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Useful And Fantastic: People They Laughed At - 5

…For ten years from 1834 on, Charles Goodyear was laughed at for trying to solve the problems of how rubber could be produced as a useful product. He suffered one fiasco after another, and he was often in jail for debt…

Val Yule lists more people and ideas which attracted derision when they came to the attention of the public.

Cremation was abolished in the Roman Empire when it was thought it might prevent resurrection of the body in the afterlife. It was only reintroduced in Europe in 1797 during the French Revolution, except for times of plague needing emergency disposals of diseased bodies.

Crop rotation. 'Turnip' Townsend was laughed at for soil-improvement and rotating crops, so that the land did not have to be left fallow, growing nothing every few years.

Corrugated galvanised iron was developed step by step by a series of inventors, as so often happens with practical inventions. Richard Walker of London began making corrugated iron sheets in 1828 for roofing; the American Joseph Francis succeeded in inventing corrugated iron for boats in 1847; in 1836 Frenchman Sorel had discovered how to galvanized iron with zinc to stop it rusting, and in 1844 Englishman John Spencer invented an efficient way to manufacture sheets of it, especially useful for roofs. But there was a great deal of prejudice against it, including its unattractive appearance. Then galvanised iron roofing really took off in the Australia colony, especially when gold was discovered in 1851 and it was the cheap, easy, effective answer to put up walls and roofs quickly.

Daylight saving. William Willett wrote ‘Waste of Daylight’ in 1908 but daylight saving came first in Germany, in 1915.

Ecology. Even after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring 1962 many people did not believe that pesticides could kill more than the pests it was intended for.

Electric light. The British laughed at Edison’s incandescent electric light in 1878, as ‘good enough for our transatlantic friends, but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men’. In 1889 Edison himself was annoyed when younger people invented the modern alternating current electric distribution system we use today, because Edison’s own low-voltage direct current tended to melt the supply cables. Quite often the people who laugh at inventions most strongly are people who are also working in the same field, and are blinkered or jealous.

Forks. Thomas Coryate brought a fork back from Italy I n1609, and he was laughed at for eating his food with it, instead of using only a knife. (And there is still the old jingle, ‘I eat my peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on the knife.’

Frozen food. Frederick Tudor was laughed at in 1806 when he had the idea of taking winter ice off Boston ponds to sell in the West Indies, but he became the Ice King, and by 1840, Massachusetts ice was sold as far away as India, China and Australia. In ancient time, ice and snow had been transported to Middle East and Rome , but now it became a modern business. Many years later, after many developments and ruined businessmen such as the Australian James Harrison from Geelong, it was finally discovered how to make ice and freeze food, but there were still too many problems with it. Clarence Birdseye finally managed to invent quick-freezing foods in the 1920s. The Eskimaux of Labrador had been doing for ages up in the Arctic, but it took years to catch on in the developed world, and special marketing campaigns to get the public interested. The first deep-frozen food that I ate apart from icecream was after the second World war.

Lightning conductors were invented by Benjamin Franklin, after some rather dangerous experiments with a kite in a thunderstorm. But some people thought they should not be used on church steeples, because if God meant to strike a church with lightning He should not be stopped. One preacher said that they would cause earthquakes because the electric charge had to come out somewhere.

Metric measures. Even in the 1970s an article in a mathematics journal maintained that it would be impossible to bring metric measures into Australia A few months later metric measures successfully replaced the old Imperial pints, gallons, yards, inches, feet, rods, poles, perches, stones, ounces, pecks and so on that had been set out in tables on the backs of our exercise books for so long, and we thought had been set in stone.

Nursing. Florence Nightingale had a hard battle to get nursing respected as a respectable profession for women who were not nuns.

Paddle and screw-driven ships. John Fitch in USA committed suicide because although his models were successful, he could get no finance to build the ships.

Pasteurised milk developed from Louis Pasteur’s discovery in the 1850s of germs and how heat could kill them. By the end of the 19th century German researchers had the evidence that milk could carry dangerous bacteria and the Emperor decreed that commercial dairies pasteurise milk, but people ‘did not like their milk being messed around with’. In 1890s a German immigrant who had made good opened a milk kitchen in a poor area of New York offering free pasteurised milk , but hardly anyone would take it. So he conducted an experiment. Everyone in one row of streets was given free milk from his kitchen, while everyone in the next row would buy theirs from the usual sellers. Then he documented cases of scarlet fever and diphtheria. The results were so dramatic that New York City soon passed a law requiring commercial dairies to pasteurise milk. But arguments and prejudice continued even up to the second world war. It was held that improved methods of dairying and handling milk were sufficient to reduce risks of bacterial infection.’

Plimsoll line. Samuel Plimsoll MP had to agitate obsessively from 1860 to 1875 to have a simple law passed that there must be a line painted on ships to prevent them being so overloaded that they were ‘coffin-ships’ and sank (sometimes deliberately sent off to sink, for the insurance.)

Razors that were safe. In 1895 King Camp Gillette had the idea of cheap razor blades that could be used and thrown away. However, for six years he struggled to make a very thin strong steel blade that steel experts said was impossible, and his friends laughed at him. When William Nickerson helped him solve the problems of making the blades, and machinery to make them, and Gillette set up a safety razor company in 1901 nobody would buy them. Then in 1903 they produced 168 blades and 51 razors to fit them on. Next year it was 90,000 razors and 124,000 blades. But understandably great opposition continued from makers of ordinary razors and barbers who feared losing trade. Today Gillette razors are promoted in many different models, to shave every possible part of the human body.

Rubber. For ten years from 1834 on, Charles Goodyear was laughed at for trying to solve the problems of how rubber could be produced as a useful product. He suffered one fiasco after another, and he was often in jail for debt. Meredith Hooper comments, ‘If Goodyear had died without succeeding, he would have been forgotten as a crank.’ After five years of desperate experimenting, he finally discovered how to vulcanise rubber so that it did not perish so quickly, but no one would take any notice of him, to help him to develop the process. He feared that the knowledge would die with him, and he was poorer than ever. An acquaintance later admitted, ‘I thought it was silly and boy’s play like, and I used to laugh at it.’ Even when Goodyear had enough money to take out a patent in 1844, an English patent had already been taken out by Thomas Hancock who had managed to develop his ideas sufficiently, and this was followed by imitators and patent infringers as well as continued disbelief that he had indeed invented vulcanisation. At London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, Goodyear received a Grand Council Medal for ‘unique and ingenious designs’ but he earned no money. When he died in 1860 he was still in financial trouble although the public thought he must be a millionaire because Goodyear was now the name on rubber everywhere.


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