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11 successful technology ideas that were scorned (initially)
History is filled with stories of bold pioneers who changed the world with their visionary ideas. There exists also, in the annals of innovation, a rich tradition of mad scientists with crazy inventions. These two notions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many celebrated breakthroughs were initially met with scorn and ridicule. We've compiled 11 such world-famous ideas from the history of science and technology. The temptation, of course, is to include those ideas that were scorned and should have stayed scorned. The Star Wars prequels, say. But we're trying to run a classy operation here.
Galileo Galilei, sometimes called the Father of Modern Science, was among the first and most famous to pay a price for his crazy scientific ideas. Galileo publicly promoted the Copernican concept of heliocentrism -- that the Earth revolves around the Sun -- back when the Church and even most fellow mathematicians held to geocentric model. Unfortunately, in 17th century Rome, such radical ideas were quite literally heresy. Galileo was forced to recant and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
The question of who actually invented the telephone has inspired a small library full of academic research. But at least one of the earliest telephone prototypes was met with official scorn. In 1860, a full 16 years before Alexander Graham Bell's patent, German schoolmaster Johann Phillip Reis constructed a prototype "telephon" and sent the details to a prominent scientific journal. The editors scoffed at the idea of telephonic transmission and Reis' paper was rejected out of hand. Evidence of Reis' work was later suppressed during the telephone patent wars of the 1870s.
As the Reis incident suggests, sometimes public reaction to a new idea is influenced by the competition. In the 1880s, lawmakers and the general public literally feared the use of alternating current (AC) for electric power distribution. AC power was considered dangerous, largely due to an orchestrated public relations campaign by Thomas Edison, who had financial interests in the competing direct current (DC) model. Edison even went so far as to stage public electrocutions of animals to freak people out about alternating current. These demonstrations later led to the invention of the electric chair.
The Top 40 anthem "We Built This City" -- generally considered the worst song ever -- name-drops Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian engineer often credited as the inventor of modern radio. Marconi didn't invent radio at all, actually. Scientists had been tinkering with the tech for years. But Marconi did champion the idea that long-distance radio transmissions could have profound cultural and commercial applications -- adult contemporary rock, for instance. Nevertheless, Marconi's vision was unappreciated at the time. In 1895, Italian officials routed his request for funding to the local insane asylum.
When The Jazz Singer -- Hollywood's first feature-length "talkie" -- debuted in 1927, audiences were blown away by the notion of synchronized sound and dialogue at the movies. The film soon launched an industry revolution and the end of the silent film era. But the Hollywood establishment was not impressed. Legend holds that Warner Bros. studio boss H.M. Warner dismissed The Jazz Singer with the infamous quote, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was taking his dog for a walk when he began to wonder about those irritating burrs that tend to stick to your clothes (or your dog) on a hike. Being an engineer, de Mestral grabbed a microscope and the rest is history. His idea for a hook-and-loop fastener, now known as Velcro, was initially met with condescending skepticism by the European fabric industry. And as we all know, there are few entities more intractable than the European fabric industry. It took another 14 years to patent the "zipperless zipper" and in 1999, de Mestral was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
It's hard to even wrap your head around now, but there was a time when the computer was viewed as an unknowable egghead machine with limited practical applicability for the common man -- like the electron microscope or the supercollider. The idea of a personal computer was crazy even to those in the business. "I think there is a worldwide market for maybe five computers," said IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson in 1943. Supposedly. There's some debate over the veracity of this quote, but it does reflect the prevailing attitude of the time.
In the late 1970s, heavyweight competitors Sony and Philips worked together to develop the Compact Disc (CD) format, soon to revolutionize sound recording and distribution. Their biggest obstacle? A profoundly skeptical music industry, who insisted digital would never replace analog technologies like vinyl and cassette. Sony chairman Norio Ohga basically staked his career on the CD format. A classical music connoisseur, Ohga trusted his ear and promoted the CD's superior sound quality. Five years after debuting in Japan, the CD overtook the vinyl LP in total record sales.
Good ideas are sometimes dismissed at the molecular level. When famed Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in the 1980s, he was mocked and kicked off his own research team. Said one competing researcher: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." Not a bad line, really, but Shechtman was vindicated rather spectacularly with a Nobel Prize in 2011. The discovery of quasicrystals changed ideas about the very structure of matter and now represents an entire field of study in materials science. Oh, and Schechtman just announced plans to run for the Israeli presidency.
Iphone and iPad
Apple's triumphs in recent years have been so dazzling that its easy to forget the skepticism that preceded the company's flagship mobile products. Tech pundits and (especially) mobile phone executives ridiculed the iPhone concept of an all-in-one device in 2007. Even Apple's traditional rival got in on the action: "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2007. And remember the incessant jokes about the iPad's name back in 2010? Some joke: The iPad pretty much single-handedly resurrected the tablet as a viable mobile device.
History tends to repeat itself, so the obvious question is this: Which dubious technology of today will become the breakthrough of tomorrow? You can find plenty of skeptics dismissing the idea of wearables, always-on computing devices such as the smartwatch or Google Glass. Detractors can point to long list of failures in the wearable computing arena. But who knows? Perhaps our future cybernetic overlords will look back 100 years from now and regard wearables with digital fondness -- the breakthrough that sparked the inevitable robot revolution. Only time will tell.
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