It's a hard life being an inventor. You slave away on a brilliant idea, present it to the world, and are often told that it's complete nonsense and you belong in a mental institution. In 12 famous cases, however, the naysayers got their comeuppance — in a spectacular fashion. Whether it was lack of foresight, a genuine wish to be annoying, or just somebody having a bad day, here are 12 of the best cases of modern inventions that met some severe criticism before going on to blow everyone away.
When Alexander Graham Bell sent his invention to Western Union to see if they wanted to use it, they were very unimpressed. “The idea is idiotic on the face of it,” they said in an internal memo, “ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy. This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.” Whoops.
In what was a truly alarming lack of foresight, Marechal Ferdinand Foch, who was Professor of Strategy at France’s Ecole Superieure de Guerre (yes, a literal school of war) decided in 1904 that “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” Guess he didn’t see drones coming.
Time magazine managed to be both very wrong and very rude when they predicted that shopping from home wouldn’t go anywhere in 1966. “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.” Obviously, this was wildly inaccurate.
You can always trust the British to be incredibly snobbish when required. A British Parliamentary Committee demonstrated this talent in 1878 about the lightbulb: “good enough for our transatlantic friends,” they said, meaning Americans, “but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” Wrong much?
The Personal Computer
Back in 1977, computers were ungainly, room-sized things, so we can probably forgive the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olson, for saying, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” After all, it would probably have to have its own home.
Thomas Edison wasn’t a very scrupulous man. After he’d pronounced that “fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever,” in 1889, he started the War Of Currents to falsely convince the U.S. public that AC was extremely unsafe, so that they’d use his invention, direct current, instead. He lost.
Lee De Forest, who had a huge role in the invention of radio, wasn’t too happy about other entertainment inventions. “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible,” he said, “commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.” Not so much.
When Fred Smith, founder of Fed Ex, proposed the idea of an overnight delivery service to his management professor at Yale, the professor was, famously, unwilling to see its genius. “The concept is interesting and well-formed,” he wrote on the paper, “but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” Maybe he was anticipating the pink slips?
We can’t really fault Literary Digest for being sceptical of the automobile in 1899. The models at the time were excruciatingly slow and had to have a man walking in front to clear the road. “The ordinary “horseless carriage” is at present a luxury for the wealthy,” they said, “and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”
High-Speed Train Travel
Charlie Chaplin was the undisputed king of silent film, but was always convinced that it was shortly going to die out. In 1916 he said, “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.” Although considering Hollywood’s current crop of remakes and sequels, he may be right.