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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 
really needed. 

For example:
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.

`Foolish idea'
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 
London.

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.

`Completely idiotic'
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 
idea.

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 
later.

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.

Short-sighted
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.

Railroad ridiculed
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 
today.

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


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