Not every inventor is recognized as a genius in their time. And not every invention is recognized as a game-changer when it first comes out. Plenty of inventions and technologies throughout history have seemed considered newfangled, superfluous, or even flat-out dangerous at first glance. Here are eight now-ubiquitous technologies that were unappreciated, underestimated, and feared at their debut.
1. THE PRINTING PRESS
Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster. Image Credit: Daniel Maclise via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
In 1492, the monk Johannes Trithemius, a leading scholar in his time, predicted that the printing press would never last. In his essay “In Praise of Scribes” [PDF], he argued that handwriting was the moral superior to mechanical printing—an opinion surely influenced by the fact that monks working as scribes worried that the printing press would put them out of work.
“The word written on parchment will last a thousand years,” Thrithemius boasted. “The printed word is on paper … The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years.” Parchment, the material monks used for their books, is made of animal skin, while paper is made from cellulose derived from plant fibers. Modern paper does degrade because it's made from wood pulp, but in Trithemius's time, paper was made from old rags, a material that remains stable over hundreds of years, as the surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible show. Trithemius went on to write that “Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance.” Ironically, his screed was disseminated by printing press, not hand-copied by monks.
2. ICE CUBES
People in cold climates have always had access to ice in the winter, but it was only in the early 19th century that the ice market became global, and it took a considerable marketing campaign to get there. New England’s Frederic Tudor spent decades trying to drum up widespread interest in the ice he harvested from frozen ponds.
When it came out that he was preparing to ship many tons of ice to the sweltering West Indies, he “was laughed at by all his neighbors” back home in Massachusetts—as a local history from 1888 recounts—who thought loading up a ship with ice and setting sail for the Caribbean was an insane undertaking. As the Boston Gazette wrote of his voyage, “We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.” The paper had to preface news of his ice endeavor with “No joke.”
When he did ship a 130-ton load of ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique, in 1806, no one wanted it. People were intrigued by the novelty, but had no idea what to use it for. As his valuable cargo began melting, Tudor was forced to turn as much as he could into ice cream. He lost thousands of dollars on the venture, but eventually, he was traveling the world bringing ice to hot places from New Orleans to Calcutta, plying people with chilled drinks and convincing doctors to use ice on their feverish patients. He's now known as "The Ice King."
3. THE TELEPHONE
Alexander Graham Bell's drawing of his new invention, the telephone, 1876. Image Credit: Alexander Graham Bell via the Library of Congress // Public Domain
In advance of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876, where Alexander Graham Bell would later debut his telephone, The New York Times published an editorial accusing an early phone inventor, German scientist Johann Philipp Reis (who had died in 1874), of conspiring to empty concert halls. The Times, writing of the telephone as a method of broadcasting classical music, warned that “a patriotic regard for the success of our approaching Centennial celebration renders it necessary to warn the managers of the Philadelphia Exhibition that the telephone may really be a device of the enemies of the Republic.” What if every town in America got a phone, and never had to show up to celebrations like the Centennial in person again? the author wondered. He continued:
"There is so far nothing to indicate that this is Prof. Reuss’ dark design, but as all foreign despots, from the Queen, in the Tower of London, to the Prince of Monaco, in the backroom of his gambling palace, are notoriously and constantly tearing their hair as they … note the progress and prosperity of our nation, it is not impossible that they have suggested the infamous scheme of attacking the Centennial Celebration with telephones."
After Bell introduced his telephone to the world, his father-in-law and business partner, Gardiner Hubbard, famously offered to sell it to Western Union, the company that held a virtual monopoly on U.S. telegraph enterprises. Western Union President William Orton (who had a contentious relationship with Hubbard), turned him down—a decision he surely came to regret when Western Union's own efforts to develop a telephone were shut down by a patent lawsuit from the Bell Company. Though the exact nature and price of the offer is contentious [PDF], it is now considered one of the worst decisions in business history, since the phone would go on to make Western Union's telegraph business obsolete.
4. THE CAR RADIO
In 1922, Outlook magazine, a New York-based weekly, breathlessly reported that “This equipment, with which you can listen to the radio concerts while driving in your car is said to be the very latest development of inventive genius for the amusement of the radio fan.”
But not everyone was excited. In 1930, The New York Times quoted an unnamed traffic authority in Washington, D.C. expounding on the potential pitfalls of the technology for drivers. “Music in the car might make him miss hearing the horn of an approaching automobile or fire or ambulance siren,” he told the Times. “Imagine fifty automobiles in a city street broadcasting a football game! Such a thing as this, I am sure, would not be tolerated by city traffic authorities."
A 1934 poll of Automobile Club of New York members found that 56 percent found car radios to be distracting to the user, fellow drivers, and just “more noise added to the present din” of the road. Several states moved to ban the controversial devices, which opponents argued could lull drivers to sleep. However, a 1939 study found that radios didn’t have any effect on taxicab accident rates, and the bans never became widespread.
5. THE SKATEBOARD
In the 1960s, the relatively new sport of skateboarding had sparked plenty of interest among young people, but not so much among their parents. Many decried skateboarding as a fleeting but potentially lethal craze. In 1965, Pennsylvania’s traffic safety commissioner, Harry H. Brainerd, thought that skateboarding was “extremely hazardous fad,” according to The Pittsburgh Press, and argued that parents “would be well advised not to permit the children to use skateboards until they have been instructed in and understand basic, common sense rules of safety for their use.” He wasn’t the only one that thought kids couldn’t be trusted to ride early skateboards without killing themselves. The liberal political organization Americans for Democratic Action petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1979 to ban skateboards outright, saying that “The design of the skateboard itself cannot be improved in any way to make it safe.” Needless to say, kids kept skating.
6. THE WALKMAN
Sony’s first Walkman portable cassette player came onto the scene in 1979, changing how people listened to music. But not everyone bought into the pet project of Sony CEO Akio Morita at first. In his book Made in Japan, he recounts that in the beginning, “It seemed as though nobody liked the idea. At one of our product planning meetings, one of the engineers said, ‘It sounds like a good idea, but will people buy it if it doesn’t have a recording capability? I don’t think so.’” Even once the product was developed, Morita says, “our marketing people were unenthusiastic. They said it wouldn’t sell.”
It did sell—in 1982, the Daily News of Bowling Green, Kentucky declared that it was “now clear that the Walkman and its successors not only sell and sell from Anchorage to Ankara, but also appear to have become a semi-permanent appendage to most of the world’s ears.” It had attracted a different kind of criticism by then, though. Municipalities started trying to ban people from wearing headphones while walking across the street, arguing that it was a safety hazard. A law fining people $50 (or 15 days in jail) for wearing a headset while crossing the street—even if the music is off—is still on the books in Woodbridge, New Jersey today.
7. THE CELL PHONE
In 1981, telecommunications consultant Jan David Jubon was skeptical of how popular the rumored new devices known as cell phones could be. "But who, today, will say I'm going to ditch the wires in my house and carry the phone around?" he said in The Christian Science Monitor.
Even Marty Cooper, known as the “father of the cell phone,” didn’t predict how ubiquitous mobile phones could be at that point. "Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems," Cooper told the paper. “Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won't be cheap enough."
8. THE iPHONE
On the cusp of the debut of the first iPhone in 2007, several tech writers made bold predictions about how hard it would fail. “That virtual keyboard will be about as useful for tapping out emails and text messages as a rotary phone,” TechCrunch’s Seth Porges wrote in a piece titled “We Predict the iPhone Will Bomb.”
Bloomberg writer Matthew Lynn argued that “The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.”
Unsurprisingly, the CEO of Microsoft wasn’t a big fan of the new phone either. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” then-CEO Steve Ballmer told USA Today in 2007. “No chance.” In December 2014, the iPhone had captured almost 48 percent of the smartphone market in the U.S.—though those numbers have dropped since then—compared to the Windows phone’s less than 4 percent.