Today’s technology represents such a serendipitous hodgepodge that it might seem unfair to judge historical figures’ wrong-headed assumptions about the future.
But why not?
Looking back over tech history gives valuable insights into how past innovation was brought to commercial fruition.
Thus, to provide a bit of context for the following five pronouncements — which over time have proven to be woefully off the mark — Forbes.com spoke to Bruce Seely, historian of technology at Michigan Tech University and the president of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).
1. Martin Van Buren on the dangers of “high speed” rail travel.
“…railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by ‘engines’ which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside. The almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” — New York Governor Martin Van Buren, 1829.
Why was Van Buren so taken aback by railroad technology at the time?
Seely says the former New York governor and former U.S. president wasn’t the only one.
“There were even some physicians at the time who questioned whether the human body could stand a 25 mph speed,” said Seely.
And in 1829, Seely says no one really foresaw the commercial possibility that railroads presented for long haul freight. However, Seely says it’s more likely that Van Buren was simply reacting to a novel technology that he as a politician could never have anticipated.
2. William Henry Pickering’s dim view of aviation.
“…gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steam ships…such ideas are wholly visionary…” — William Henry Pickering, astronomer, 1910.
Only seven years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, airplanes in 1910 still remained very fragile, Seely notes.
But Pickering’s quote is particularly frustrating, Seely says, because the noted Harvard astronomer was someone that in the public mind would seem to have some special knowledge about aviation. But, in fact, Seely says Pickering had “no insights at all” about how these aircraft fly.
“the phrase — ‘such ideas are wholly visionary,’ really jumps out at me,” said Seely, “as if this is somehow a problem. Almost any large scale technical breakthrough requires a visionary to push it through because they are either going against an existing technical system or [advocating] one that is very expensive to develop.”
3. Ernest Rutherford’s atomic myopia.
“the energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.” – Ernest Rutherford, physicist, 1933.
“With Rutherford, you think, ‘this is a guy involved in nuclear physics’,” said Seely. “Surely, he must have insight into what was going on.”
But by 1933, Rutherford is not necessarily at the front and center of the most exciting research, says Seely. For, as he notes, it was a time when a new generation of physicists had emerged; developing bizarre theories, such as quantum mechanics.
It took World War II to bring nuclear energy to term.
4. Harry Warner’s wariness of movies with sound.
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” — Hollywood movie mogul Harry Warner, 1925.
Like all movie moguls of the 1920s, Seely says Harry Warner was very much worried about the technological investment of talkies, such as soundstages and cinema sound systems.
“They were concerned that the existing way their industry operated was going to overtaken by technology,” said Seely, “that it was going to be turned upside down due to tech.”
Talkies are wonderful proof that when you change one piece of a technical system, he says, the whole system changes.
Thus, the film industry was in upheaval from 1926 to the mid-1930s trying to find money to make this transition during the depression.
5. Henry David Thoreau’s misgivings about the telegraph.
Arguably, the ultimate uber hippie, Thoreau asserted a 19th century version of Springsteen’s refrain of “57 channels (and nothin’ on).”
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” — Henry David Thoreau, 1854.
As soon as Morse’s telegraph technology was proven, it was understood that in fact there was a lot to say from Texas to Maine and vice-versa, says Seely. The main reason the federal government put money into the telegraph, he adds, was to enable a democratic government to function on a continental scale.
The telegraph was just as useful for stock markets and newspapers also trying to function on a continental scale.
However, Thoreau was from an era of face to face or words on paper communications.
“The idea that you had an electrical medium as an intermediary took getting used to,” said Seely. “I [myself] am from a world of books and articles. Today, I can’t see that Twitter makes any sense; 140 characters aren’t enough to say anything.”
What’s the lesson in all this?
“Innovation is rarely able to be clearly understood at the time it’s happening,” said Seely, “and people who find ways to make the technology work [point it] in directions that the original innovators never imagined.”