10 'Dumb' Ideas That Were Actually Brilliant
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 21 September 2015.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 21 September 2015.
The future is a fascinating place, and if there's one thing that we've learned as a species, it's that we're not very good at predicting it. For all of our speculation, the actual shape of the years to come has always taken us by surprise. Sure, futurists and science fiction writers sometimes nail a prediction or two, but for the most part concepts come at us out of the blue.
It's also healthy to greet world-changing ideas with a little bit of scepticism. Inventors are often high on their own ideas and promise the world, but rarely do they deliver.
So when a truly world-changing idea comes along, it's almost a given that it will be greeted with derision. It's just human nature. In this feature, we'll show you 10 technologies that were dismissed in their time but went on to be overwhelming successes.
1. Talking Movies
The first motion pictures were solely visual affairs, and for several decades theatregoers got used to watching flicks without sound. This all changed in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first film that had an audio track to be played along with the visuals. It was a tremendous success, with audiences literally in hysterics at star Al Jolson's performance. However, not everybody in the industry was sold on "talkies." In 1928, the President of United Artists even went on record with the New York Times to predict that synchronized audio was just a gimmick that wouldn't last. Needless to say, he was completely wrong, and silent films died out almost completely a year later.
It's kind of insane to think of a world where bicycles are seen as something other than an affordable, eco-friendly transportation method. But when two-wheelers were first popularized in the late 1800s, observers of the day saw them as nothing more than a passing craze. Newspaper editorials stated that "As a fad cycling is dead, and few individuals now ride for all the good they claim to see in the pastime when it was fashion." Of course they were wrong, but it's interesting to think about the repercussions cycling was having even back then. With the introduction of bloomers for women, the bicycle single-handedly killed off bustles and corsets for urban women.
The early days of automobiles were a Wild West, with ramshackle inventors all scrambling to grab a slice of the market. Henry Ford was one of the most successful, with his Model T the defining ride of the first part of the 20th century. But at the time Ford incorporated his company, many people thought that cars were nothing more than a whimsy that would soon be forgotten. When Ford's attorney Horace Rackham was offered the opportunity to purchase shares in the company, his professional acquaintances tried to talk him out of it, telling him that "the horse is here to stay." Wisely, he ignored them and put US$5,000 into Ford. It was a wise investment; a little over a decade later, Ford bought back his stock for over US$12 million.
The invention of powered flight is one of the most important in recent human history, felt in hundreds of different ways. One of the most notable is warfare, where air power has been the deciding force in nearly every conflict. But in the early 1900s, many tacticians looked askance at flying machines. Probably the most notable was Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, who commented in 1911 that "Aero planes are interesting toys but of no military value," only to eat crow as first the Italian army and then others started using air support in the next few years. In truly amazing irony, Foch later had an aircraft carrier christened in his name.
Pretty much every new entertainment medium is called a fad by the generation before, but television got it extra rough. In the 1930s, when experimental broadcasts began, most households bonded around the radio where they listened to news, serials, and variety shows. A 1939 New York Times editorial stated that "TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn't time for it." Most pundits predicted the TV craze would fizzle out in less than a decade, but by 1947 the industry was a critical and commercial powerhouse.
6. Solar Energy
The energy crisis of the 1970s sent the U.S. into a tailspin, as the Iranian Revolution resulted in skyrocketing oil prices and the Three Mile Island meltdown made us skittish about nuclear. So the installation of a bank of solar panels on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter should have been a slam dunk. Instead, Carter was resoundingly mocked by the American people, who didn't see solar as viable. After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he had the panels torn down and scrapped. Needless to say, renewable energy is more important than ever, and during Barack Obama's second term a new set of solar cells hit the White House roof.
The personal computer boom of the early 1980s positioned the PC as an essential tool for home and office, and busy businessmen quickly drove development of slightly more portable models. The first commercial laptops started to hit the market in 1981, with many companies entering the fray the next year. These primitive MS-DOS machines were big sellers for a few years, but by 1985 the market had cooled enough that several observers were starting to write them off entirely as an experimental fad that had run its course. Too heavy and too expensive were the biggest complaints, but by the 1990s those problems had mostly been solved and laptops became a dependable part of the home computer industry.
8. The World Wide Web
It's virtually impossible to think of life on Earth without the Internet; we've become so accustomed to living inside this incredible network of data that it's second nature. But back in 1995, when dial-up providers ruled the industry and Web surfing was a niche hobby, author Clifford Stoll didn't seem too out of line when he published Silicon Snake Oil, a book that had dire predictions for the nascent network. In its pages, Stoll predicted that e-commerce would never succeed, among other ridiculous assertions. He wasn't just a lone crank, either. Plenty of people saw the Web as a passing fad, not something that would reshape our society.
9. Tablet Computers
Few people have been as plugged into the zeitgeist as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who brought the company into the future of personal electronics with the iPod and grew it to a lifestyle brand. One of his biggest successes was the iPad, which revolutionized the tablet market, but Jobs wasn't always sold on that device. In fact, in 2003 he publicly stated that tablet PCs were a dead end. In a sit-down at the All Things Digital conference, Jobs remarked "It turns out people want keyboards. We look at the tablet and we think it's gonna fail." Those words came back to haunt him, but it's not surprising he couldn't predict the success of the iPad and other devices.
10. 3D Printing
For a more recent piece of technology that seemed like just a passing fad, let's look at 3D printing. A few years ago, MakerBot and similar companies were all over the news with inexpensive home printers that allowed hobbyists to make plastic extruded shapes based on computer models. Lots of people bought the kits, but not much really came of them, and several industry observers classified the technology as played out. However, on an industrial scale, 3D printing is truly changing the world, and companies are using it to manufacture bespoke parts at low cost. For example, Boeing made over 20,000 3D-printed parts for 10 different types of aircraft.
[Source: PC Magazine. Edited. Top image added.]