9 Life-Changing Inventions the Experts Said Would Never Work


The lightbulb. The telephone. Email. If you’re a specialist in your field, there are two ways to become a household name: create something new…or claim it can never be done. If you want to be remembered on the Internet, choose the second one…

Here are 9 examples of breakthroughs, inventions and innovations the experts got wrong.

1. The Electric Lightbulb

… good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.

British Parliamentary Committee, referring to Edison’s light bulb, 1878.

Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.

Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison’s light bulb, 1880.

The Brits get sniffy about American innovation (not for the first time) – and miss the invention of the century. Now our light bulbs comes in all shapes and sizes, and we’re eco-innovating faster than ever. Not too shabby for a conspicuous failure.

2. The A/C

Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.

Thomas Edison, 1889.

Oh Tom, you were doing so well. Edison enjoyed sniping at the efforts of his rival George Westinghouse (who bought the patent for a/c transmission from Nikola Tesla), and look where it got him. Fact is, it’s easier and far more efficient to distribute power with a/c than with Edison’s darling direct current. Oh, and apparently Edison was actually a bit of a jerk . Oh well.

3. The Personal Computer

We have reached the limits of what is possible with computers.

John Von Neumann, 1949

Somewhat wide of the mark. Along came the integrated circuit (better known as the microchip), and things went crazy. Computers have allowed our species to really connect. We can even study and regulate our own planet – and there’s still no computing limits in sight.

4. The Microchip

But what… is it good for?

An engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip in 1968.

Hardly anything – well, apart from virtually every piece of electronic equipment in gadgets, vehicles, computer networks, power stations, homes, offices and every other conceivable part of everyday life for this century and probably the next. But otherwise, yes – utterly useless.

5. Data Transmission

Image: anomalous4

Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.

Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General under Eisenhower, 1959.

Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition.

Dennis Gabor, Hungarian-British physicist, 1962.

A brilliant scientist, Gabor received the Nobel Prize for inventing holography – but entirely failed to anticipate e-mail and the modem. (To be fair, so did everyone else). Nowadays, entire bookshelves can be transmitted for a few cents in the blink of an eye, making scientific collaboration a truly global enterprise. And all without rockets.

6. Online Shopping

Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.

TIME, 1966.

It’s true that both sexes like the tactile experience of shopping in person. But e-commerce? As PayPal‘s proft margins will attest, remote shopping is here to stay – and helps get money to where it’s most needed.

7. The Automobile


Image: Cyberesque
The ordinary “horseless carriage” is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.
Literary Digest, 1899.
If only that were true. But the infernal combustion engine shows no signs of slowing – in 2005, an estimated 53 million new cars hit the world’s streets, fuelling all sorts of problems. Happily, we’re fast rediscovering the bicycle and rethinking the automobile.

8. The Television

While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.
Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube,1926.
Dream on. There are currently around 220 million “impossibilities” in the United States alone. TV is everywhere. It’s just a shame the old types are full of lead – but every year sees a cleaner version, like the new Philips Eco FlatTV here.

9. Possibility

Image: Andres Rueda

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

Supposedly said by Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899 – except he probably didn’t. So the last word goes to actor and humorist Peter Ustinov:

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

In green tech, there are some truly audacious ideas that plenty of “experts” have been quick to write off – and no doubt some will fail as expected, as is the nature of innovation. But not all.

If the history of technology offers any lesson, it’s that today’s most cynical eco experts could very well end up with egg on their faces.

Further reading: 87 bad predictions about the future, courtesy of 2Spare.

Main image: Fabbio

(Updated May 2012)

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.