Technology is hard to predict. We never really know which roads it is going to take us down or where we are going to end up. Who would have thought even decades ago that we would all be linked through a worldwide web or that we would all have powerful computing devices in our pockets to use to read on the toilet? Technology has been a series of leaps from what was once thought to be fantastical into reality, after which it has morphed into everyday usage, always taking us into new frontiers that we often can't even guess at. Yet, a lot of the tech that we take for granted today was at one time scoffed at, ridiculed, and labelled absurd. Here we will look at some examples of technology that was once thought to be improbable or even akin to magic, but which we now use every day.
It goes without saying that our lives are powered by electricity. It is something that has seeped into every pore of our existence, something we use every day without even thinking about it, and it is hard to really imagine a world without it or what life was like before we had it. Almost every society on earth requires it to exist, which is why if anyone were to ever pull the plug or use an electromagnetic pulse to wipe electric devices we’d be knocked back to the stone age. Equally as hard to imagine as a world without electricity is just how badly it was misunderstood in its infancy, and how many bad predictions there were about it. One area that was especially poorly misunderstood and forecast was that of electric lighting.
One of the first bad predictions was that electric lighting would never catch on. In the 1860s, prominent banker and financier J.P. Morgan was having his mansion outfitted with this newfangled thing called “electric lighting,” which at the time was not really a thing at all. Indeed, his was the first private residence in New York to have it. J.P. was excited about it, and was even thinking about investing in kick starting Thomas Edison’s new electricity company. This was all being scoffed at by J.P.’s father, Junius Morgan, who thought the whole idea of electric lighting and electricity in general was absurd. “Electricity will be a fad,” he told his son, and he heavily tried to dissuade J.P. from investing in Edison. Luckily he did not heed this advice, because he did invest, quite generously, which would eventually lead to the formation of what is now the American multinational corporation General Electric.
In addition to Morgan, other influential people viewed electric lighting with scorn as well, such as scientist Henry Morton, of the Stevens Institute of Technology, who predicted the invention would be “a conspicuous failure.” In the 1870s, people were still rather skeptical of the notion of electric lights. When the Paris Exhibition of 1878 featured an exhibition of electric lights there were many who rolled their eyes at it, seeing it as just a toy and a fad, and these weren’t just the uneducated who thought so. Upon seeing the exhibition for himself, Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson thought electric lighting would be a dead end, famously stating, “When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” He must have had a hard time dislodging his foot from his mouth when by the 1890s electric lights had phased out kerosene lamps in the USA. Overseas skepticism was still high, though, with a British parliamentary committee saying the light bulb was “good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”
There were even bad predictions about electric lights among the ones who were inventing and perfecting them. The famous and prolific inventor Thomas Edison, who created the first commercially viable lightbulb, advocated for a system of electricity called “direct current (DC)” which was widely used at the time after he launched his incandescent bulb based electric lighting in 1882. His rival, Nikola Tesla, who actually invented the electric light in the first place, favored what is called “alternating current (AC)” which is a more efficient and practical method of supplying power. Edison constantly ribbed and ridiculed Tesla about AC, once saying “fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” While DC is still used in some applications, in modern times practically everything you use every day uses alternating current.
Telephones and Cell Phones
When Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell created the first practical telephone and had it patented in 1876, the idea of using phones to talk was met by much skepticism and wariness. The idea that a voice could be projected over a distance like that had once been thought of as akin to magic, so when it became available to the public people were apprehensive. When Bell approached American communications company Western Union and offered them the rights to his patent for $100,000, they told him that his phone was “hardly more than a toy,” and laughed in his face. William Orton, President of Western Union at the time, said of the telephone:
This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?
The British also thought of themselves as above these dumb toys called “telephones,” and Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office would completely write them off, saying in 1876, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Bell established the Bell Telephone Company in 1877, and less than a decade later over 150,000 people had telephones in the USA. When is the last time you used a telegram or a messenger boy? Exactly.
The next stage in the evolution of the phone was the cell phone, which was also long seen as science fiction that would never happen. In 1981, Marty Cooper, then director of research at Motorola and person who is credited for being the father of the cell phone, the very one who pioneered the device, said of it, “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems. Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won’t be cheap enough.” When is the last time you used a landline phone? Do you even have one? For younger readers, do you even know what a landline is? In modern times, pretty much everyone has a mobile phone, to the point where it’s almost weird if you DON’T have one, so yeah, the inventor of them got it pretty wrong.
There was also skepticism about whether they would ever get small enough to be truly portable, and in as recently as 1992 Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, said, “The idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is a pipe dream driven by greed.” Does your mobile phone fit into your pocket? It likely does. Also, what kind of mobile phone do you have? There’s a good chance you have an iPhone, of which former New York Times journalist David Pogue said in 2006, “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’ Even when the iPhone did come out it was met with skepticism, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer saying, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Right, then.
When cars first started appearing on the scene in 1886, there was a lot of skepticism aimed at them. Not only were they seen as bulky and too expensive to ever be a widespread or viable form of transportation, but they were being labelled as impractical and slow. For many, they were just a curiosity unlikely to ever replace horses, and in 1903, the president of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, saying “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.” In addition, there was a true lack of scientific understanding about what riding one at faster speeds would do to the human body. This was being debated at a time when these automobiles were going only about 8 m.p.h., but it was feared that if they were ever developed to reach higher speeds the results would be disastrous. In 1904 the New York Times reported:
It remains to be proved how fast the brain is capable of traveling. If it cannot acquire an eight-mile per hour speed, then an auto running at the rate of 80 miles per hour is running without the guidance of the brain, and the many disastrous results are not to be marveled at.
For any of you readers who have ever driven over 80 m.p.h. you know that this is false. Henry Ford would go onto release the mass-produced Ford Model T in 1908, but the following year there were still naysayers, with Scientific American declaring in 1909 that "the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.” The seems a bit premature in retrospect. The Model T would take the automobile out of the realm of luxury that only the rich could have and be the first automobile that middle-class Americans could afford. It would also revolutionize transportation and American industry and make Henry Ford one of the richest and best-known people in the world. Not bad for a “fad.”
In 1925, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of a working television in London. It marked the dawn of a new era of entertainment, in which people could watch movies in the comfort of their own homes, a concept that had not long before been considered to be pure science fiction. However, like all of the other technologies we’ve looked at here so far, there were immediately skeptics and detractors. Just one year after this milestone demonstration, in 1926 American radio pioneer Lee De Forest, who actually had quite a lot of similar flak for radio, denounced television as “a development of which we need waste little time dreaming,” and would say of it, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
Even when television became more widely available in the 1940s and more people had them, there was still a lot of skepticism that they would ever catch on. The film industry in particular seemed doubtful that TVs would ever really be able to compete with a theater. The famous screenwriter, producer of more than 100 films for the big silver screen, and founder of Twentieth Century Fox would say of TV in 1946, “Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” In 1948 Mary Somerville, pioneer of radio educational broadcasts, agreed, saying, “Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.”
In a day and age when many of us are glued to the screen, constantly having Netflix binge-watching marathons and staring at that “plywood box” for hours on end it is pretty hilarious in retrospect. Interestingly, the film industry itself had also been doubted when movies first began appearing. In 1916, the legendary actor, producer, director, and studio founder Charlie Chaplin himself said of movies, “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.” Even when movies did take off, there was more doubt when movies got sound and audiences could hear actors talk, of which H. M. Warner, of Warner Brothers, said in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? The music–that’s the big plus about this.”
I'd say most of us like movies in which the actors talk.
Airplanes have a long history of being doubted. Like teleportation, machine consciousness, space travel, and time travel, they were once one of those seemingly impossible technologies doomed to forever loom on the horizon, yet remain confined to science fiction. Scots-Irish mathematician, mathematical physicist and engineer William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, summed this up succinctly when he said in 1895, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Even Wilbur Wright, who along with his brother Orville are credited with inventing, building, and flying the world's first successful motor-operated airplane, wasn’t sure how possible it actually was, once saying in 1901 “Man will not fly for 50 years.”
This proved to be very wrong, as in 1903 the Wright brothers would make history when they successfully flew the world’s first powered aircraft over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, ushering in a new age of transportation. Yet even with this stunning success, airplanes would constantly be underestimated and produce a slew of wrong predictions. In 1933 the first modern passenger plane, the 10-seater Boeing 247, had its maiden flight, after which its chief engineer said, “There will never be a bigger plane built.”
There were also some laughably off the mark predictions made about the use of planes in war. In 1903, English author George Gissing mused that “The invention of aircraft will make war impossible in the future,” and the following year French general and military theorist would say, “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” Of course not. Why would anyone use planes in war? The use of airplanes on the battlefield is for suckers. Gotcha. During World War II, German politician and military leader Hermann Wilhelm Göring, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi Party would laughably stick his foot in his mouth when he declared, “The Americans are good about making fancy cars and refrigerators, but that doesn’t mean they are any good at making aircraft. They are bluffing. They are excellent at bluffing.”
When computers first started appearing, they were far from what we see today. House-sized behemoths with the memory and computing power of your pocket calculator and the price of a car, it was hard to predict what might actually be done with them or where the tech would take us. At the time, certainly no one could have imagined that there would ever be a time when everyone would have one in their home, and the thought of perching one on one’s lap while riding the train or sitting on a sofa would have been the stuff of pure sci-fi. In the 1940s, computers were little more than room-sized vacuum-tube-powered adding machines, with the invention of the microchip still years away, and in 1943 Thomas Watson, president of IBM at the time, would lament, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
One of the main problems was that it was thought that we would never be able to get a computer down to a manageable size. The thought of a desktop computer was pure fantasy in the 1940s, much less one that you could stow away in your bag. It was an era in which even the lightest computers weighed tens of tons and were loaded with a vast, bristling array of vacuum tubes that were necessary to make them work. Even something that would weigh just a few tons would have been considered pretty futuristic at the time, and in 1949 the tech magazine Popular Mechanics optimistically predicted:
Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers of the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh one and a half tons.
There was also the fact that no one ever thought the computer would be very useful for anything, much less one in your home. It was thought that the tech would never go beyond a glorified calculator. Even when the world’s first stored program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine, debuted in 1949, one Hungarian-American mathematician declared that that was as far as we would get, saying, “We have reached the limit of what is possible to achieve with computer technology.”
Even when the microchip was invented in the 1950s and the prospect of smaller computers being used as more than just a calculator looked like it might be feasible, there were naysayers. In 1957, just one year before Texas Instrument engineer Jack Kilby revolutionized the electronics industry by inventing the first integrated circuit, the editor of Prentice Hall business books was saying, “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” In 1968 people still didn’t really know quite what to make of microchips, and one engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM said in 1968 of the microchip, “But what…is it good for?” Indeed, no one really thought there was much use for it. In 1977, Ken Olson, president Digital Equipment Corp., now Compaq, made a speech at the World Future Society meeting in Boston in which he stated, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” In 1985, New York Times software columnist Erik Sandberg-Diment similarly didn’t think anyone would want a portable computer either, writing:
For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few … On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper.
Of course he was wrong. Computers did get smaller and more useful, and sales began to increase at a rapid pace as the hardware became more affordable, but there were constant underestimates of what they would eventually be capable of. As the years went on and computers got even smaller and more ubiquitous, the functions increased even more and we would then come to the Internet. Again, at the time there wasn’t much to the Internet and not a lot to do on there, and in 1995 American astronomer, author and teacher Clifford Stoll wrote a ranting editorial piece in the publication Newsweek criticizing the Internet and proclaiming that it was on its way out. He would write:
The truth, is that no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.
Even as the Internet grew in popularity there were a lot of skeptics on the future of the net, namely because it was not believed that the infrastructure would ever be able to meet growing demand. One vocal critic of the sustainability of Internet at the time was none other than Bob Metcalfe, the legendary tech visionary, founder of 3Com, and inventor of Ethernet. He would make a now infamous speech at InfoWorld in 1995 in which he would say:
Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.
He added that if he was wrong he would eat his words, and so in 1999 during his keynote speech at the International World Wide Web Conference he would hilariously produce a copy of his printed column for PC World sister publication InfoWorld, put it through a blender, and eat it. Metcalfe would make another poor prediction in 2011, when told TechCrunch magazine that the social media bubble would “burst like all previous bubbles have.” I suppose Facebook didn’t get the memo. In 1998 there was also American economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who also did not have much faith in the future of the Internet and wrote:
The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law” — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.
For all of you reading this on the Internet on a device that can fit into your pocket or a laptop that weighs considerably less than one and a half tons, it is all probably rather amusing.
Another technology that was long in the realm of pure science fiction is space travel. It was long considered to be an unachievable dream, and that we would forever be tied to this rock we call Earth. Heading into the 20th century, although the idea of space travel was popular in fiction and the idea had been around for a while, it was still considered firmly within the realm of fantasy, and the American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube Lee DeForest, would say of the idea of actually traveling into space:
To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth - all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.
The New York Times similarly stated in 1936 that “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” Well into the 1950s and right up to when we actually went into space there was much skepticism about space travel. In 1956, Richard Van Der Riet Woolley, Astronomer Royal, did not mince words when he said, “Space travel is utter bilge.” It was a sentiment shared by the eminent English astronomer Sir Harold Spencer Jones, who similarly said, “Space travel is bunk” in 1957. Ironically, two weeks after this statement he would have to eat his words when on October 4, 1957, Russia made history when they launched Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, which orbited the planet for two months sending back radio signals. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would become the first human to journey into space, and at the time there was also much excitement about what satellite technology could mean for the human race. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner T.A.M. Craven would scoff at the idea that satellites would ever be of use, saying in 1961:
There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States.
As of Sept. 1, 2021, Earth had 4,550 satellites in orbit. Of course space technology went on. In 1969 humans landed on the moon, and now they are talking about one day sending us to Mars. In a few centuries or less we could be living on other planets. So much for space travel being “utter bilge.” Hindsight is 20/20 and technology keeps growing and advancing beyond our ability to even keep up with it or predict it. Who knows where we will be in 20, 50, 100 years? Can you even imagine it? Can you say for sure? In recent years there has been a lot of debunking and skepticism aimed at ideas such as teleportation, interstellar travel, and machine conciousness, but looking through these historical precedents of ignorance of the future can you really say for sure? Maybe at this point in time it is time to stop insisting what can and cannot be done, and just keep our mouths shut to see what happens.