Blogs > HNN > A History of Failed Projects

Jan 27, 2007 12:23 pm

A History of Failed Projects

A job candidate recently mentioned her interest in the history of "failed projects." When I heard this my ears perked up because it reminded me of my own interest in the history of imaginary solutions.

Is the phrase "failed projects" familiar to any of you? Any suggestions on where I might turn to learn more?

A definition might be helpful, and even though I don't really have a clear understanding of the phrase, I'll take a stab at it.

For her interests, a failed project means an Enlightenment-era project carried out in the New World, but which didn't succeed. An example might be a new colonial school system, or method of agriculture. Sometimes the projects failed because the architect of the plan died, or didn't get funded. Sometimes the project failed because of the gross misunderstanding of what the New World would be like, and how the indigenous folks would respond to the benevolent behavior of the enlightened Europeans.

My interest sprang from a curiosity about 19th century patents that never went beyond the patent stage. Both interests overlap, sort of, in this concept of Utopian studies, in that nearly every Utopianistic intentional community has failed. (Though, arguably, not all.)

A quick search on Google shows that"failed projects" also turns up a lot in reference to software developing.

One thing a history of failed projects/imaginary solutions would not be is a counterfactual history. My interest isn't in what would have happened if these projects had not failed. My interest is in corralling a bunch of examples of these sort of projects and seeing if some sort of interesting pattern can be conjured out of them.

(UPDATE: Some excellent examples of"failed projects" appear in the comments section of this post at Patahistory.)

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Rob MacDougall - 1/27/2007

Failure has become a popular subject in the history of technology of late. One of the best recent pieces is Ken Lipartito's 2004(?) article in Technology & Culture on the Picturephone.