I’ve been reading Music for Deckchairs’ post Waiting for disruption. The resulting chitchat regarding the connective tissue between having a product to test, evaluate, and reverse engineer and an idea spruiked in press releases regarding the game-changer joint-venture collaboration, OpenClass, between Pearson Education and Google, has been surprisingly lively. Lively enough for me to stifle my yawn anyway. But while LMS stuff only occasionally tests my aerobic capacities it did remind me of some of the other great technological revolutions that never happened. There have been so many.
The game change that never came which sprung to mind was the orbital engine developed by a young Perth engineer, Ralph Sarich. He won a television competition and was crowned Inventor of the Year in 1972, people loved him and his cool, slightly space age device, Australian love it when they’re first and they loved Sarich, for a bit anyway. Sarich had invented an orbital engine, that is to say one without moving parts as part of the combustion process. It was, and still is, a very neat idea. Without moving parts there could be no wear and tear, no friction, no inefficiency, and no waste of fuel. All the getting about in cars could all be made simpler, easier, cheaper and cleaner. Tremendous.
So Sarich started a company, Sarich Technologies Ltd and then its offshoot, the Orbital Engine Company, to produce and sell the engine. There was massive interest from around the world: Australia’s biggest miner bought 15%, plus top ups of capital over the years; the Michigan Pension Fund came on board and following them GM. The Australian government got into it as well; lots of subsidy and protection, every cent invested an R & D tax write off. It was a great festival of innovation, advancement, and shareholding. The fuss and blither was outstanding.
The big car makers bought options, made distribution and licensing tie ups, fuel companies too. The shares bounced around the world and followed ticker tape up and down in line with company pronouncements. In 1989 Sarich left Western Australia and went to the US where he was sure the engine would finally reach a production stage working with GM and Ford. It never did, it didn’t quite work. There was no way to lubricate anything, and no way to cool anything. They were OK, they were engines but they weren’t anything like what was hoped and they weren’t as good as engines already coming off the production line.
Sarich, perhaps, saw the writing on the wall before his partners and sold up in 1992. He invested his cash in Perth Real Estate and is now one of the richest guys in the country. The main outcome of the twenty five years of investments made in the orbital engine has been, wait for it…a better lawn mower. Yes the big improvements in engine efficiencies that were actually able to be applied were able to put into practice only on two stroke engines: the ones for lawn mowers and scooters and little boats. Over time the two stroke engine patents are expected to make a substantial dollar for those brave enough to hold into their Orbital Engine Company shares.
Innovation, eh? It’s never where you expect it.