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little-known stories behind well-known inventions"
The Roman engineer had little hope for future inventions
By Paul Niemann
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
A few others who have made
similar remarks don't get off so easy, though.
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.
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 scientists today.
"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 turned out.
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, while silent movies had all but disappeared by 1930.
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"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 up.
If these quotes make you nostalgic for stories 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 great ideas.
The 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.
Paul Niemann may be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2007