In 10 A.D.,
Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus said, "Inventions have long
since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further
developments." He was obviously misinformed, but since that was more
than 2,000 years ago and before the era of history books,
24-hour-a-day news channels and the Internet, we'll give him a pass.
Besides, he sets the stage for the rest of this story.
A few others who have made
similar remarks don't get off so easy, though.
For example, President
Rutherford B. Hayes made the following remark when a young Mr. Bell
presented him with a working model of his invention in 1876: "That's
an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?"
Alexander Graham Bell's telephone went on to become the most
valuable patent in history. Bell, by the way, turned over all of his
AT&T stock to his new bride.
Fast forward to 1895 when Lord
Kelvin, president of England's Royal Society, opined with the
following: "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Eight
years later, the brothers Wright proved him wrong. A few years after
that, Capt. Tom Baldwin proved him wrong again when he designed the
first dirigible for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (then known as
the Army Signal Corps).
Lord Kelvin was considered a
very brilliant man among his peers. His most notable achievement was
the invention of the "absolute temperature scale," which measures
the lowest possible temperature in the universe at a negative 273
degrees Celsius. Known as the Kelvin scale, it is still used by
"There is no likelihood man can
ever tap the power of the atom." This quote came from the 1923 Nobel
Prize winner in physics, Robert Millikan. We all know how that
In 1927, Warner Brothers Studio
was on the verge of bankruptcy when its president, Harry Warner,
remarked, "Who the (heck) wants to hear actors talk?" Later that
year they produced the first movie with talking actors, "The Jazz
Singer." Americans started going to the movies in droves, even
though it was during the Great Depression, and silent movies had all
but disappeared by 1930.
[to top of
second column in this article]
"I think there is a world
market for maybe five computers." Who said this? It was none other
than IBM chairman Thomas Watson in 1943. He wasn't alone in his
logic, as the founder of DEC Computers, Ken Olson, said a few
decades later, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in
Apparently there are no patent
restrictions on making foolish quotes, because the commissioner of
the United States patent office allegedly did it too. It's been
reported that in 1899 commissioner Charles Duell said, "Everything
that can be invented has already been invented," although this quote
has been often denied. The patent office has registered more than
6.5 million patents since its inception in 1790, and the U.S.
continues to lead the rest of the world in technological
innovations, partially because of the way our patent system is set
If these quotes make you
nostalgic for the stories that your grandfather told of the good old
days when inventions like the telephone, movies with talking actors,
heavier-than-air flying machines and computers were still in their
infancy, that's OK. I hope these quotes from the experts serve as a
personal motivation for you whenever someone shoots down one of your
people mentioned above were a very successful and intelligent group,
yet their quotes now live in infamy. So if you've ever made one of
those predictions that sounded good at the time, like I did in the
'80's when I predicted that eight-track tapes would make cassettes
obsolete, then you're in pretty good company with a Roman engineer,
a U.S. president, the founder of a multimillion-dollar movie studio,
an IBM president and a Nobel Prize winner.
Invention Mysteries is written
each week by Paul Niemann, who can be reached at
email@example.com. To see what
the people quoted in this article looked like, go to
Copyright Paul Niemann 2004
Last week's column in LDN:
received much recognition for his lifesaving invention"