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10 World-Changing Inventions People Thought Were Useless –

 

Just like you should always be careful who you ignore in middle school, it’s probably also a good idea not to disregard a new invention or discovery before it has realised its full potential. Deride the latest fad with caution, because it might just blossom into a beautiful young woman and/or change the way we all live our daily lives.

Making predictions about the future is always a risky business. Sometimes, you can hit the nail on the head and retrospectively seem like a cross between a mad scientist and a wizard. But, there’s also the ever present danger that you can also end up getting a bit carried away and predicting a bright shiny future that never comes to light, or damning an emerging technology that is set to take off like nothing else before it. Either way, you end up looking like a bit of an idiot.

There have been plenty of times in the past when so-called “experts” might have been a little too quick to spurn the latest gadget, reject the latest discovery or even dismiss the latest findings as a hoax.

These are some particularly egregious examples…

10. The Lightbulb

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“Good enough for our transatlantic friends […] but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”British Parliamentary Committee, referring to Edison’s light bulb, 1878.

Perhaps their judgement was clouded by a bit of traditional British snobbery for the Yanks, but the british Parliamentary Committee rather fail to see the potential in the light bulb. Bearing in mind that these were the people who decorated their Christmas trees with candles, so quite why they thought they were qualified to comment on practicality is anyone’s guess.

To be fair to them, the national electrical grid was non-existent at the time, and anyone wishing to power their fancy new lightbulbs would need their own generator or enormous battery.

Although Edison is widely credited with the invention of the incandescent lightbulb in the 1870s, at least 22 other inventors had some version of it before him. He did, however, produce the most viable version with a higher vacuum and higher resistance.

“Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.”Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison’s light bulb, 1880.

Luckily enough, Henry Morton was wrong, and that conspicuous failure is now conspicuously visible from space.

9. The Telephone

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“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys,” Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, 1874

Again with the British snobbery, Preece was adamant that the brand new invention of the telephone presented no risk to the telegrams in which his company dealt.

Before him, however there were even those who thought the technology, not only worthless, but impossible.

“Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.”The Boston Post, 1865

The ability to communicate instantly, with anyone anywhere in the world, however, turned out to be a pretty appealing prospect to the wider population that didn’t run a telegrams company (fancy that), and now it is thought that at least 75% of the world’s population have access to a mobile phone, let alone a landline. That’s 5,250,000,000 impossible voices transmitted over impossible wires.

“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”William Orton, Western Union president, in response to an offer to buy Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone company for $100,000

8. Online Shopping

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“Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.”TIME Magazine, 1966.

Granted, TIME weren’t talking about online shopping at the time (as there was no line to be on), but they did dramatically underestimate the people’s desire to do as little as possible as often as they can, and this extends to getting someone else to do the legwork for you in your shopping.

Not only did they miss the mark with the potential success of online shopping, with online retail sales predicted to break $370 billion in 2017, but also pretty much all other aspects of their assertions.

Nearly 50 percent of Millennials, for example, report browsing online for stuff they have no intention of buying, proving that remote shopping did not, in fact, kill the joy of window shopping. Research also suggests that gender spending is about equal, putting the kibosh on the sweeping generalisations about women and shopping they snuck in there.

7. Household Robotics

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“…we will slide from housekeeping to being kept by our house.”Albert Borgmann, Real American Ethics, 2006

Okay, here we stray into that dangerous territory that we warned about earlier – predicting the future.

People are always wringing thier hands about the effects of new technology on the moral fibre of the population. Back in the 1950s, people were even worrying that the introduction of labour saving devices would render women obsolete.

Perhaps due to the now slightly naive predictions for the future made by Futurists in the mid-20th Century, people now view a lot of modern household technology as a little ridiculous and even lazy, forgetting that dishwashers and washing machines are already examples of robots doing chores for us about the house.

When the Roomba, the little robotic vacuum cleaner that bumbles around your home, was first released, people laughed and, despite being released back in 2002 and enjoying a certain amount of press attention, they’re still often regarded as a bit of a novelty.

They are, however, a potential glimpse into the future of household robotics.

It turns out that creating a humanoid robot is much trickier than we thought it would be, and the possibility of anyone getting a ButlerBot 300 with arms and legs and a face any time soon is looking vanishingly slim. We are, however, seeing a trend for specialised droids, each with a different job in the home, as opposed to one big robot trying to do everything from folding the washing to making lasagne.

No one can really argue that washing machines have turned us all into amoral slobs, and no one would call them ridiculous, so why should it be any different for a robot that vacuums your carpets?

6. Cars

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“The ordinary “horseless carriage” is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”Literary Digest, 1899

Given what we know about cars and the environment now, perhaps it would have been better if we’d all stuck to bicycles.

Aside from their role in building the vibrant global economy that we have today, and enabling us the geographical freedom to do more than remain in the town in which we were born. Apart from that.

People have had lots of concerns about cars over the years, and there was plenty of hand-wringing regarding the dangers of a vehicle moving at (gasp) 20 mph (despite the fact that the top speed of a horse is about 30 mph)

“The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming… [T]he cost of producing [gasoline] is far beyond the financial capacity of private industry… In addition the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture.”U. S. Congressional Record, 1875

I mean, to be fair, they’re not exactly wrong, but cars are still pretty great.

Sadly, our obsession with the automobile appears to have robbed us of a glittering future in which we all buzz around in personal helicopters:

“Automobiles will start to decline almost as soon as the last shot is fired in World War II. The name of Igor Sikorsky will be as well known as Henry Ford’s, for his helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter…. These ‘copters’ will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny ‘copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.”Harry Bruno, aviation publicist, 1943

5. Cinema

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“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”Charlie Chaplin, actor, producer, director, and studio founder, 1916

Well, it just goes to show that even the best of us can get it wrong sometimes. The bizarre thing is that Chaplin made that statement two years after appearing in his first film, Making a Living, which he is said to have hated.

In a world dominated by theatre, the idea of cinema seemed like a watered down version, until filmmakers turned it into an artform in its own right. Cinema had shaky beginnings, as notorious a**hole Thomas Edison owned nearly all of the patents involved in the process, almost killing it in the crib by forcing early filmmakers to either work with him or meet him in court.

But, once the industry was established, it was wildly successful. Then, the shocking developments in sound recording meant that we would be able to hear the actors’ voices for the first time. This was obviously a disaster as, after all:

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1927

4. Television

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“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946

Clearly, Darryl Zanuck has never seen Game of Thrones.

A common trend in the dismissal of important new inventions, is that the person doing the dismissing is often part of a rival industry. Sir William Preece did it with the telephone, Chaplin did it with cinema, and then Zanuck, who was involved in the movie business, did it with television. The lesson here is to underestimate your enemy at your peril.

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.”Mary Somerville, pioneer of radio educational broadcasts, 1948

This flash in the pan has resulted in a world in which 99% of British households own at least one television, and the average person in the West will spend a total of 9 years of their life “staring at a plywood box”. Not too shabby.

3. Computers

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“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Yes, that Thomas Watson, the one after whom IBM’s flagship supercomputer is named after. To be fair, there is conflicting evidence as to whether those were his exact words, but plenty of people have had their reservations about the potential for computing.

Much like the lightbulb, early computers were so impractical, being cumbersome with little processing power, that it would indeed have been ridiculous to imagine that everybody would want one in their home. Even with a more optimistic outlook, it was still difficult to see why anyone would want one in their home:

“Computers in the future may…perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.”Popular Mechanics, 1949

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”Kenneth Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

Thankfully, many more had faith in the power of computing and it remains one of, if not the, most important invention in modern history, powering our society from the ground up and governing every one of our lives today.

2. Mathematics

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Mathematics is inadequate to describe the universe, since mathematics is an abstraction from natural phenomena. Also, mathematics may predict things which don’t exist, or are impossible in nature.Ludovico delle Colombe, Criticizing Galileo, early 17th Century (paraphrased)

Okay, so he wasn’t completely disregarding the entire field of mathematics, but show this quotation from Ludovico delle Colombe to literally any physicist and they will laugh right in your face.

Not only is he wrong in his assertions that you cannot describe the universe with maths, but most modern physicists agree that the universe appears to actually be made of maths. One of the greatest mysteries of modern times is that life, the universe and everything appears to be computable, this is so odd that it has even led some to believe that it must be that we’re actually living in a vast computer simulation.

Perhaps we should exercise some caution here though, as there are some things that we cannot currently adequately describe with maths – the singularity of a black hole, for example – but this is more likely to be because we’re not good enough at maths yet, not that it can’t be done.

1. Space Travel

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“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”The New York Times, 1936

In the past, about as many people have derided space travel, as have supported. Although, granted, we’re not yet zooming about the galaxy in our lightships, we have at least proven that it is possible to get, not only a rocket, but a human off this godforsaken rock.

People thought that we simply did not have the power for it, and one kind scholar even ran the numbers:

“Let us critically examine the proposal. For a projectile entirely to escape the gravitation of earth, it needs a velocity of 7 miles a second. The thermal energy of a gramme at this speed is 15,180 calories… The energy of our most violent explosive–nitroglycerine–is less than 1,500 calories per gramme. Consequently, even had the explosive nothing to carry, it has only one-tenth of the energy necessary to escape the earth… Hence the proposition appears to be basically impossible.”W. A. Bickerton, Professor of Physics and Chemistry at Canterbury College, New Zealand, 1926

The difference between the critics and the visionaries, however, is that the former tend to use the word “never”, whereas the latter tend to stick with “someday”.

The lesson we can all hopefully take from history, is that we have achieved a lot more as a species by saying that things can be done, rather than dismissing the impossible before it has had the time to change the world.

“Space travel is utter bilge.”Dr. Richard van der Reit Wooley, Astronomer Royal, space advisor to the British government, 1956

Sputnik orbited the Earth the following year.

 

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