Product demonstrations can sometimes be useful in convincing prospective customers that your product is a Good Thing, or in convincing prospective investors that your company represents a substantial opportunity. (Although many demos are so badly executed that they do more harm than good.)
In business history, there are a few examples of demos that stand out for their dramatic nature and their impact. Here are the ones that come to mind:
1)In the early 1850s, elevators had been invented and were in limited use, but were generally–with good reason–considered unsafe. At the Crystal Palace exposition of 1854, Elisha Otis demonstrated his elevator safety device. He had himself hauled up to a considerable height in an open cage, and then directed his assistant to cut the hoisting rope. The safety mechanism, as designed, clamped its jaws to the elevator’s guide tracks and kept it from falling.
2)In the 1890s, most ships were powered by reciprocating steam engines (with commercial sail still holding a pretty respectable share). Charles Parsons, who had invented the steam turbine in 1884, set up the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in 1893, with the objective of applying the invention to the propulsion of ships. He built a nifty little ship called the Turbinia, and, after initial trials, brought it unannounced to the Naval Review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1893). Turbinia, which had an impressive top speed of 34 knots, raced between the lines of large ships, easily evading a Navy picket boat that had been sent to stop it, and indeed almost swamping the Navy vessel with its wake.
3)In June 1914, Lawrence Sperry demonstrated his new airplane autopilot to the crowd assembled at the Airplane Safety Competition on the banks of the Seine. Flying with Sperry was his French mechanic, Emil Cachin. The Curtiss C-2 flew down the river, and directly in front of the judge’s stand. Sperry engaged his stabilizer device and passed in review with both his arms held high. The aircraft continued on a straight and steady course, with the pilot obviously not handling the controls. During the second pass, Cachin climbed out on the starboard wing and moved about 7 feet away from the fuselage, with Sperry’s hands still off the controls. As Cachin moved out on the wing, the aircraft momentarily banked due to the shift of weight, but the gyrostabilizer quickly corrected the attitudinal change, after which the Curtiss continued smoothly down the river. On the third pass, Cachin stood on one wing and Sperry on the other, with the pilot’s seat empty.
The crowd and the competition judge were blown away by Sperry’s accomplishment, and the inventor was awarded the 50,000 franc prize. (The New York Times was less impressed, commenting snidely that “Of stability commonly understood, no heavier than air flight vehicles will ever have even as much as that dreadfully fragile monster, the dirigible.”)
4)In 1952, the Remington Rand corporation proposed to CBS News that its Univac computer be used to predict the results on election night. CBS execs were skeptical about the idea, but went along with it.
Most commentators were offering predictions ranging from a Democratic landslide to a tight race with Stevenson slightly ahead of Eisenhower. But at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, Univac predicted that Eisenhower would pile up 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93, with the odds of an Eisenhower win at 100-1.
The CBS executive in charge did not believe these numbers, and adjustments to the assumptions were made. At 9:00 PM, the network announced that the machine was predicting 8-7 odds for an Eisenhower win.
One of the Remington Rand staff members then discovered that he’d mistakenly added a zero to the Stevenson totals from New York State. With this error corrected (and I believe with the revised assumptions required by CBS still in place, though this isn’t clear from the sources), Univac gave the same prediction as before: 438 to 93 with odds of an Eisenhower win at 100:1.
The final vote was 442 to 89. Late at night, CBS announcer Charles Collingwood made an embarrassing confession to his audience: Univac had made an accurate prediction hours before, but CBS hadn’t aired it.
Anyone have any other good examples of dramatic and high-impact demos?