very topic.