Written by By Natalie Corner, CNN
One hundred years ago this month, a small, armless man pulled a simple change lever and inadvertently caused a chain reaction which changed how technology was operated around the world.
The man was Stephen Marshall, whose unremarkable and seemingly simple machine is now remembered as the “whizzer” — and one of the strangest and most far-reaching technological mistakes of all time.
Karl Thiel, aka rsser, has been investigating and discussing the story of the “whizzer” since the 1990s.
Its inventor, Stephen Marshall
“Marshall invented an automatic fan belt that could turn on when you put down an uncharged battery. It was modeled after the belts manufactured by Victrola, the popular music player of the 1920s and ’30s,” says Thiel.
“After John Pickford, a third-generation magazine publisher and design visionary, was blinded by this fan belt in 1927, he donated $25,000 to the Science Museum in London — his idea being that it would function like the Victrola.”
A visit to London’s Science Museum in 1950 clearly spurred Marshall to press on with the dream of a fan belt. But in the space of an hour on January 26, 1910, Marshall’s plans effectively collapsed.
How a falling piece of wood caused one man’s problems
“It was definitely a case of the unforeseen,” says Thiel. “John Pickford had hit something with a pram wheel after his eye operation and his eye continued to swish like an eel inside his eye. He suffered a serious eye infection and collapsed in a home that an orderly decided to check on,” he continues.