It'll Never Work!

Quotes from many sources. A particularly good source of quotes on this theme is: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky (Pantheon Books, 1984).

This started out as a list of negative and pessimistic comments about new ideas, but, to provide some balance, I've begun to add a few overly enthusiastic and optimistic comments.


For all predictions do to this belong: That either they are right, or they are wrong. - John Tulley's Almanac for 1688.

ANCIENT WISDOM

In my own time there have been inventions of this sort, transparent windows, tubes for diffusing warmth equally through all parts of a building, short-hand which has been carried to such a pitch of perfection that a writer can keep pace with the most rapid speaker. But the inventing of such things is drudgery for the lowest slaves; philosophy lies deeper...
- Roman poet Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.)

I also lay aside all ideas of any new works or engines of war, the invention of which long-ago reached its limit, and in which I see no hope for further improvement...
- Sextus Julius Frontinus, governor of Britania, 84 C.E.

People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon... Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.
- Martin Luther (1483-1546) [Criticizing Copernicus' heliocentric theory of planetary motion.]

Animals, which move, have limbs and muscles. The earth does not have limbs and muscles; therefore it does not move.
- Scipio Chiaramonti [Professor of philosophy and mathematics at University of Pisa, arguing against the heliocentrc system, 1633]

Mathematics is inadequate to describe the universe, since mathematics is an abstraction from natural phenomena. Also, mathematics may predict things which don't exist, or are impossible in nature.
- Ludovico delle Colombe [Criticizing Galileo (paraphrased).]

Just as in the microcosm there are seven `windows' in the head (two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth), so in the macrocosm God has placed two beneficent stars (Jupiter, Venus), two maleficent stars (Mars, Saturn), two luminaries (sun and moon), and one indifferent star (Mercury). The seven days of the week follow from these. Finally, since ancient times the alchemists had made each of the seven metals correspond to one of the planets; gold to the sun, silver to the moon, copper to Venus, quicksilver to Mercury, iron to Mars, tin to Jupiter, lead to Saturn.

From these and many other similar phenomena of nature such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven... Besides, the Jews and other ancient nations as well as modern Europeans, have adopted the division of the week into seven days, and have named them from the seven planets; now if we increase the number of planets, this whole system falls to the ground... Moreover, the satellites 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.

- Francesco Sizzi, astronomer at Florence. [Arguing against Galileo's 1610 announcement of his discovery of four moons of Jupiter.]

It is difficult to deal with an author whose mind is filled with a medium of so fickle and vibratory a nature...; We now dismiss...the feeble lucubrations of this author, in which we have searched without success for some traces of learning, acuteness, and ingenuity, that might compensate his evident deficiency in the powers of solid thinking...
- Henry Brougham. [Criticizing Thomas Young's wave theory of light.]

Don't go West young man. (Advice to Columbus.)
I. A Voyage to Asia would require three years.
II. The western Ocean is infinite and perhaps unnavigable.
III. If he reached the Antipodes he could not get back.
IV There are no Antipodes because the greater part of the globe is covered with water, and because St. Augustine said so.
V. Of the five zones, only three are habitable.
VI. So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.
- Report of the committee organized in 1486 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to study Columbus' plans to find a shorter route to India.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it... Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.
- Dr. Alfred Velpeau (1839), French surgeon

Men might as well project a voyage to the Moon as attempt to employ steam navigation against the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.
- Dr. Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859), Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London.

There is a young madman proposing to light the streets of London—with what do you suppose—with smoke!
- Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) [On a proposal to light cities with gaslight.]

The Kölonische Zeitung [Köln, Germany, 28 March 1819] listed six grave reasons against street lighting, including these:
  1. Theological: It is an intervention in God's order, which makes nights dark...
  2. Medical: It will be easier for people to be in the streets at night, afflicting them with colds...
  3. Philosophical-moral: Morality deteriorates through street lighting. Artificial lighting drives out fear of the dark, which keeps the weak from sinning...

[W]hen the Paris Exhibition closes electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.
- Erasmus Wilson (1878) Professor at Oxford University

They will never try to steal the phonograph because it has no `commercial value.'
- Thomas Edison (1847-1931). (He later revised that opinion.)

This `telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.
- Western Union internal memo, 1878

What use could this company make of an electrical toy?
- Western Union president William Orton, responding to an offer from Alexander Graham Bell to sell his telephone company to Western Union for $100,000.

Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.
- Editorial in the Boston Post (1865)

Radio has no future.
- Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), British mathematician and physicist, ca. 1897.

While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.
- Lee DeForest, 1926 (American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube.)

[Television] won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.
- Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, 1946.

RAILROADS

What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?
- The Quarterly Review, England (March 1825)

...transport by railroad car would result in the emasculation of our troops and would deprive them of the option of the great marches which have played such an important role in the triumph of our armies.
- Dominique Francois Arago (1786-1853)

In Bavaria the Royal College of Doctors, having been consulted, declared that railroads, if they were constructed, would cause the greatest deterioration in the health of the public, because such rapid movement would cause brain trouble among travelers, and vertigo among those who looked at moving trains. For this last reason it was recommended that all tracks be enclosed by high board fences raised above the height of the cars and engines.

Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.
- Dr. Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859), Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London.

AUTOMOBILES

A new source of power... called gasoline has been produced by a Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is exploded inside the cylinder of an engine.

The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming... [T]he cost of producing [gasoline] is far beyond the financial capacity of private industry... In addition the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture.

- U. S. Congressional Record, 1875.

The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.
- Advice from a president of the Michigan Savings Bank to Henry Ford's lawyer Horace Rackham. Rackham ignored the advice and invested $5000 in Ford stock, selling it later for $12.5 million.

That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.
- Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909.

Automobiles will start to decline almost as soon as the last shot is fired in World War II. The name of Igor Sikorsky will be as well known as Henry Ford's, for his helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter.... These 'copters' will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny 'copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.
- Harry Bruno, aviation publicist, 1943.

NUCLEAR POWER

There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom. The glib supposition of utilizing atomic energy when our coal has run out is a completely unscientific Utopian dream, a childish bug-a-boo. Nature has introduced a few fool-proof devices into the great majority of elements that constitute the bulk of the world, and they have no energy to give up in the process of disintegration.
- Robert A. Millikan (1863-1953) [1928 speech to the Chemists' Club (New York)]

...any one who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine...
- Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) [1933]

There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.
- Albert Einstein, 1932.

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. [Advice to President Truman, when asked his opinion of the atomic bomb project.]

There is little doubt that the most significant event affecting energy is the advent of nuclear power...a few decades hence, energy may be free—just like the unmetered air....
- John von Neumann, scientist and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1955.

IT'LL NEVER FLY

It would fill the world with innumerable immoralities and give such occasion for intrigues as people can not meet with. You would have a couple of lovers make a midnight assignation upon the top of the monument and see the cupola of St. Paul's covered with both sexes like the outside of a pigeon house. Nothing would be more frequent than to see a beau flying in at a garret window or a gallant giving chase to his mistress like a hawk after a lark.
- Joseph Addison. [Concerns about where manned flight might lead (1713)]

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.
- Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), ca. 1895, British mathematician and physicist

...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...
- Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), astronomer, head of the U. S. Naval Observatory.

I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years. Two years later we ourselves made flights. This demonstration of my impotence as a prophet gave me such a shock that ever since I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions.
- Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) [In a speech to the Aero Club of France (Nov 5, 1908)]

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.
- Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French military strategist, 1911. He was later a World War I commander.

ROCKETRY AND SPACE FLIGHT

There has been a great deal said about a 3000 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 3000 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.

- Vanevar Bush, director of our Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments. Let us critically examine the proposal. For a projectile entirely to escape the gravitation of earth, it needs a velocity of 7 miles a second. The thermal energy of a gramme at this speed is 15,180 calories... The energy of our most violent explosive--nitroglycerine--is less than 1,500 calories per gramme. Consequently, even had the explosive nothing to carry, it has only one-tenth of the energy necessary to escape the earth... Hence the proposition appears to be basically impossible.
- W. A. Bickerton, Professor of Physics and Chemistry at Canterbury College (Christchurch, New Zealand), 1926.

There is not in sight any source of energy that would be a fair start toward that which would be necessary to get us beyond the gravitative control of the earth.
- Forest Ray Moulton (1872-1952), astronomer, 1935.

To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth--all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.
- Lee deForest (1873-1961) (American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube.) Feb 25, 1957.

Space travel is utter bilge.
- Dr. Richard van der Reit Wooley, Astronomer Royal, space advisor to the British government, 1956. (Sputnik orbited the earth the following year.)

COMPUTERS

Computers in the future may...perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.
- Popular Mechanics, 1949.

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.
- Kenneth Olsen, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

WHY BOTHER?

If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can't be done.
- Peter Ustinov

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.
- Robert Goddard (1882-1945)


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