Bad ideas

1975 Popular Electronics magazine touts the first minicomputer

Success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm. ~ Sir Winston Churchill

In the early 1970’s, a couple of high school friends named Paul and Bill started a company called Traf-O-Data.  At the time, cities were using pneumatic traffic counters to count the number of vehicles passing by — essentially a hose strung across the road that puffed air into a device that punched holes onto a roll of paper.  These punches were then hand-tabulated.  Basically a huge pain in the patoot.

So Paul and Bill had an idea: They wanted to build a micro-computer (high innovation at the time) to automate the traffic counting and tabulation for city governments.  The idea flopped.  They built a prototype, which malfunctioned during Traf-O-Data’s only demo.  Eventually Traf-O-Data booked a few thousand dollars but never achieved broad adoption — and by then Paul and Bill had moved onto their next venture.

It’s tempting to just write Traf-O-Data off as a “Bad Idea”.

But life’s never that simple.  Did the idea flop because the machine broke during a demo?  Did the machine break because of incompetent designers? Did the concept fail because the buyer was government and it’s politically difficult to replace humans with machines?  Or was it the product name — possibly the world’s worst ever — that did it in?  (Traf-O-Data?  Really?  It’s not like Paul and Bill were competing for limited .com domain names.)

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter that Traf-O-Data flopped.  Doesn’t matter if history deems it a Bad Idea.  Because young Paul and Bill — the high-school student founders of Traf-O-Data — were Paul Allen and Bill Gates.  And their next venture was Microsoft.  The experience they gained from Traf-O-Data later helped them write some of the early software that would grow and evolve into technology that allows me to write this and you to read it.  Was Traf-O-Data a Bad Idea? Maybe. But was it a good thing? For sure.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.  ~ Henry Ford

This whole thing — MarbleSpark and Following Featherbottom and everything that follows — it’s all an outgrowth of a Bad Idea.  What about you?  Ever had a bad idea turn good?  Are you letting fear of failure keep you from chasing something important?  Don’t.  There’s no such thing as a Bad Idea.

P.S.  In honor of Traf-O-Data and my affection toward (and history of) bad ideas, I’ll be writing about a few of my bad ideas.  I’m calling it the Bad Idea Series.

Source: New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Photo from Sulinet

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