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7 Life-Changing Inventions That Were Ridiculed at First

Progress is the staple of modern society. We’re always searching for better ways of doing things; always working to improve on last year’s technology.  Just turn on your TV and flip to Shark Tank, or QVC, or any infomercial on late-night television and you’ll see the “next big thing.” 

Our world is so full of modern conveniences that it’s difficult to think of what life must have been like before they existed. Can you imagine going through a day without using your cell phone? Was there even a time when you couldn’t just look up a random fact online? And I bet chefs everywhere wake up thankful that bread is sliced nowadays. 

But there existed a time when people stared at newspapers instead of phones, research was done at libraries, and sandwiches must have been one hell of a mess. And before so many of these life-changing inventions came along, there were people who were wedded to the way things were. They didn’t welcome change and were resistant to things we couldn’t live without now. 

But progress has a funny way of moving forward, no matter how much doubt flies in its face. Phones will keep getting smarter, information will keep spreading, and sandwiches… well, I think we’ve tapped the wells of innovation dry there. I mean, how can you improve on a good old-fashioned sandwich? 

Here are 7 life-changing inventions that were ridiculed at first: 

Umbrellas

Just think of how many of these you’ve lost, and it always seems to be right when you’re heading out the door, late for work, and you feel that first raindrop. Looks like you’re rolling up to work wet today. 

But that’s exactly what humans did for much of our history. Although the use of umbrellas was first recorded in the 4th century B.C.E. in Rome, Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, and India, people only used them as protection from the sun, and only a select few people, at that. In fact, some kings throughout history decreed who could and could not use parasols in their kingdom. If you were royalty, clergy, a wealthy aristocrat, or a woman, you had the king-given right to chill in the shade.  

As time went on, more and more women used the parasol. After all, a perfect, spotless complexion is always in, right?

This association of umbrellas being a woman’s accessory continued into the 17th century when people began to use the umbrella to as a protection against rain, as well as the sun. At first, men stuck to their guns and refused to use something so feminine. Soon, though, men in France began to adopt the umbrella. Good thing, too; it wasn’t too long after that King Louis XIII made the powdered wig popular. I don’t see a soggy wig looking too impressive. 

The technology behind umbrellas, however, took a good century to catch up to this French demand. Until the early 1700s, “waterproof” umbrellas were made from materials like woven silk. Fashion over function, I guess.

In 1712, French Princess Palatine purchased a parasol made from actual waterproof materials invented by a merchant named Jean Marius. After that, French nobles acted as though actually staying dry was the high fashion of the time. More and more Frenchmen joined the umbrella craze. 

All that time, across the straits in Britain, men scoffed at those “crazy frogs” using a woman’s parasol. Until the 1750s when Jonas Hanway, a Brit recently returned from a trip abroad, started using one himself. Then men started directing their insults at him. 

Some sources say he witnessed parasols from the Silk Road being used in Persia and fashioned one for himself when he returned to London. Others say he brought one back directly from France. Either way, somehow Jonas was the only man in Britain willing to endure the fashion faux pas and protect himself from the rainy British skies. 

People scoffed. Passersby hurled trash at him. Taxi drivers even ridiculed him and refused service out of fear of “his device.” More probably out of fear that people would start using umbrellas when it rained instead of jumping into their carriages. 

But the drivers didn’t have to worry for another several decades. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that umbrellas really took off and carriage drivers cursed their wicked fate. Forget Uber, umbrellas killed the taxi industry. 

By the late 1700s, almost everyone in Britain was carrying an umbrella. They were usually made from alpaca hide or oiled canvas and wood or whalebone, and people referred to them as the “Hanway.” But, also by this time, Jonas was on his deathbed, unable to go outside and fully bask in the shower of compliments his persistence earned him. Jonas Hanway, the tortured genius, knew the umbrella would come in handy one rainy day. 

Airplanes

Airplanes, arguably, have been one of the biggest connectors of the world. In 6 hours, you can make the trip from New York to Los Angeles; a journey that would take around forty hours to drive and over two days to make by train. 

The Pilgrims spent over two months voyaging from Europe to the “New World.” Although modern ships can make that same trip in six to eight days, planes blow them out of the water, cutting that travel time down to eight hours. 

You can hardly think of travel without thinking of flying nowadays. But that was not people’s reality before the Wright Brothers. They made aviation history with their historic first flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Flying before had been a distant dream of mankind; outlandish sketches in inventors’ notebooks or fanciful thoughts of wishful thinkers. 

Even the Wright Brothers themselves didn’t think it could be achieved in their lifetime. After the first prototypes of their gliders produced poor results early on, Wilbur Wright predicted that “man will not fly for 50 years.” Imagine his surprise when he proved himself wrong just two years later. 

Even a decade after humans had achieved flight, though, planes were not taken seriously. In 1911, a French general and Allied Commander during World War I named Ferdinand Foch declared that “planes are interesting scientific toys, but they are of no military value.” I bet he believed the Maginot Line would hold as well. 

Not even eight years after Foch predicted the future of aerial combat, a biplane flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, crash landing in a bog but successfully completing the first non-stop transatlantic crossing by air. 

In 1933, the Boeing 247, the first modern passenger aircraft, completed its maiden voyage. It could carry ten passengers plus mail and featured a lot of then-innovative technology like retractable landing gear, controllable-pitch propellers, and de-icer boots. When talking about the plane he had helped build, an engineer claimed that “there would never be a bigger plane built.”

Fast forward to today when planes can and have carried anything you can think of: hundreds more passengers, cars, tanks, nuclear bombs, heck, even other planes. At the rate these expert predictions are going, all we need is a scientist to say planes will never reach light speed and engineers will build one at, well, the speed of light. 

Coffee

If you can’t start your day without a cup of coffee, then you should thank a goat. That’s right, goats are responsible for your caffeine-induced productivity. As the legend goes, a goatherder on the Ethiopian Plateau named Kaldi noticed his goats acting strangely. He noticed his goats became so energetic after eating a certain berry that they did not want to sleep at night. 

The legend of Kalid
The legend of Kalid

Kaldi reported his observation to the abbot of the local monastery. The abbot considered this goat herder’s story of peculiar berries and energetic goats, and decided to make a drink using said berries. That night, the abbot found he was able to stay awake and alert through long hours of late evening prayer. He shared it with his fellow monks and they, too, jumped on the coffee wagon. 

Soon, there was a whole monastery of men with peculiar haircuts wearing odd clothing meeting to drink coffee and recite their favorite poems. Thus, the hipster coffeehouse was born. 

Coffee’s popularity soon spread east to the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. There, Sufi Muslims used it to stay awake during nighttime devotions. As it spread wider among the public in the Middle East, people hailed it as a miraculous drink. It gave people more time in the day to create, discuss, and spread ideas. 

Ironically, some ideas spreading were opinions against coffee. In the 1500s, different groups began rejecting the drink. Some groups believed coffee caused the drinker to go into a form of drunkenness. Other groups believed coffee caused some common diseases of the time. Still others looked down at coffee houses as meeting places for revolutionaries, reactionaries, and other no-good types. 

Coffee continued to spread across the world, however, and soon made it to Europe. Britain soon saw people hailing the rejuvenating effects of coffee. Coffee shops sprouted up and common people gathered there en masse to discuss business, news, politics, and current events. 

This kind of meeting was an egalitarian sharing of ideas hardly seen before in Europe. The rise of coffeehouses coincided with the beginning of the Enlightenment Period, the dawn of which many scholars claim coffeehouses played a crucial role in. 

Not everyone was a fan of this caffeine-driven spread of ideas, however. The king feared that coffee would provoke agitation against the throne, and coffeehouses would be beds of unrest and sites of plotting against the royal family.  

In 1675, ministers of King Charles II, believing coffeehouses were a threat to the monarchy, attempted to shut down coffee houses. Officially, their reasoning was because of the “evil and dangerous effect” they had on British citizens. 

The ban did not work, though. More accurately, the ban never even went into effect. Perhaps the king spent some time brewing it over and realized his plan wasn’t fully roasted. He scrapped the crackdown two days before it was due to start. 

Fast forward to today when Americans alone drink 400 million cups of coffee a year. That’s about three cups of coffee a day for the 150 million people who report as coffee drinkers. And I’m sure no one in power would dream of outlawing coffee. I mean, can you imagine an office with no coffee? The only thing brewing then would be discontent. 

Lightbulbs

For ages, humans had used lanterns and candles to illuminate their work and leisure when the sun went down. The invention of fire was probably the most important for human evolution—though no records exist to show if cavemen ridiculed that invention, too— but it wasn’t great for interior illumination. 

The range of light was narrow and having a flame inside was far from safe, especially back in the days when cities were almost exclusively built from wood. I think the O’Leary’s cow proved that when it kicked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire. 

But for centuries, humans toiled away under the flickering light of candles, lanterns, and lamps. That is until Thomas Edison had a lightbulb moment. Maybe back then they were called lantern moments. 

In 1879, Edison, building off of a long history of research and development in electrical conduction and lighting, demonstrated his lightbulb. Edison’s improvements to past designs, most notably changing the filaments used in Joseph Swan’s design, made the lightbulb a more practical tool. 

But not everyone saw the light. The same year Edison first showed his lightbulb, the president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, Henry Morton, a leading scientific mind of his time, referred to Edison’s tinkering as “a conspicuous failure.” 

This scorn did not seem to dim the light bulb’s progress, though. Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan joined forces to make the Edison-Swan United Company which came to be one of the world’s largest producers of lightbulbs. Soon, the Edison Electric Illumination Company of New York was made with financial contributions from some of the wealthiest investors of the time, like J.P. Morgan himself. Other inventors threw in their lot with Edison. Eventually, the company grew into what we call today General Electric. 

Now, the only thing people question about lightbulbs is the legacy Thomas Edison has left behind. Far from being the brilliant mind who thought up these life-changing inventions himself, Edison was just the final link in the chain of events and people that contributed to modern day tools like the light bulb. As the New Yorker puts it, he “did not look for problems in need of solutions, he looked for solutions in need of modification.” 

Bicycles

This one is easier to understand. Just google pictures of early bikes. I mean, no one’s winning the Tour de France on those giant tires. But even before those “penny-farthing’ models were common, bikes only experienced small bouts of popularity, always hitting road bumps due to lack of safety, practicality, or just plain comfortability.  

It all started in 1818 when a German baron named Karl von Drais invented a steerable, two-wheeled contraption called the “velocipede,” “hobby horse,” “draisine,” or “running machine,” among other names. This is widely seen as the birth of the bicycle, making von Drais the father of the modern bike. 

A penny-farthing or ordinary bicycle photographed in the Škoda museum in the Czech Republic
A penny-farthing or ordinary bicycle photographed in the Škoda museum in the
Czech Republic. BY Agnieszka Kwiecień, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Von Drais’ invention experienced a brief period of popularity before falling out of public favor. The poet John Keats denounced the velocipede as “nothing of the day.” However, inventors and enthusiasts alike did not stop tinkering with this new contraption. They made improvements to the bicycle that helped boost its popularity. 

In the 1860s, several French inventors, including Pierre Lallement, and Pierre and Ernest Michaux invented their own prototype with the pedals attached to the front wheels. This was the version that the public started widely calling the bicycle. Though they had another name for it as well: the “boneshaker” for the rough rides they gave. 

To distance the bike from its bumpy start, inventor Eugene Meyer and James Starley added the large front wheel, creating the “penny-farthing” or the “ordinary.” This change was meant to add stability to the bike. It gave the bike a stint of fame in the 1870s and 1880s. 

This was when bike clubs really took off and competitive bike races became more of a mainstream event. I guess people really did race on those giant front tires. A man named Thomas Stevens even took one of these ordinaries on a trip around the globe. 

But the penny-farthing did nothing to improve the safety of the bicycle. Although they were fun to ride, the tall height of the bike seat made mounting and dismounting tricky and riding them an acquired taste, to put it mildly. 

In the 1880s, John Kemp Starley, the nephew of James Starley, invented a model with equal-sized wheels and a chain drive that came to be known as the “safety bicycle.” Biking’s popularity skyrocketed after that. 

In 1890, the Washington Post called biking “a hot fad for fancy ladies and not just for the ‘bleached-haired, music-hall type.’” Noted: another invention that hipsters adopted early. Further improvements to brakes, tires, and other technologies commonplace today continued to fan the flames of the biking craze. By 1896, the Washington Post called biking the new national sport of the U.S. The New York Times raved that “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.”

The fad didn’t last long into the 20th century, though. By 1902, the Post labeled biking a “passing fancy,” and critics decried that the popularity of the wheel was doomed. They saw biking as unsafe, impossible to improve upon any further, and not a practical mode of transport. 

However, nowadays, more than half of the world’s population are riding more than two billion bikes, a figure estimated to grow to five billion by 2050. Technology has improved by leaps and bounds since biking’s original heydays in the 19th century; from Carbon fiber frames and tubeless tires to electronic brakes and gear systems and ultra-portable folding models,

Bikes have grown to become a staple of people’s daily travels. In some countries, bikes have even surpassed cars and other modes of transport as the favored method of commute. 

I bet those early experts would change their gears if they saw the state of biking today. 

Talking Movies

Movies have been a mainstay of American culture, as well cultures of countries around the world since early in the 20th century. From Hollywood to Bollywood, international art cinema to patriotic propaganda, and everything in between, movies have been a popular media for audiences to consume. 

But, in the 1920s century, the film industry was in a dire crisis. Well, at least according to critics and experts of the time. Talking movies had arrived. In 1927, The Jazz Singer was released; the first movie ever with audible singing and talking. Reactions were mixed. 

In 1928, the president of United Artists, Joseph Schenck, declared “talking doesn’t belong in pictures.” He admitted sound effects could be useful, but insisted dialogue was “overrated.” What a forward thinker. He predicted: “I don’t think people will want talking pictures long.” 

The actor Mary Astor remembered the general feelings of talking movies similarly. She recalled The Jazz Singer as a “box office freak” and talkies as a “box office gimmick.” When she and her colleagues went to a screening of a talking movie for the first time, they thought that “the noise would simply drive audiences from the theater.” 

Replace “talkies” with “3D” or “IMAX” and these could be quotes from the 21st century. Needless to say, talking in movies was here to stay. All the naysayers had to learn to adapt quick or find themselves mere extras in their own industry. 

Cheeseburgers

There is much debate surrounding who originally invented the cheeseburger. Kentucky sources claim a Louisville restaurant named Kaelin’s invented the burger in 1934. Colorado sources claim the burger was invented in their state at a Humpty Dumpty Drive-In. Other sources credit young Lionel Sternberger, who, in 1926 at the age of 16, while working at his father’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, California, experimented by slapping a slice of American cheese on a beef patty. 

Whoever said a good old-fashioned sandwich couldn’t be improved? Oh, right. Well, I stand corrected. 

Many people seem to accept the last story as the truth, though the debate is nowhere near resolved. Either way, reactions to the cheeseburger were lukewarm at best. Far from calling it an American classic, critics labeled the cheeseburger a “crazy California novelty.” 

The New York Times, writing about cheeseburgers in 1938, called it a “California eccentricity” and ranked it third on a list amidst the likes of nutburgers, porkburgers, and turkeyburgers. In 1947, when a New York Times writer actually tried a hamburger, he commented that the mixture of ingredients at first “may seem bizarre. [But] if you reflect a bit, you’ll understand that the combination is sound gastronomically.” That’s right about when he went into an analysis of the gastronomical sounds burgers can cause. 

Now, you can find cheeseburgers on almost any menu in the U.S. The dish ranks as an iconic symbol of the states, right up there with the bald eagle and Walmart. Normally, I would throw in a few more puns here, but the burgers seem cheesy enough. 

Sources

1https://www.insider.com/inventions-that-were-ridiculed-2016-8#coffee-2

2https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/10-inventions-no-one-thought-would-be-a-success/

3https://www.vox.com/2015/2/9/8004661/fads-inventions-changed-world

4https://thebookofeveryone.com/blog/bizarre-history-umbrella/

5https://www.cam.ac.uk/Transatlantic100

6https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/in-the-museum-the-original-airliner-1601/

7https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee

8 https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20201119-how-coffee-forever-changed-britain

9 https://dealsonhealth.net/coffee-statistics/

10https://www.livescience.com/43424-who-invented-the-light-bulb.html

11https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/28/the-real-nature-of-thomas-edisons-genius

12https://www.history.com/news/bicycle-history-invention

13https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/02/why-we-need-to-encourage-cycling-everywhere/#:~:text=By%20some%20estimates%2C%20there%20are,of%20the%20population%20use%20bicycles

14https://www.broadwayatthebeach.com/blog/150

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