Inventions that Refused to Fail
A review of some inventions and acts that weren't believed to be possible. And how the skeptics were proven wrong
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For centuries people have scoffed at inventors and their `new-
fangled' machines. According to the scoffers the inventions not
only would not work, they were quite `impossible'. But often the
sceptics were proved embarrasingly wrong.
`Very clever - but they will never replace the horse,' the
sceptics said when they saw the first motor-cars.
While many inventions have met with a warm welcome, others
have been greeted with scepticism, criticism and rejection and
have had to struggle for acceptance. The critics begin by arguing
that they will not work; or if they work they will be uneconomic;
and even if they are economic they are too visionary or not
In the early days of avaition the American astronomer
William Pickering, who predicted the existence of planet Pluto,
warned the public that: `The popular mind often pictures
gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and
carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern
steamships....It seems safe to say that such ideas must be wholly
visionary, and even if a machine could get across with one or two
passengers the cost would be prohibitive....' Threee decades
later, in June 1939, the first transatlantic airline service was
inaugurated by Pan American, whose Boeing 314 flying boat 'Yankee
Clipper' carried 19 passengers for a return fare of L140 each.
Earlier still, in October 1903, the Canadian-born astronomer
Professor Simon Newcombe had mocked the very idea of flying,
stating that it was `utterly impossible'. Just 56 days later, at
Kill Devil Hill, Kittyhawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright became
the first man to fly in a power-driven aeroplane.
In 1926 the eminent British astronomer Alexander Bickerton
declared: `This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an
example of the absurd length to which vicious specialization will
carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments.... The
proposition appears to be basically impossible.' Forty-three
years later Neil Armstrong, mission commander of the American
Apollo XI spacecraft, became the first man to walk on the moon.
In 1936 a writer in the British scientific journal 'Nature'
declared when reviewing a book on rocket flight: `The whole
procedure sketched in the present volume presents difficulties of
so fundamental a nature that we are forced to dismiss the notion
as essentially impractical.' Six years later - following rocket
flights in America in the mid-1930s, masterminded by the
physicist Robert Hutchings Goddard - the German rocket engineer
Wernher von Braun saw his V-2 missile rockets fired against
But even when the `impossible inventions' undoubtedly
worked, the know-alls said they were unnecessary.
In 1897 the British Admiralty rejected the turbine-engined
boat designed by Charles Parsons, saying it would be
`uncontrollable'. But within a few years the entire British Navy
was converted to turbines.
When told of Thomas Alva Edison's development of electric
light in the 1870s, Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer of the
British Post Office, asserted that it was a completely idiotic
It was also the British Post Office which, in 1876, rejected
the telephone on the grounds that, while the American might need
such a thing, the British had plenty of small boys who would run
messages. Three years later the British telephone exchange was
opened in London.
However, scientists themselves are often equally
unimaginative. As a young man, the New Zealand-born physicist
Ernest Rutherford consulted England's leading scientist at the
end of the 19th century, Lord Kelvin, who had advanced the theory
that the entire universe was `running down'. He asked the great
man how he should best employ his talents, and wondered if he
should study `Hertzian waves', which are the basis of radio. But
Kelvin advised against this as he saw no practical application
for the waves - except perhaps for communications with
lightships. Instead, he suggested that Rutherford should
investigate the newly discovered subject of radioactivity.
Rutherford followed this advice and so denied mankind the chance
to have had radio and television a little sooner and the atom
bomb - which resulted from his work on atomic structure - alittle
A similar experience befell Guglielmo Marconi when he was
pioneering radio in the 1890s. He was warned by the German
physicist Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of radio waves, that his
experiments were bound to fail and he was `wasting his time'. But
in 1895 Marconi sent his first wireless signal, and Hertz had
been proved wrong.
The naval and military mind is peculiarly liable to such
short-sightedness. To take a fairly recent example:
`The (atomic) bomb will never go off, and I speak as an
expert in explosives.' This statement was made to President Harry
S Truman by his personal chief of staff, Admiral William D.
Leahy, a few months before the first successful tests of the bomb
at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945.
The British Navy rejected proposals for tracked armoured
vehicles, or tanks, made in 1903 by a French engineer and again
in 1908 by a British engineer. But in 1915 the Armoured Car
Division of the Royal Navy Air Service used an armoured car with
caterpillar tracks. Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the
Admiralty, referred to the vehicles as `landships'. The Royal
Navy also ignored steel armour for many years, preferring iron.
Then, in 1864, the English industrialist Henry Bessemer pointed
out that Russian steel shells would easily penetrate the British
`iron-clads'. Even so, 12 years passed before the navy went over
to steel-made ships.
Such top-level stubbornness goes far back in history. In the
1st century AD Julius Frontinius, Rome's leading military
engineer, wrote: `I shall ignore all ideas for new works and
engines of war, the invention of which has reached its limits and
for whose improvements I see no further hope.'
Later, the steamship was ridiculed by the 19th-century Irish
scientist Dionysius Lardner, who commented: `Men might as well
expect to walk on the moon as cross the Atlantic in one of those
steamships.' But a short while later, in 1838, the British-built
`Sirius' was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic, wholly by
steam, when she sailed from Ireland to New York.
Similarly, in 1829, the Governor of New York State wrote to
President Andrew Jackson attacking the railroad: `As you well
know, Mr. President,' he stated, `"Railroad" carriages are pulled
at the enormous speed of 15 mph by engines which, in addition to
endangering the life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their
way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the
livestock and frightening women and children. The almighty never
intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.'
Even inventors themselves sometimes get it wrong.
In 1924 the British electrical engineer Alan Archibald
Campbell Swinton, one of the pioneers of the cathode-ray tube,
gave a talk to the Radio Society of Great Britain on the topic of
`Seeing at Distance'. He then said:`It is probably scarcely worth
anyone's while to pursue it.' Four years later the world's first
television service was inaugurated by the General Electric
Company's Station WGY in Schenectady, New York State. And the
American creative genius Thomas Alva Edison pronounced: `I have
always consistently opposed high-tension and alternating systems
of electric lighting.' But these are the very systems in use
Edison's statement bears out the words of the British
scientist and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who
declared: `When a distinguished....scientist states that
something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
'THE INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD - Reader's Digest/Arnold 07-11-88