In 1840, American educator, Thomas H. Palmer coined the phrase, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." When I repeat this age-old maxim to my kids at homework time, I continue with, "… and learn to laugh at your mistakes because mistakes are inevitable, acceptable and sometimes desirable."
Lessons in learning and laughter are abundant at the OOPSATOREUM exhibition currently showing at the Powerhouse Museum. Visitors are introduced to the radical Australian inventor, Henry Archibald Mintox (1880-1967) and are given the opportunity to examine some of his striking inventions. Sadly, these inventions were described as useless, unnecessary, badly timed and commercially unsuccessful. Despite this, visitors to the exhibition are urged to think about what it means to be truly original and whether creativity should be measured only by success. Is it really the thought that counts… no matter how impractical? We learn that behind every enduring and successful innovation is a world of failed inventions.
Great Failures: Tea-Timer, Handshake Gauge, Love Trumpet and Fat Suit
Take Henry's Tea-Timer, an automatic teapot which was designed to produce tea at precise intervals throughout the day. A steam explosion during a public demonstration did little to attract investors and thwarted the commercial success of this invention.
The Handshake Gauge was another fascinating invention which was designed to assist employers when conducting job interviews. A firm handshake is seen as an indication of someone being steadfast and trustworthy and this device was intended to take the guesswork out of character judgement.
A personal favourite was the Fat Suit which was essentially a special undergarment intended to enhance the size and bulk of gentlemen who believed a "well fed" appearance was a sign of wealth and success, especially during the Great Depression when food could be sparse.
And what person would not desire a Love Trumpet – a clever little device that reduces spoken words to a murmur of soft musical tones. Freed from the distractions of content or meaning, the listener is able to focus purely on the truth of the message, with different tones indicating levels of honesty or wisdom.
Behind every enduring and successful innovation is a world of failed inventions
These and other curious inventions featured in the exhibition sparked our imaginations and got us talking about what inspired Henry Archibald Mintox to invent what he did, the mistakes he made and what could have been done differently.
It's human nature to shy away from mistakes and to criticise failure but it's worth remembering that mistakes are important to innovation, learning and gaining self-confidence. Self-confidence is gained not by being protected from mistakes but by learning that you can survive them. The Oopsatoreum exhibition cleverly demonstrates how we can innovate through play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning which leads kids to find and pursue a passion, which will help them to develop, over time, a deeper sense of purpose.
As Thomas Edison put it: "I never failed once. It just happened to be a 2000-step process."
As well as the mindboggling inventions, visitors to the exhibition can enjoy some of the activities on offer - a magic lantern show, a working printing press and spaces where you can draw, write, make or build – all that is needed to bring out in each of us Henry Archibald Mintox's innovative spirit.
***Spoiler alert: Henry Archibald Mintox is a character of fiction, created by the talented Shaun Tan, as are the stories which have been woven around Henry's 'inventions'. Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors will learn the "truth" about the origin of the different exhibits which are, in themselves, interesting stories.***