Great Demos of All Time

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?

18 thoughts on “Great Demos of All Time”

  1. 1970: one of Boeing’s test pilots flying the 707 prototype over Lake Washington in full view of a big air industry festival put the plane into a barrel roll.

    Boeing got a lot of orders for the 707 as a result.

  2. Another Lawrence Sperry story…in 1916, while giving flying lessons to a woman friend, he engaged the autopilot and evidently gave his full attention to non-aeronautical matters. Either the autopilot failed or it was accidentally disengaged, and the plane (which was a seaplane) descended, fortunately into the water. Neither Sperry nor his student (a well-known society woman) was wearing much in the way of clothing when they were rescued.

    Sperry reminded the NYT reporter of the paper’s slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print,” but one of the tabloids ran the headline:


  3. That 707 demo must have been before 1970. According to Wikipedia, the 707 first went into production in 1957.

  4. I don’t have a great demo in particular but can speak to the effectiveness of them. In my industry (HVAC) demo’s sell. If you can take a time saving tool (or part or whatever) out to a contractors job and show them how it works, or show them how it works in your store or their shop, it will sell the tool or part much more effectively than a zillion trade magazine ads.

  5. An important key to a good demo: interact with the audience, don’t just mindlessly follow a script.

    A good example of interaction was provided by a woman named Sandy Kurtzig, who founded one of the first large independent software companies. (ASK Computer Systems) While attempting to develop a strategic alliance with Hewlett Packard, she had to demonstrate her manufacturing software to a sales manager named Bill Richion.

    “So you’re the broad who’s trying to sell this manufacturing system?” he inquired as he walked into the room. She told him that indeed, she was the very broad, and proceeded with the demo.

    One of the things the system did was to track manufacturing bills of material, so she proceeded to define an assembly with the name BILL RICHION and the description HANDSOME MAN. She then proceeded to define the components of the assembly?


    The alliance between ASK and HP was very successful, and sold a lot of computers for HP and a lot of software for Kurtzig.

    (Story from her book, “CEO”)

  6. A less successful demonstration was by IBM in the 1966 Bermuda Race. Chairman of the board, Tom Watson was racing his very successful custom 58 footer named Palawan. The president of IBM was Vince Learson who was sailing his new fiberglass Cal 40. Before the race, Watson told Learson, “You’d better not win.” Another innovation was the plan to have IBM calculate the times and handicap allowances for the race. Furthermore, they changed to a “time on time” system instead of the traditional time on distance (seconds per mile) handicap allowances. The new system required the finish times to be transmitted to New York for calculation in the mainframe. This resulted in hours of delay before boats could learn their place in class and fleet. Worse, the new system allowed the Cal 40 to win over all while Palawan came in third overall and second in class. Had they used the old time on distance handicaps, Palawan would have won overall. After Learson got to Bermuda, he received a telegram from Watson’s wife that read, “You’re fired.” It was all in fun, though and Learson later became Chairman of IBM. The new system, however, had a mixed reception.

  7. In the late 80s we first put USGS streamflow data and NCIC climate data on CD. Until that point you transcribed it by hand out of books published every 1 or every 5 years; or read it from magnetic tapes. Some of the big firms maintained people whose only job was to write retrievals to get the data from the tapes. Getting these data took weeks.

    I would walk in and set up a ‘portable’ computer that weighed about 40 lbs and attach the CD. I would ask, “What’s a station you’re working with? Give me a name, number, river, drainage basin, anything?” They’d give me one and I’d have the data on the screen in a couple seconds. The most aggressive engineer present would say, “What? What! Give me that. Move over. I’m going to drive.” Normally just this was enough to slide the silver stake into their hearts, especially when I noted that this put them not just equal to, but ahead of the biggest consulting firms in the country. The only one who took a little more was a guy who said, “I don’t need to buy this. I’m an engineer. I’m not afraid of numbers.” I said, “Nope, you don’t. You aren’t afraid of numbers. But your secretary is. And with this, you can get her providing the numbers, and you can get back to analyzing them.”

    And that’s why Jobs and Gates are worth everything we’ve paid them. They disintermediated the MIS assholes and let humans get at the numbers.

  8. Before barbed wire could achieve widespread use throughout the West, it had to be accepted by ranchers and farmers. Sensing that Texas would be the largest single market for the new invention, Ellwood sent the team of Henry Sanborn and J.P. Warner to Houston in 1875 to promote and sell barbed wire. They found Texas seething with controversy between the free grassers, who wanted to maintain the open range, and the nesters, who advocated fields protected by fences. Even those who were in favor of fencing scoffed at the idea that a light-weight barbed wire fence could restrain the wild Texas Longhorn cattle. There was also concern that the sharp barbs would inflict wounds on cattle. If the cuts became infected, the cattle could become diseased and die.

    Because of these controversies, Sanborn and Warner failed to sell much barbed wire. This situation changed when a 21-year-old sales-man named John W. Gates was hired by Ellwood. Arriving in Texas, Gates obtained permission to build a barbed wire corral in San Antonio’s Military Plaza. He announced that he intended to demonstrate that this fence could contain even the most wild Texas longhorns and offered to take all bets on the outcome. Gates’ bravado soon aroused the interest of many cattlemen. When the fenced enclosure was complete, he had wild Longhorn bulls driven into the corral. The animals, aroused by the taunts of the onlookers, were provoked repeatedly to charge the barbed wire. The fences held and Gates soon began to sell barbed wire to the cattlemen by the railcar load.

  9. Fast talking salesman with his “foot in the door” gains entry to the living room of an old farmhouse, somewhere in the Central Plains, circa 1940.

    As the salesman dumps a bag of dirt in the middle of the one rug, the salesman brags, “Lady, if this ExtraVoltXL cleaner does not pick up every speck of that dirt, I will eat the dirt!”

    Woman turns her back to the salesman and calls out, “I am bringing you a spoon from the kitchen. We don’t have no electricity here.”

  10. The hardest thing to overcome with the AR 10 and 15 was the conviction by the army that automatic weapons would result in wasted ammunition. Had we adopted the Henry repeating rifle in 1861, the Confederacy would have lost the war in 1862. First, rapid fire would have overcome their disciplined formations. Two, they could not have scavenged weapons for the battlefield as they did not have the capacity to manufacture the cartridges for the Henry. One company of the Army of the Potomac was armed with Henrys by private subscription and defeated a much larger Confederate formation. Other companies followed all by private subscription</a..

Comments are closed.