5 Examples of How New Technology Sucks, But Only at First
New technology is usually pretty bad when its first being developed. People think it will never get mainstream adoption because it sucks and we have another way of doing things that already work. But they are often wrong and history has some great examples of haters getting shown up, so here's to the crazy ones.
It's easy to notice shortcomings in new technology.
Self-driving cars get tripped up by bad weather, road closures, and they've been known to hit the occasional bicyclist. Electrodes need to be implanted inside someone's skull with a gross sounding invasive surgery to get a good enough signal for BCIs. As much as I believe in blockchain technology, it's hard to pretend that most altcoins aren't pretty useless.
The haters point to these and many, many more current problems to say that potentially innovate new technologies are ridiculous pipe-dreams.
Luckily, if you're working on something people think is never going to work, you're in good company. Any example of revolutionary and now pretty awesome technology I could think of over the past few centuries has had its share of cynics and was honestly pretty lame at first. Here are a few examples:
The technology behind the printing press literally took centuries to develop until people actually thought it was cool.
Woodblock printing was started by Chinese monks around the eighth century. Its use was expanded and developed over centuries without ever attaining real widespread use. Some impediments to its success included the fact that people just weren't ready for it yet (they couldn't read) and that each page required its own woodblock which could take days or months to carve.
The first moveable-type system was invented by a Chinese peasant in the 11th century, but people were still like whatever about it (perhaps because of the complexity of characters).
Then Gutenberg came along and made the metal moveable-type printing press in Europe and printed the Bible in the 1450s and everyone lost their shit, right? Kind of, this was a game changer in history and we'd all love to get our hands on a Guttenberg Bible today, but hindsight is 20-20 and at the time there were critics. A summary of Johannes Trithemius's commentary in De laude scriptorum manualium — “In Praise of Scribes.” from Wondermark explains,
[there were] practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used... there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly.
The printing press was awesome, but it took centuries to even catch on and even then produced a worse product than the toiling of monks.
Although now we refer to a particularly brilliant idea as akin to a light bulb going off in one's head, the actual development of the lightbulb wasn't like that at all. Before the lightbulb, there was the electric arc lamp. And the electric arc lamp was pretty nuts. Their carbon rods had to be replaced all the time, they emitted dangerous rays and carbon dioxide, started fires everywhere and probably luckily because of the aforementioned problems, weren't suitable for homes.
Then we had a bunch of people try to make new lightbulbs and also fail – in 1840 Warren de la Rue tried to use platinum, but alas, too expensive. Twenty years later Joseph Wilson Swan had a working prototype of using a carbon filament and partial vacuum, but it burned out too quickly to be of any practical use.
And while these experiments were going on, not everyone was clamoring to get their homes all lit up with lightbulbs. JP Morgan financed the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, but his father Junius cautioned against it, believing electric light to be a fad. By 1878, while Edison was iterating on the lightbulb, the British Parliament Committee said that Edison's bulbs were "good enough for our Transatlantic friends… but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men." And the chief engineer for the British Post Office claimed that the "subdivision of the electric light is an absoluteignis fatuus" (basically a sham).
It wasn't until 1880 that Edison and his team tested more than 3,000 designs for bulbs before developing a bulb that lasted 1,200 hours and could be marketed to the public. Interestingly, Edison was even busy himself trying to discredit modern inventions, electrocuting a veritable zoo of animals to vilify Tesla's alternating current.
Although the steam engine would go on to claim such accolades as "powering the Industrial Revolution", it basically existed for thousands of years before that as a toy. The Aeolipile from the 1st century is credited as being the first steam engine, and although it's unclear because it was so long ago, it seems to have basically been a party trick. Ferdinand Verbiest even made a steam powered vehicle in 1672 that was tiny and couldn't carry a driver as a toy for the Kangxi Emperor.
Then the Newcomen engine came around in 1712 and actually did stuff and hundreds of them were made, but then James Watt improved Newcomen's design and made it more fuel efficient so he basically gets credit for the steam engine.
Even after there was a pretty good steam engine, railroads were still running on horsepower and engineers were skeptical that a machine could navigate the steep grades and sharp turns. Peter Cooper cobbled together a locomotive, The Tom Thumb, but the Stockton & Stokes Stagecoach company was determined to humiliate it so they literally had it race against a horse, which it lost (but did better than people were expecting).
So that thing that you made as a craft project in first grade where you tie some cans together and talk to your frenemy on the other side of the room was basically the first telephone. Robert Hooke is credited with inventing the "tin can telephone" around 1667.
The electrical telephone was invented after making successive improvements to the electrical telegraph and early versions kind of sucked. The sound quality was bad and it was powered by a battery that leaked acid. There's an apparently made up quote from Western Union, but with some truth behind it nonetheless, where someone explains,
the voice is very weak and indistinct, and grows even weaker when long wires are used between the transmitter and receiver. Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles...
The electricians of our company have developed all the significant improvements in the telegraph art to date, and we see no reason why a group of outsiders, with extravagant and impractical ideas, should be entertained, when they have not the slightest idea of the true problems involved. Mr. G.G. Hubbard’s fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy
So in a pretty big #fail, that should all make us feel a little better about rejection, Western Union passed on Bell's telephone patent. For a short time, the tin can telephone was actually marketed as a competitor to the electrical telephone because it didn't fall under the latter's patent.
Then, even after telephones got better, people had a bunch of weird reactions to this new technology. Even when people though telephones were cool, according to a New Yorker article from 1933, they "they no more thought of getting one of their own than the average man now thinks of getting an airplane". People were also afraid of them. They though they might electrocute them, they though they would destroy social skills, and their ability to separate "spirit from matter" even spurred a bunch of research into the supernatural.
The first steam wagon that wasn't a toy was probably Cugnot's "Fardier à vapeur" used by the French Army. It didn't have a long life because it wasn't very stable and had performance issues. Then there was Richard Trevithick's Puffing Devil which people thought was pretty cool, but which also overheated and caught fire only a few days after he took people on a test ride.
Britain's Locomotive Acts can illustrate a bit of how receptive people were to the first road locomotives. They
limited the speed of self-propelled vehicles to 2 mph (3.2 km/hr) in the city and 4 mph (6.4 km/h) in the country. It also stipulated that every vehicle must have a man walking in front of it, either waving a red flag or holding a lantern, so as to warn on-comers
Even in the 1890s, cars were pretty much only owned by the wealthy. There were exciting and deadly car races and people complaining that cars ruined the tranquility of the country.
Horace Rackham, Henry's Fords lawyer, famously said, "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad."
There's just too much good stuff here. Here is just a list of some early quotes from internet haters for your enjoyment:
Clifford Stoll, scientist, author, teacher, had some serious internet doubts:
After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.Baloney.
Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.
Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet predicts:
“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
Waring Partridge, telecommunications expert in 1995:
Most things that succeed don't require retraining 250 million people.
Of course, history has also had its fair share of whoopsies. Radium was the Açaí berry of the early 20th century until people’s jaws started falling off. Boat cars never really took off. None of the attempts at a time machine have really panned out as far as we know. It’s hard to know what will work out, but a lot of what people think won’t actually will.
So as Kid Cudi suggests, “getting our dream, people told me slow my roll… fuck that I’m a do just what I want, looking ahead no turning back… everything that’s shine ain’t always gonna be gold [but]…I’ll be fine once I get it…I’ll be good”.