Overheard …

Some notions, and some regrettable quotes, about technology

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. — Carl Sagan

[S]carcely anyone believes today that Freud was doing science, any more than educated people believe that Marx was doing science, or Max Weber or Lewis Mumford or Bruno Bettelheim or Carl Jung or Margaret Mead or Arnold Toynbee. What these people were doing … is documenting the behavior and feelings of people as they confront problems posed by their culture. Their work is a form of storytelling. … Their interpretations cannot be proved or disproved but will draw their appeal from the power of their language, the depth of their explanations, the relevance of their examples, and the credibility of their themes … there is nothing universally and irrevocably true or false about these interpretations. There are no critical tests to confirm or falsify them. There are no natural laws from which they are derived. They are bound by time, by situation, and above all by the cultural prejudices of the researcher or writer … Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people were once told and need to be told again… — Neil Postman, Technopoly, (1992)  (editor’s note: that ‘documentation’ involves systematic methods of inquiry, of marshaling evidence and developing logical, even theoretical, arguments, which sounds a lot like . . . science. Their distinct ‘disadvantage’ in terms of explanation may be the complexity of the human brain)

Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it. — Max Frisch

Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot- proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning. — Rich Cook

Rejected Technology and Shortsightedness

The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.                                                     – Admiral William Leahy, US Atomic Bomb Project.

The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the ‘social sciences’ is: some do, some don’t.
— Ernest (1st Baron) Rutherford

The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment. — Warren Bennis

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.                                                        — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.                                                          — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.                               — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by packrats and vandalized nightly. ~ Roger Ebert

But what … is it good for? — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

The energy available to man limits what he can do, and influences what he will do.             — Fred Cottrell, Energy and Society, 1955

This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.                                                          — Western Union internal memo, 1876.

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular? — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

Dear Mr. President:
The canal system of this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation known as “railroads.” … As you may well know, Mr. President, “railroad” carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by “engines” which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed. — — — Martin Van Buren, Governor of New York

The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.
— A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?                                                                                            — H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

…we still feel that color is hard on the eyes for so long a picture. — Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times Film Review in its original 1939 review of Gone With the Wind

We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.                                                   — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this. — Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.

So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’ — Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.

Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
— 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.
— Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.                                             — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.                                                                 — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.

Everything that can be invented has been invented.                                                                     — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.

Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.                                                                     — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.
— Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.                               — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.                                                   – Admiral William Leahy, US Atomic Bomb Project.

This fellow Charles Lindbergh will never make it. He’s doomed. — Harry Guggenheim, millionaire aviation enthusiast.

Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.                            — Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube and father of television.

If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.
— Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute, as quoted in the New York Times on April 14, 1954.

For the majority of People, smoking has a beneficial effect.                                                        — Dr. Ian G. Macdonald, Los Angeles surgeon, quoted in “Newsweek”, Nov.18th 1963.

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident. –Schopenhauer.