Beyond Future Imperfect – Part 1: Transporation? You’re Not Going Anywhere

Foresight is never 20/20. Anyone who’s seen the weatherman get the forecast wrong on the news would know that. But that doesn’t stop people from guessing what the future would be like. And people in the past were no different. And it’s not expected to get these predictions wrong as you may well know from weather forecasts. However, when it comes to the weather, the predictions usually center on the immediate future like this week or the next 24 hours. And the weatherman’s predictions usually make some sense even if they turn out to be wrong. But this isn’t a series for weather predictions because they’re boring. This a series about the stuff people predicted about the future and getting it horribly wrong. In this edition, I’ll cover transportation which really has changed a lot in since the Industrial Revolution. For a long time in history, the primary modes of transportation were by foot, by horse, and by wooden ship. But the Industrial Revolution changed all that with railways and steamships as well as paved the way for cars, aviation, submarines, an more. But not everyone imagined it this way, as you can see. Thus, for your reading pleasure, here are some bad predictions about transportation.

Aviation? Nah, That Won’t Fly


And they said that manned flight was impractical or impossible. Seems like somebody forgot to tell these two bicycle shop owning brothers from Dayton, Ohio. And just look what they did on December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

“There will never be a bigger plane built.” — A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people. (I guess this guy would later be fired. Because planes today hold way more than 10 people.)

“Man will not fly for 50 years.” –Wilbur Wright, American aviation pioneer, to brother Orville, after a disappointing flying experiment, 1901 (their first successful flight was in 1903). (Guess Wilbur was off by 48 years.)

“I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning.”— Lord Kelvin, President of Royal Society, 1890 (Guess what happened in 1903.)

“Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.”— Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1902 (Guess what happened the next year.)

“…no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air…”- Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), astronomer, head of the U. S. Naval Observatory (Somehow the Wright brothers managed to pull this off in 1903.)

“If man were meant to fly, God would have given him wings.” – Bishop Milton Wright, father of the Wright brothers. (The brothers who, you know, would be the first to fly their own plane at Kitty Hawk. Yes, that was their father.)

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” — Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895. (Apparently, two brothers in Dayton, Ohio didn’t think so. And look what they did in North Carolina 5 years later.)

“Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one which started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years–provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.” The New York Times, Oct 9, 1903, p. 6. (Guess what two guys from Dayton did in North Carolina that year.)

“It would fill the world with innumerable immoralities and give such occasion for intrigues as people can not meet with. You would have a couple of lovers make a midnight assignation upon the top of the monument and see the cupola of St. Paul’s covered with both sexes like the outside of a pigeon house. Nothing would be more frequent than to see a beau flying in at a garret window or a gallant giving chase to his mistress like a hawk after a lark.”- Joseph Addison. [Concerns about where manned flight might lead (1713)] (What the hell does he imagine the future being like? Aladdin? Seriously, there’s a reason flying contraptions aren’t as available for consumers as skateboards.)

“Before Man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket Science.”—George Summerfiled (Yes, that sounds awesome. But the US landed on the moon in 1969 and we still don’t have rocket mail. We have drones and Internet instead, which is so much better.)

“Automobiles will start to decline almost as soon as the last shot is fired in World War II. The name of Igor Sikorsky will be as well known as Henry Ford’s, for his helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter…. These ‘copters’ will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny ‘copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.”– Harry Bruno, aviation publicist, 1943. (I’m sure every family had their own helicopter after WWII. Not really. Seriously, there are no such things as privately owned helicopters unless one is stinking rich. I guess the brown acid was around in the 1940s.)

Cars? Are You Nuts?


And they thought this wouldn’t replace the horse. Well, guess they didn’t bet on Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line in Detroit. Did they? Available only in black.

“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” — Business Week, August 2, 1968. (Businessweek severely underestimated how well the Japanese made cars that are affordable and reliable with Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Isuzu, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru.)

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” – -The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903 (Obviously, Michigan Savings Bank had no idea what they were dealing with. Nowadays, cars are everywhere and horses are no longer seen as a mode of transportation.)

“It is an idle dream to imagine that automobiles will take the place of railways in the long distance movement of passengers.”— American Railroad Congress, 1913 (But it did happen as we know now because Amtrak isn’t doing so well these days.)

“The Edsel is here to stay.”— Henry Ford II, 1957 (Sorry, but the Edsel was one of the biggest flops in automotive history.)

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.”–Scientific American, January 2, 1909. (I’m sure there are plenty of ways to improve a car. Because nobody drives a Model T these days.)

“A new source of power… called gasoline has been produced by a Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is exploded inside the cylinder of an engine.

The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming… [T]he cost of producing [gasoline] is far beyond the financial capacity of private industry… In addition the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture.”– U. S. Congressional Record, 1875. (Yeah, right. Nowadays, because of gas, the oil industry is one of the most important and most profitable. Also, gasoline didn’t wreck our agriculture.)

“Within the next few decades, autos will have folding wings that can be spread when on a straight stretch of road so that the machine can take to the air.” — Eddie Rickenbacker, ‘Popular Science,’ July 1924 (Yeah, I can see that but only in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)

Railroads? That Train Ain’t Gonna Come


And they thought nobody would pay to travel by rail if they already had a horse. Yet, this soon became a dominant mode of transportation by the end of the 19th century.

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” – Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830 (I’ve been on a high speed rail at Disney World and suffered no such problems.)

“No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.” – King William I of Prussia, on trains, 1864 (Oh, yes, they will because it would be cheaper and easier. Also, had no idea why liveries existed in the first place. Or what it takes to care for a horse.)

“I should say that no railway locomotive ought to exceed 40 miles per hour on the most favorable gradient, but on a curved line the speed ought not to exceed 24 or 25 miles per hour.”— George Stephenson, 1841 (They go more that 40 mph now.)

“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, 1830(?). (Well, railroads were dangerous since they killed more people than some wars. However, 15 mph is certainly breakneck speed, for a turtle.)

“What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”–The Quarterly Review, March, 1825. (I can name a lot of things but not that. Actually, trains may travel more than twice as fast as stagecoaches.)

Maritime? That Ship Ain’t Gonna Sail


Ships powered by steam? Such nonsense! How’s that going to catch on? Oh, wait, it did. In fact, Mark Twain worked on one of these.

“How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s (Seems like Napoleon had no idea on how a steam engine worked. Too bad for him.)

“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.” — HG Wells, British novelist, in 1901 (Thankfully, Jules Verne thought otherwise since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea features nuclear subs. Still, he has no idea how submarines work.)

“The Titanic is well able to withstand almost any exterior damage and could keep afloat indefinitely after being struck.”— P. Franklin, Vice President, White Star Line, April 15th 1912 (Does 3 hours after hitting an iceberg count?)

”I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”—Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic before its maiden voyage in 1912. (How about sinking for 3 hours after being hit by an iceberg?)

”There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”– P. Franklin, Vice President, White Star Line, April 15th 1912 (Inconvenience? I think the passengers suffered more than inconvenience when it sank after hitting an iceberg. That’s putting it mildly.)

“I. A Voyage to Asia would require three years.

II. The western Ocean is infinite and perhaps unnavigable.

III. If he reached the Antipodes he could not get back.

IV. There are no Antipodes because the greater part of the globe is covered with water, and because St. Augustine said so.

V. Of the five zones, only three are habitable.

VI. So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”– Report of the committee organized in 1486 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to study Columbus’ plans to find a shorter route to India. (Well, they were right about the impossibility or a shorter route to India. They were wrong about the other points but the first one for the time.)

“Men might as well project a voyage to the Moon as attempt to employ steam navigation against the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.”– Dr. Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859), Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London. (Later on, humanity accomplishes both.)


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