Searcher The Millennium Issue  Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000 

Web-only supplement to The Millennium Issue

RE: Christopher Columbus
“...(1) A voyage to Asia would require three years. (2) The Western Ocean is infinite and perhaps unnavigable. (3) If he reached the Antipodes (the land on the other side of the globe from Europe) he could not get back. (4) There are no Antipodes because the greater part of the globe is covered with water, and because Saint Augustine says so....(5) Of the five zones, only three are habitable. (6) So many centuries after the Creation it was unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”

[1490 report from a committee, organized in 1486 at the command of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, headed by Fray Hernando de Talavera]

RE: The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River
“...The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless.  It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave.  Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.  It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”

[U.S. Congress, House, Executive Document No. 90, Report upon the Colorado River of the West, Explored in 1857 and 1858 by Lt. Joseph C. Ives, Corps of Topographical Engineers, 36th Congress, 1st session, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861, p. 110]

RE: The Army Medical Library and Museum (Now the National Library of Medicine)
“...I confess I have the gravest doubts as to the propriety of this project.  I think it will end in a national library of medicine, a national collection of medical specimens, and finally a national college of medicine, here at the capital.  It seems to me that if we are to do this we may just as well enter upon any other and all other branches of science, and erect buildings for them, and establish libraries, and gather specimens for them as national matters...”

[Opposition statement of Representative O.B. Potter, House of Representatives, February 16, 1865]

RE: The Smithsonian Institution
“...What do we care about stuffed snakes, alligators, and all such things?... Here is an appropriation of $6,000 for a most worthless purpose, and what right have we to appropriate it?  When we are all talking about the distresses of the country; when we do not know how much country we shall have in a few days; when the Treasury is empty — not a dollar to pay even members of Congress, top pay laborers out of doors — we are to appropriate $6,000 or $10,000 to preserve a parcel of what you call scientific specimens.  A Senator over the way said they were toads and snakes, and I have no doubt they are that sort of thing.  They are no use to anybody now; they have served their day.

I am tired of all this thing called science here....We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped.”

[Opposition speech of Senator Simon Cameron, February 21, 1861]

RE: Airplanes
“...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.”

[New York Times, comments on Samuel Langley’s experiments with airplanes, December 10, 1903 (one week before Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk)]

“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 question 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 bases for the ardent hopes and positive statements made as to the safe and successful use of the dirigible balloon or flying machine, or both, for commercial transportation ora as weapons of war, and that, therefore, it would be wrong, whether wilful or unknowing, to lead the people and perhaps governments at this time to believe the contrary;...”

[Rear Admiral George W. Melville, “The Engineer and the Problem of Aerial Navigation,” North American Review, December 1901, pp. 820, 825, 830-31.]

“The practical difficulties in the way of realizing the movement of such an object [airplane] 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.  How is he ever going to stop?  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?”

[Simon Newcomb, “Outlook for the Flying Machine,” The Independent, October 22, 1903, pp. 2508, 2510-1.]

RE: Commercial Air Travel
“...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 the work 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.”

[William H. Pickering, astronomer, AFTER the invention of the airplane]

RE: Underground Electric Wiring
“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.”

[Thomas Alva Edison, “The Dangers of Electric Lighting,” North American Review, November 1889, p. 629]

RE: The Light Bulb
“Good enough for our transatlantic friends...but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men”

[British Parliament committee report on Edison’s idea of an incandescent lamp, 1878]

RE: Ford Motor Company
“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.”

[Frederic L. Smith, President of the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, rejecting an application for membership from Henry Ford, 1903]

RE: Gas Lighting
“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.”

[Opposition rhyme to proposal to light English cities by gas, early 1800s]

RE: Rocket Science
“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....”

[New York Times, editorial, 1921]

RE: Smallpox Vaccine
“...It was argued that inoculation of the kind employed by Jenner [Dr. Edward 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 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.’”

[Reaction from the English medical profession to Jenner’s experiments, 1796]

RE: Anesthesia
“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.]

[Alfred Velpeau, famed surgeon, 1839]

RE: The Musket
“...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.”

[Colonel Sir John Smyth, advising British Privy Council, 1591]

RE: Naval Air Power
“...As far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, you just can’t do it.”

[Rear-Admiral Clark Woodward, 1939]

‘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.”

[Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1922]

RE: Missiles
“...too far-fetched to be considered.”

[Editor of Scientific American in letter to Robert Goddard, 1940]

“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.”

[Dr. Vannevar Bush, December 1945]

RE: The Atomic Bomb
“That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done....The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”

[Admiral William Leahy to President Harry Truman, 1945]

RE: Radio
“De Forest [Lee de Forest, inventor of the audion tube that enables radio broadcasting] has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the 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.”

[Prosecuting Attorney charging Lee de Forest with fraudulent use of the U.S. mails to sell the public stock in the Radio Telephone Company, 1913 — De Forest acquitted, but the judge advised him “to get a common garden variety of job and stick to it.”]

RE: Railroads
“...that any general system of conveying passengers would answer, to go at a velocity exceeding 10 miles an hour, or thereabouts, is extremely improbable.”

[Thomas Tredgold, Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads and Carriages, London, J.B. Nichols and Son, 2d edition, 1835, p. 119]

“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 pork, 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, sire, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-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.”

[Western Sun of Vincennes, Indiana, editorial, July 24, 1830]

RE: The Telegraph
“...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.”

[Response of Postmaster General to offer of Samuel F.B. Morse to sell the telegraph to the U.S. government for $100,000]

“...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.”

[Description of opposition statement by Senator George McDuffie, Congressional Globe, 28th Congress, 2d session, 1844-45, p. 366]
Purchase the Millennium Issue Subscribe Now!
Contents Searcher Home