Reinventing the Wheel: Mankind's Best Attempts at Updating Design Classics

By Gary Cutlack on at

There are some things you don't mess with in the design world. Chairs, for example, have long since been perfected. Any modern redesign of the chair is a mere novelty that can only make sitting down a worse, less comfortable hobby. But some things are still improving thanks to the planet’s finest reinventors. Yes, your easy life can still get easier.

Plenty of reinvention attempts are doomed to fail repeatedly, though. The flying car is as likely to be seen in the skies about the country as a fleet of flying white elephants. We're never going to want 3D films or television, despite the tech industry’s repeated, once-every-20-years attempts to sell it to us. Radio is HD enough already, seeing as it’s usually background noise being played back in mono.

But some clever brains have bettered the efforts of their historical peers. We've seen innovations in gaming, electronics, miniaturisation and more in the past decade or so, as gadgets, home technology and transport get better, cheaper and more reliable. Thanks to introductions like these.

Wind-up radio

The arrival of this got us momentarily excited about an entirely wind-up future, as if the world was about to go steampunk thanks to Trevor Baylis's genius idea. The reality was that it was a bit clunky, and we still don't have wind-up mobile phones because there’s no spring large enough to keep a Galaxy Note 4 powered up for more than a millisecond, but it was exciting for a bit -- and a novelty Christmas present for a generation.



It's like a boat, but faster and sort of flying. That was the promise. The reality was weird motion sickness of a new kind and more in the way of maintenance problems, so, for the UK-France passenger run at least, the forward-looking craft of the future was eventually binned in favour of Victorian tunnels, trains and good old boats. Still, those travelling between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight on the UK’s only remaining hovercraft must feel pretty damn excited about their 10 minute whirlwind ride.

LED light bulbs

If you spend a lot of time staring at your electricity meter going round and round, spinning seemingly ever faster as the years pass and the price of electricity rockets and every plug socket in your house is charging something, you've probably already gone LED. Longer-lasting than the energy-saving CFL models that replaced the old incandescent power-burners, they're slightly more efficient again -- and you can get posh ones that talk to your phone. A definite life improvement thanks to science. If only they were 79p from the supermarket.

Capacitive displays

There were touchscreen phones available before the iPhone, you know. The problem was they used resistive screens to register touch input, meaning you had to press down hard. And sometimes it wouldn't work at all and you'd start counting the days left until you were allowed to upgrade to something better than the godawful LG Viewty. The initial iPhone gave everyone their first experience of the capacitive technology that would make the omnipresent touch input of today seem as futuristic and seamless as when Wesley Crusher enters the coordinates for the Vulcan home world on his capacitive console.


Electric bikes

Electric bikes are nearly there, nearly ready. The batteries are too big and heavy at the moment, meaning the frame (and brakes and wheels) needs to be stronger and heavier too, resulting in an average electric bike that’s as heavy as a moped or a horse. But hopefully, in a few years’ time, more power will be storable in a smaller cell, meaning they'll get lighter. Then they'll be worth blowing £1,700 on to make getting up hills less of a struggle for everyone.

Laptop trackpad

This one's definitely taking off in a good way, with the trackpad spawning gesture control, pinching, two and three fingered power moves and more. For digital immigrants of a certain advanced age it's still quite a relief to get back to the mouse when doing fiddly stuff in a hurry, but trackpads can stay as far as we’re concerned, seeing as they're one area where tech is continually getting better.


Wii Remote

Did it work? Yes! Did it work all the time? Hmm... Some people thought it did, and it certainly helped Nintendo add to its amazing pile of cash, so the innovative motion controller was a win-win for the gaming giant at least. And in 2006 everyone stood up for a bit to play their video games, which must've added a year or two to the lifespan of our sedentary youth.

Instant hot water taps

Seem like the time-saving dream for those for whom cups of tea are the emotional crutch used to get through the days, but they often don't live up to the promise. Unless you get 100 per cent boiling water your tea ends up a frothy mess, making this a bit of a reinvention fail -- unless you specify a self-build with guaranteed boiling output every time. Great for people who only drink herbal tea, though.

In partnership with Microsoft, powered by the HP Spectre 360

Image credit: Hovercraft, via Shutterstock