8 Skeptical Early Reactions to Revolutionary Inventions

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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

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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

A Braun car radio released in 1961. Kaldari via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Skateboarding in Carson, California in 1978. Image Credit: Tequask via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

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

The first Walkman, released in the U.S. in 1979. Image Credit:Anna Gerdén via Wikimedia Commons // BY-SA 3.0

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

Marty Cooper photographed in 2007 with his 1973 prototype cell phone. Image Credit: Rico Shen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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

Carl Berkeley via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Slow-Motion Picture: Netflix Is Rolling Out New Playback Speed Controls

You can stay in the Daredevil universe just a bit longer with the slower playback options.
You can stay in the Daredevil universe just a bit longer with the slower playback options.
Netflix

Netflix is now letting some users adjust the playback speed of its content, meaning you can finish The Irishman in a mere fraction of its 3.5-hour run time (or make it last even longer).

As The Verge reports, viewers will have the option to watch videos at 0.5, 0.75, 1.25, or 1.5 times their normal speed, and the feature will be available for regular streaming content and offline downloads. So far, Netflix is only offering it to Android mobile users, but tests are in the works for iOS devices and the web app, too.

When Netflix shared plans to develop playback speed controls back in October 2019, some leaders in the entertainment industry voiced their opposition. Filmmaker Judd Apatow, for example, took to Twitter to explain that distributors like Netflix shouldn’t be allowed to alter content created by others. The streaming giant didn’t abandon the idea, but it did take the negative feedback into consideration. In a July 31 press release, Netflix explained that it was limiting the number of speeds to just four, and each program will always start playing at the normal speed—that way, viewers will have to consciously choose to speed up or slow down videos on a case-by-case basis.

And while content creators may dislike the thought of having less control over how people experience their work, it’s not a new concept. As Netflix pointed out, DVD players and DVRs have long included playback speed options—the feature has also been available on YouTube for years. More importantly, speed controls give users with vision impairments the opportunity to accelerate the audio—since some can process audio faster than sighted folks—and it gives deaf and hard-of-hearing users the chance to slow down the subtitles. Both the National Association of the Deaf and the National Federation of the Blind have endorsed Netflix’s new feature.

While you’re waiting for Netflix to expand the offering to iOS and web users, here are 25 other hacks to enhance your Netflix viewing experience.

[h/t The Verge]