More Red Faces

Source: Foresight Institute

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The following material was originally taken from a Congressional Research Report on Erroneous Predictions and Negative Comments Concerning Scientific and Technological Developments, CB 150, F-381, by Nancy T. Gamarra, Research Assistant in National Security, Foreign Affairs Division, May 29 1969 (revised).

It has since been edited, modified and augmented.

Erroneous Predictions about:

Darwin's theory of evolution
Ford Motor Company
Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons by telescope
Gas Lighting
Robert Goddard's Rocket Research
Inventions (general)
Military Technology
Ohm's Law
Railroads and locomotives



Samuel Langley's experiments with airplanes

Comment in the New York Times one week before the successful flight of the Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers:

"...We hope that Professor Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time and the money involved, in further airship experiments. Life is short, and he is capable of services to humanity incomparably greater than can be expected to result from trying to fly....For students and investigators of the Langley type there are more useful employments."

Source: New York Times, December 10,1903, editorial page.

Possibility of building a successful flying machine

"Outside of the proven impossible, there probably can be found no better example of the speculative tendency carrying man to the verge of the chimerical than in his attempts to imitate the birds, or no field where so much inventive seed has been sown with so little return as in the attempts of man to fly successfully through the air. Never, it would seem, has the human mind so persistently evaded the issue, begged the questions and, 'wrangling resolutely with the facts', insisted upon dreams being accepted as actual performance, as when there has been proclaimed time and again the proximate and perfect utility of the balloon or of the flying machine."
"...Should man succeed in building a machine small enough to fly and large enough to carry himself, then in attempting to build a still larger machine he will find himself limited by the strength of his materials in the same manner and for the same reasons that nature has."
"...there is no basis for the ardent hopes and positive statements made as to the safety and successful use of the dirigible balloon or flying machine, or both, for commercial transportation or as weapons of war, and that, therefore, it would be a wrong, whether willful or unknowing, to lead the people and perhaps governments at this time to believe the contrary;..."

Source: Melville, Rear Admiral George W. The Engineer and the Problem of Aerial Navigation. North American Review, December 1901. pp. 820, 825, 830-831.

"... The limit which the rarity of the air places upon its power of supporting wings, taken in connection with the combined weight of a man and a machine, make a drawback which we should not too hastily assume our ability to overcome. The example of the bird does not prove that man can fly. The hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight which the manager of the machine must add to it over and above that necessary in the bird may well prove an insurmountable obstacle to success."
"The practical difficulties in the way of realizing the movement of such an object are obvious. The aeroplane must have its propellers. These must be driven by an engine with a source of power. Weight is an essential quality of every engine. The propellers must be made of metal, which has its weakness, and which is liable to give way when its speed attains a certain limit. And, granting complete success, imagine the proud possessor of the aeroplane darting through the air at a speed of several hundred feet per second! It is the speed alone that sustains him. Once he slackens his speed, down he begins to fall. He may, indeed, increase the inclination of his aeroplane. Then he increases the resistance necessary to move it. Once he stops he falls a dead mass. How shall he reach the ground without destroying his delicate machinery?"

Source: Newcomb, Simon. Outlook for the Flying Machine. The Independent, October 22, 1903. pp. 2508, 2510-2511.

Simon Newcomb also wrote:

"...The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be."

Source: Clarke, Arthur C. Profiles of the Future. New York, Harper and Row, 1962. pp. 2-3.

Limitations of airplanes

"...The machines will eventually be fast, they will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers. To say nothing of the danger, the sizes must remain small and the passengers few, because the weight will, for the same design, increase as the cube of the dimensions, while the supporting surfaces will only increase as the square. It is true that when higher speeds become safe it will require fewer square feet of surface to carry a man, and that dimensions will actually decrease, but this will not be enough to carry much greater extraneous loads, such as a store of explosives or big guns to shoot them. The power required will always be great, say something like one horse power to every hundred pounds of weight, and hence fuel can not be carried for long single journeys."

Source: Chanute, Octave. Aerial Navigation. Popular Sciences Monthly, March 1904. p. 393.

The astronomer, William H. Pickering, said with regard to air flight after the invention of the airplane:

"...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 expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could own his own yacht. Another popular fallacy is to expect enormous speed to be obtained. It must be remembered that the resistance of the air increases as the square of the speed and thework as the cube...If with 30 h.p. we can now attain a speed of 40 m.p.h., then in order to reach a speed of 100 m.p.h., we must use a motor capable of 470 is clear that with our present devices there is no hope of competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or our automobiles."

Source: Clarke, Arthur C. Profiles of the Future. New York, Harper and Row, 1962. pp.3-4.

Erroneous Predictions


Panama Canal

"The Panama Canal is actually a thing of the past, and Nature in her works will soon obliterate all traces of French energy and money expended on the Isthmus."

Source: 50 years ago in the Scientific American. Scientific American, January 1941, p. 4.

Suez Canal

"...All mankind has heard much of M. Lesseps (?) and his Suez Canal...I have a very strong opinion that such canal will not and cannot be made; that all the strength of the arguments adduced in the matter are hostile to it; and that steam navigation by land will and ought to be the means of transit through Egypt."

Source: Trollope, Anthony. The West Indies and the Spanish Main. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1860. p. 331.

Erroneous Predictions

Darwin's theory of evolution

Criticism of Darwin's theory: Louis Agassiz, professor of geology and zoology at Harvard University wrote the following:

"My recent studies have made me more adverse than ever to the new scientific doctrines which are flourishing now in England. This sensational zeal reminds me of what I experienced as a young man in Germany, when the physio-philosophy of Oken had invaded every centre of scientific activity; and yet, what is there left of it? I trust to outlive this mania also."

Source: Agassiz, Elizabeth C. (Ed.). Louis Agassiz, His Life and Correspondence. Cambridge, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1893. p. 647.

"...Have they (geologists) found fossil remains which they can prove to belong to the progenitors of the eagle, or of the horse, or of the donkey, or the whale--of any creature, in short from a mouse or a mole up to a man? I am aware, indeed, that fossil remains of animals thought to resemble the horse have been found, but Mr. Darwin might as easily prove that the donkey is descended from the dromedary, as that the horses of the present day are descended from the Hippotherium...Why is it...that naturalists do not come into light of existing facts, and point out to us some other living species? They know that existing facts would not bear them out. Hence they grope their way, by the aid of fossil bones, millions of ages back into the past; and there, amid its pitchy darkness, they fancy they see the desired transformations taking place."
"...What, then, is the sum of the changes which Mr. Darwin is able to point to within the historic period as tending to prove his hypothesis? It amounts absolutely to nothing. ...There are...many animals living now which can be compared with their progenitors of the 3,000th generation back. Can Mr. Darwin show, then, in the case of any one of them, that, by successive variations accumulated during 3,000 generations, it has sensibly advanced towards some higher form? Can he show that 3,000 generations have, in any instance, done aught towards proving the truth of his hypothesis? It appears that he cannot point to a single such case as yielding him support. 3,000 generations have done literally nothing for his hypothesis, If so, neither would 30,000, nor 300,000; for,...if you multiply nothing by a million it will be nothing still."
"There are...absolutely no facts either in the records of geology, or in the history of the past, or in the experience of the present, that can be referred to as proving evolution, or the development of one species from another by selection of any kind whatever."
"Those who accept Mr. Darwin's account of the descent of man must accept along with it not a little that is, if possible, even more incredible. For example, while a certain monkey race has, by a series of insensible gradations, occurring during a period of enormous length, developed into man, other monkey races, during a yet longer period, have remained monkeys, making no progress whatever! Mr. Darwin, I presume, would maintain that at least half a million of years have passed since man emerged into humanity from the last of his ape-like progenitors How far remote, then, must be the time when the ape from which man has descended, branched away from the stem of the Old World monkeys! But during this period - so long that, to us, it is practically an eternity--Old World monkeys have remained Old World monkeys, with the solitary exception of that wonderful member of the ancient series of the Primates, with his plastic frame, of which Mr. Darwin catches "an obscure glance" through the dim vista of ages."

Source: Lyon, William Penman, Home (?) versus Darwin, an (?) Examination of Statements Recently Published by Mr. Darwin Regarding the Descent of Man. London, Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1871, pp. 29, 138-139, 140, 145.

Erroneous Predictions


Opposition to the use of alternating current

"There is no plea which will justify the use of high-tension and alternating currents, either in a scientific or a commercial sense. They are employed solely to reduce investment in copper wire and real estate."
"...My personal desire would be to prohibit entirely the use of alternating currents. They are unnecessary as they are dangerous...I can therefore see no justification for the introduction of a system which has no element of permanency and every elements of danger to life and property."
"...I have always consistently opposed high-tension and alternating systems of electric lighting...not only on account of danger, but because of their general unreliability and unsuitability for any general system of distribution."

Source: Edison, Thomas A. The Dangers of Electric Lighting, North American Review, November, 1889. pp.630, 632, 633.

Thomas A. Edison is also reported to have said:

"Just as certain as death, [George] Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size."

Source: Blow, Michael. Men of Science and Invention. New York, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1961. p. 95.

Opposition to placing electric wires underground

"The public may rest absolutely assured that safety will not be secured by burying these wires. The condensation of moisture, the ingress of water, the dissolving influence of coal gas and air-oxidation upon the various insulating compounds will result only in the transfer of deaths to man-holes, houses, stores, and offices, through the agency of the telephone, the low-pressure systems, and the apparatus of the high-tension current itself."

Source: Edison, Thomas A., "The Dangers of Electric Lighting." North American Review, November 1889. p.629.

Development of the incandescent lamp

Sir Arthur Preece, engineer-in-chief of the British Post Office, said in 1878:

"...Subdivision of the electric light as an absolute ignus fatuus."

Source: Clarke, Arthur C. Profiles of the Future. New York, Harper and Row, 1962. p. 2.

A committee of the British Parliament in 1878 reported Thomas Edison's ideas of developing an incandescent lamp to be

"good enough for our transatlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men"

Source: Clarke, Arthur C. Profiles of the Future. New York, Harper and Row, 1962. p. 2.

Utility of electric lighting: For general purposes:

"...I do not think there is the slightest chance of its [electricity] competing, in a general way, with gas. There are defects about the electric light which, unless some essential change takes place, must entirely prevent its application to ordinary lighting purposes."

Source: Remarks of Mr. Keates, Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity in Report from the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity. London, House of Commons, 1879. p. 146.

For use on board ships:

"...Without going into the consideration of many minor objections to the general adoption of such a light on board ship, it may be sufficient to call attention to the following serious drawbacks, viz.: That whether fixed, revolving, or intermittent, a powerful light, such as is referred to, could not fail to interface very considerably with the distinctive arrangements for lighting the coasts by means of light- houses and light vessels. That such powerful lights would be almost certain to detract very much from the value of the smaller lights which the law compels all ships to show by night, and the risks of collision would be increased. That the glare of such powerful lights in crowded channels would be perplexing, and would probably cause such confusion that the risks of collision would be increased."

Source: Remarks of Mr. Farrer, Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity in Report from the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity. London, House of Commons, 1879. pp. 156-14-57.

Erroneous Predictions

Ford, Henry and the Ford Motor Company

Ford's experiments with gas engines:

" gas-engine experiments were no more popular with the president of the company than my first mechanical leanings were with my father. It was not that my employer objected to experiments -- only to experiments with gas engine. I can still hear him say: 'Electricity yes, that's the coming thing. But gas--no.'"
"The Edison Company offered me the general superintendency of the company but only on condition that I would give up my gas engine and devote myself to something really useful."

Source: Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. New York, Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922. pp. 34-35.

Ford Motor Company: In 1903 Henry Ford asked that membership in the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers be granted to the Ford Motor Company. Frederic L. Smith, President of A.L.A.M. at that time, later recalled giving this reply:

"I remember solemnly telling Henry Ford that his outfit was really nothing but an 'assemblage plant' -- poison to the A.L.A.M. -- and that when they had their own plant and became a factor in the industry they would be welcome..."

Source: Greenleaf, William. Monopoly on Wheels. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1961. p. 109.

Erroneous Predictions

Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons by telescope

Aristotelian professors who were contemporaries of Galileo made the following pronouncement concerning this discovery:

"Jupiter's moons are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can have no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist."

Source: Williams-Ellis, Amabel. Men Who Found Out. New York, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1930. p. 43.

Erroneous Predictions

Gas Lighting

Proposal to light English cities by gas (early 1800's)

The idea was ridiculed in the following popular rhyme:

"We thankful are that sun and moon
Were placed so very high
That no tempestuous hand might reach
To tear them from the sky.
Were it not so, we soon should find
That some reforming ass
Would straight propose to snuff them out,
And light the world with Gas."

Further ridicule came from William H. Wollaston, English chemist and natural philosopher, who said:

"[They] might as well try to light London with a slice from the moon."

Source: Murdock, Alexander. Light Without a Wick, a Century of Gas- Lighting, 1792-1892. Glasgow, Scotland, University Press, 1892. p. 45.

Erroneous Predictions

Robert Goddard's Rocket Research

Criticism of Goddard's Rocket Research: A New York Times editorial of 1921 said:

"That Professor Goddard with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools..."

Source: Lehman, Milton. This High Man, the Life of Robert H. Goddard. New York, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1963. p. 111.

Letter from Charles A. Lindbergh to Harry Guggenheim of the Guggenheim Foundation, May 1936:

"I would much prefer to have Goddard interested in real scientific development than to have him primarily interested in more spectacular achievements which are of less real value."

Source: Lehman, Milton. This High Man, the Life of Robert H. Goddard. New York, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1963. p. 231.

Rocket research as proposed to U. S. Army by Robert H. Goddard: Letter (excerpts) from Brig. Gen. George H. Brett, Chief of Materiel, U.S. Army Air Corps, to Robert H. Goddard rejecting his rocket research proposals (1941):

"The proposals as outlined in your letter...have been carefully reviewed...While the Air Corps is deeply interested in the research work being carried out by your does not, at this time, feel justified in obligating further funds for basic jet propulsion research and experimentation..."

Source: Lehman, Milton. This High Man, the Life of Robert H. Goddard. New York, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1963. p. 310.

Erroneous Predictions


"The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect."

Source: Harpers Weekly, August 2, 1902. p. 1046.

Erroneous Predictions

Inventions (general)

Henry L. Ellsworth, U. S., Commissioner of Patents, said in 1844:

"...The advancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when further improvements must end."

Source: Woods, Ralph L. Prophets Can be Right and Prophets Can be Wrong. American Legion Magazine, October 1966. p. 29

Erroneous Predictions


William Harvey's discovery of the circulations of the blood

John Aubrey, a contemporary, wrote this account of the response William Harvey received upon publication in 1628 of his book "De Motu Cordis" in which he described his discovery of the blood's circulation:

"...I heard Harvey say that after his book came out, he fell mightily in his practice. 'Twas believed by the vulgar that he was crack-brained, and all the physicians were against him. I knew several doctors in London that would not have given threepence for one of his medicines."

Source: Williams-Ellis, Amabel. Men Who Found Out. New York, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1930. p. 75.

Opposition to inoculation

Reaction from the English medical profession to Dr. Edward Jenner's experiments in developing a vaccine for small-pox (1796):

"...It was argued that inoculation of the kind employed by Jenner would produce a cow-like face; that those who had been vaccinated (the word 'vaccinate' is derived from the Latin vacca, a cow) would grow hairy and cough like cows. doctor stated: 'Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation of our holy religion.'"

Source: Butler, R. R. Scientific Discovery. London, English Universities Press, Ltd., 1947. p. 100.

The following excerpts of opinion of many members of the medical profession and the clergy in the United States illustrate a similar reaction to inoculation experiments of Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (about 1721).

"...for a man to infect a family in the morning with smallpox and to pray to God in the evening against the disease is blasphemy; that the smallpox is 'a judgment of God on the sins of the people,' and that 'to avert it is but to provoke him more'; that inoculation is 'an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and smite."

Source: White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1960. p. 56

Opposition to use of anesthesia

The famed surgeon Alfred Velpeau wrote in 1839:

"The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it today. 'Knife' and 'pain' are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient. To this compulsory combination we shall have to adjust ourselves."

Source: Gumpert, Martin. Trail-Blazers of Science. New York, Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1936. p. 232.

Limitation of surgery

Sir John Erichsen (1873):

"There cannot always be fresh fields of conquest by the knife; there must be portions of the human frame that will ever remain sacred from its intrusions, at least in the surgeon's hands. That we have already, if not quite, reached these final limits, there can be little question. The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will be forever shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon."

Source: Woods, Ralph L. "Prophets Can be Right and Prophets Can Be Wrong." American Legion Magazine, October 1966. p. 29.

Erroneous Predictions

Military Technology

Opposition to the change from bow to musket

In 1591 Colonel Sir John Smyth advised the British Privy Council:

"...The bow is a simple weapon, firearms are very complicated things which get out of order in many ways...a very heavy weapon and tires out soldiers on the march. Whereas also a bowman can let off six aimed shots a minute, a musketeer can discharge but one in two minutes."

Source: Wintringham, Thomas H. The Story of Weapons and Tactics. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943. p. 101.

Opposition within the British military to machine guns

Brigadier-General Baker-Carr, first commandant of the British Army machine-gun school in France wrote this account of the dislike of traditional battalion commanders for the machine-gun (1914):

"What shall I do with the machine-guns today, sir?' would be the question frequently asked by the officer in charge of a field day. 'Take the damn things to a flank and hide them!' was the usual reply."

Source: Wintringham, Thomas H. The Story of Weapons and Tactics. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943. p. 160.

Inability of airplanes to sink naval vessels

U. S. Rear-Admiral Clark Woodward (1939):

"...As far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, you just can't do it."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1922):

"The day of the battleship has not passed, and it is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of Navy vessels under battle conditions."

Source: Woods, Ralph L. "Prophets Can Be Right and Prophets Can Be Wrong." American Legion Magazine, October 1966. p. 29

Proposal for developing a rocket-accelerated airplane bomb (1940)

The editor of Scientific American wrote Willy Ley that this idea was

"...too far-fetched to be considered."

Source: Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. New York, Viking Press, Revised Edition, 1957. p. 172.

Possibility of developing intercontinental missiles

Dr. Vannevar Bush said in December of 1945:

"There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 miles high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me, have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically, I don't think anyone in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident that it will not be done for a very long period of time to come...I think we can leave that out of our thinking. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking."

Source: Clarke, Arthur C., Profiles of the Future. New York, Harper and Row, 1962. p. 9.

Development of the atomic bomb

Adm. William Leahy told President Truman in 1945:

"That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done...The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."

Source: Truman, Harry D. Memoirs, Vol I: Year of Decisions, Garden City, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1955. p. 11.

Erroneous Predictions

Ohm's Law

When George Simon Ohm's theory of electricity was published in 1827 in his book "The Galvanic Chain, Mathematically Worked Out," it was called

"a web of naked fancies."

One critic wrote:

"...he who looks on the world with the eye of reverence must turn aside from this book as the result of an incurable delusion, whose sole effort is to detract from the dignity of nature."

The German Minister of Education said that

"...a physicist who professed such heresies was unworthy to teach science."

Source: Hart, Ivor B. Makers of Science. London, Oxford University Press, 1923. p. 243.

Erroneous Predictions


Lee de Forest: In 1913 Lee de Forest, inventor of the audion tube, which device makes radio broadcasting possible, was brought to trial on charges of fraudulently using the U. S. mails to sell the public stock in the Radio Telephone Company, a worthless enterprise. In the court proceedings, the District Attorney charged that

"De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public...has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company..."

De Forest was acquitted, but the judge advised him

"to get a common garden variety of job and stick to it."

Source: Archer, L. History of Radio. New York, American Historical Society, 1938. p. 110.

Limited utility of radio

W. W. Dean, President of the Dean Telephone Company told Lee de Forest in 1907:

"...You could put in this room [his office], de Forest, all the radiotelephone apparatus that the country will ever need!"

Source: De Forest, Lee. Father of Radio, the Autobiography of Lee de Forest. Chicago, Wilcox and Follett Co., 1950. p. 232.

Friends of Lee de Forest asked:

"Well, then of what possible use can your 'radiotelephone' be? It can't compare with the wire phone, you say, and it can't cover the distances that the wireless telegraph can cover. Then what the hell use is it anyway Lee?"

Source: De Forest Lee. Father of Radio, the Autobiography of Lee de Forest. Chicago, Wilcox and Follett Co., 1950. p. 227.

Erroneous Predictions

Railroads and locomotives

Limitations of railroads and locomotive engines:

"...the most ridiculous ideas have been formed, and circulated of their powers; and though I am of the opinion, when made the subject of attention amongst engineers, they will advance in improvement like other machines, they must as yet be considered only in their infancy, and as not having reached beyond the trammels of prejudice. It is far from my wish to promulgate to the world that the ridiculous expectations, or rather professions, of the enthusiastic speculist will be realised, and that we shall see them travelling at the rate of 12, 16, 18, or 20 miles an hour: nothing could do more harm towards their adoption, or general improvement, than the promulgation of such nonsense."

Source: Wood, Nicholas. Practical Treatise on Railroads. London, Knight and Lacey, 1825. pp. 290-291.

"....that any general systems of conveying passengers would answer, to go at a velocity exceeding 10 miles an hour, or thereabouts, is extremely improbable."

Source: Tredgold, Thomas. Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads and Carriages. London, J. B. Nichols and Son, 2nd edition, 1835. P. 119.

Opposition to building a railway in England

At the instance of the introduction of a bill in Parliament in 1825 to build a railway between Liverpool and Manchester, England, many hysterical statements were made. Mr. Samuel Smilez, in his biography of George Stephenson, describes them as follows:

"...pamphlets were written and newspapers were hired to revile the railway. It was declared that its formation would prevent cows grazing and hens laying. The poisoned air from the locomotives would kill birds as they flew over them, and render the preservation of pheasants and foxes no longer possible. Householders adjoining the projected line were told that their houses would be burnt up by the fire thrown from the engine-chimneys, while the air around would be polluted by clouds of smoke. There would no longer be any use for horses; and if railways extended, the species would become extinguished, and oats and hay unsalable commodities. Traveling by road would be rendered highly dangerous, and country inns would be ruined. Boilers would burst and blow passengers to atoms. But there was always this consolation to wind up with -- that the weight of the locomotive would completely prevent its moving, and that railways, even if made, could never be worked by steam-power!"

Source: Smiles, Samuel. The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer. Columbus, Ohio, Follett, Foster, and Company, 1859. p. 205.

Railway travel (general)

"...We are not the advocates for visionary projects that interfere with useful establishments; we scout the idea of a general rail-road, as altogether impracticable; or, as one, at least, which will be rendered nugatory in lines, where the traffic is so small that the receipts would scarcely pay for this consumption of coals. As to those persons who speculate on making rail-ways general throughout the kingdom, and superseding all the canals, all the waggons, mail and stage-coaches, post-chaises, and, in short, every other mode of conveyance by land and by water, we deem them and their visionary schemes unworthy of notice....The gross exaggerations of the powers of the locomotive steam-engine, or, to speak in plain English, the steam-carriages, may delude for a time, but must end in the mortification of those concerned. ...It is certainly some consolation to those who are to be whirled at the rate of eighteen or twenty miles an hour, by means of a high pressure engine, to be told that they are in no danger of being seasick while on shore; that they are not to be scalded to death nor drowned by the bursting of the boiler; and that they need not mind being shot by the scattered fragments, or dashed in pieces by the flying off, or the breaking of a wheel, But with all these assurances, we should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve's ricochet rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate;...we will back old father Thames against the Woolwich rail-way for any sum."

Source: Quarterly Review (Gt. Britain), March 1825. pp. 361-362.

"I see what will be the effect of it; that it will set the whole world a-gadding. Twenty miles an hour, sir! - Why, you will not be able to keep an apprentice boy at his work! Every Saturday evening he must have a trip to Ohio to spend a Sunday with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments will be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. Veracious people will turn into the most immeasurable liars. All conceptions will be exaggerated by the magnificent notions of distance. -- Only a hundred miles off!--Tut, nonsense, I'll step across, madam, and bring your fan'...And then, sir, there will be barrels of port, cargoes of flour, chaldrons of coal, and even lead and whiskey, and such like sober things that have always been used to slow travelling -- whisking away like a sky rocket. It will upset all the gravity of the nation...Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harm-scarum whirligig. Give me the old, solemn, straight forward, regular Dutch Canal - three miles an hour for expresses, and two rod jog-trot journeys -- with a yoke of oxen for heavy loads. I go for beasts of burden. It is more formative and scriptural, and suits a moral and religious people better. -- None of your hop skip and jump whimsies for me."

Source: From the Western Sun of Vincennes, Indiana, July 24, 1830, as quoted by Seymour Dunbar in A History of Travel in America, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1915, Vol. III. p. 938.

Erroneous Predictions


Proposal to apply steam power to ships (early 1800's.): Sir Joseph Banks, English explorer-naturalist and President of the British Royal Society, said:

"...a pretty plan; but there is just one point overlooked -- that the steam engine requires a firm basis on which to work!"

Source: Butler, R. R. Scientific Discovery. London, English Universities Press, Ltd., 1947. p. 68.

Proposal to drive a steamboat by screw-propeller: Sir William Symonds, Surveyor of the British Navy, commented in 1837:

"...even if the propeller had the power of propelling a vessel, it would be found altogether useless in practice, because the power being applied in the stern it would be absolutely impossible to make the vessel steer."

Source: Church, William Conant. The Life of John Ericsson, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890. p. 90.

Erroneous Predictions


Samuel F. B. Morse

Reaction of Senator Smith of Indiana after a demonstration by Samuel Morse of his telegraph before Congressional members in 1842:

"I watched his countenance closely, to see if he was not deranged....and I was assured by other Senators after we left the room that they had no confidence in it."

Source: Dunbar, Seymour. A History of Travel in America. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1915, Vol. III. p. 1048.

When Samuel F. B. Morse offered to sell his telegraph to the U.S. government for $100,000, the Postmaster General rejected the offer on the basis that

"...the operation of the telegraph between Washington and Baltimore had not satisfied him that under any rate of postage that could be adopted, its revenues could be made equal to its expenditures."

Source: Reid, James D. The Telegraph in America. New York, Derby Brothers, 1879. p. 108.

Opposition to providing funds to build a telegraph line between Baltimore and New York City

When the bill to appropriate money ($8,000) for maintenance of the telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore came up in Congress in 1845, amendment was offered in the Senate providing that money also be appropriated for construction of a telegraph line between Baltimore and New York City, the cost of which was estimated at $100,000. The following objection was raised:

"...What was this telegraph to do? Would it transmit letters and newspapers? Under what power in the constitution did Senators propose to erect this telegraph? He was not aware of any authority except under the clause for the establishment of post roads. And besides the telegraph might be made very mischievous, and secret information after communicated to the prejudice of merchants."

Source: Statement of Senator George McDuffie, Congressional Globe, 28th Congress, 2nd session, 1344-45. p. 366.

Wireless telegraphy

At a meeting of stockholders of the Western Telegraph Company in 1907, Sir John Wolfe-Barry remarked:

"...As far as I can judge, I do not look upon any system of wireless telegraphy as a serious competitor with our cables. Some years ago I said the same thing and nothing has since occurred to alter my views."

Source: Dunlap's Radio and Television Almanac. New York, Harper, 1951. p. 44.

Erroneous Predictions

Source: Foresight Institute
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