« Act 1. Scene 4 | Main | My Shed, My Home »

Useful And Fantastic: People They Laughed At - 6

Val Yule, firmly committed to the belief that new ideas should be tried out rather than being laughed at, continues her list of inventions and organisations which were at first scorned.

Salvation Army

The first Salvationists were ridiculed and persecuted.
Sewerage. London was a filthy city 250 years ago. Sewage ran down the gutters and into the river, where the drinking water came from. It took three severe cholera epidemics between 1831-1953 before Chadwick could get the authorities to agree to try his scheme for water supply and sewerage. It is sewerage rather than medicines that may be the major reason for world-wide improvement in public health today.

Sewing machines

French crowds in the early nineteenth century thought that Barthelemy Thimmonier was mad spending four years trying to make a machine sew. Eventaully he had a machines that could sew 200 stitches a minute, while a tailor at top speed could only sew 30 stitches. Nevertheless, Thimmonier died poor and broken-hearted. His machines were hated and destroyed because although they saved so much tedious eye-straining labor, they were seen as taking jobs. When Elias Howe patented a machine in 1846, no one was interested in buying it, tho it raced successfully against hand sewers. His first machines were expensive and not very efficient, and his misfortunes were extreme. Eventually he became rich but his wife had died while they were poor and he himself died at forty-eight. It was Isaac Singer who finally produced really sewing machine, making several brilliant improvements and selling models as cheap as $23, with worldwide advertising and persistent salesmen. But he still had to face the prejudice that women were too stupid to be able to work a machine.

Shearing machines

Frederick Wolseley started trying to make a shearing machine in Australia in 1872 and by 1885 his model was winning competitions against manual shearers - but of course the opposition was serious, with fears of losing jobs. He could not sell his idea or his machine until 1888 when a big sheep station took it up in 1888. (One of his mechanics was Herbert Austin, later the famous car manufacturer in England.)

Solar energy and wind-power are still widely rejected.

Space travel

People ridiculed the idea of going to the moon right up to 1964 when the first astronauts actually landed on it. To say something was impossible, the proverb was, “People will get to the moon first”.


People who have wanted to improve English spelling have been ridiculed for 200 years, although surely it is the unpredictable wayward spelling itself that deserves the ridicule. Yet every other major language in the world has made a major or minor improvement of its writing system in the past 150 years. It would be perfectly posibl as a start to drop surplus letters to help all lerners and bad spellers. Or sumtiem copi esi pijin speling as in Papua Niugini.


William Symington’s steam ships were banned in 1802, though they had been successful against strong headwinds on the Forth and the Clyde canal. His dream of steamships crossing the Atlantic was derided. In 1819 an American ship made the crossing.


Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code, patented the telegraph in 1837 but it was ridiculed until 1842.


Alexander Bell was laughed at for the telephone he invented. Some businessmen even said it was unnecessary, because they sent messenger boys.


People had the idea of making a typewriter, long before it was possible to make one that worked properly. It took dozens of inventors and hundreds of experiments over 150 years before there was a practical model. The Scholes typewriter was invented over many years of trial, with the advantage of a friend and supporter who pushed him over the continual disappointments and insisted that he kept on trying. It was fast, and it used the QWERTY keyboard that was designed so that the keys that were used most often would not jam if the typing was too fast (making it inefficient now that this is no problem Mark Twain thought the idea of typing was great, although he himself never got faster than 12 words a minute, and used it for only one manuscript. The Remington typewriter at first met no success at all. Why, a pen cost only one penny and it was insulting to send a typed letter, because that was like saying that the recipient could not read. Typewriters only became popular when they started to be used in offices and women realised they could get a job if they were ‘typewriters’. And that was how women got into offices which had previously been all male apart from the cleaners.

Pneumatic tyres

Invented in 1846 by Scotsman Robert William Thomson, who tested them successfully London’s Hyde Park. But nobody was interested and Thomson has been forgotten.


Parasols could be carried by ladies as sun-shades, or held over Indian rajahs when they rode on elephants, but as for umbrellas for men to carry in the rain! “Those who wish not to be confounded with the vulgar, prefer the risk of getting wet . . for the umbrella is a sign of having no carriage.” In 1772 an English man carried an umbrella out in the rain and it is said that women were frightened, children threw stones and horses bolted. Jonas Hanway,1712-1786, was ridiculed when took up the practice in London, until a notable dandy turned it into a fashionable thing to do. The fashion then went to the other extreme. Well into the twentieth century all respectable English businessmen had to wear dark suits and bowler hats and carry furled umbrellas. There’s a famous cartoon in Punch by Emmett, of these conventional businessmen turned out over the wild Devonshire coast when their commuter train was diverted from Clapham. (An eccentric Frenchman in 1786 in Paris carried a wire dangling from his umbrella to the earth, trailing behind him as a miniature lightning conductor. Indeed I have often wondered whether the metal spike on top of umbrellas is not just for impaling others, but also to add a frisson of danger. )

Vacuum cleaner

There were many preliminary models before James Murray Spangler, ‘a poor, sick unsuccessful inventor’ invented the Electrical Vacuum Carpet Sweeper for handy portable domestic use. William Henry Hoover bought the rights to manufacture it, but it took a while for people to realise the advantages of a vacuum cleaner. ‘They were too used to the dreadful drudgery of cleaning with duster, brushers and by carpet beating’. I remember the ritual of carpet beating at Scotland in 1933! But vacuum cleaners were dramatically vindicated when an epidemic of spotted fever at the Crystal Palace barracks was stopped by vacuuming 26 tons of dust from the building. It took two weeks.

Women’s suffrage

Mary Wollstonecraft and Emmeline Pankhurst were among the women subjected to ridicule and worse in seeking votes for women.

Tinned food

The Emperor Napoleon said, ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and soldiers usually took their food from the poor countrysides that they marched through. Napoleon gave a prize of 12,000 francs to Nicolas Appert for inventing how to preserve foods in glass. However, there were many problems until the development of tinplate and better understanding of how to prevent food going bad inside the tins or jars. Manufacturers would ignore what scientists told them and use their own secret methods and fight against supervision. So there were horror stories, and the public took a long time to forget the horror stories of the past.

Zippers (slide fastener)

Whitcomb L. Judson’s first attempts were in 1891, but he had to use door-to-door pedlars who sold them as novelties. Manufacturers were not interested in the idea. It took a long time to get the zipper working right and then a long time to invent a machine that could make it. Zippers were finally perfected into practical use by Gideon Sunback in 1912. Clothing manufacturers still opposed them until the Goodrich Co took them up in 1913. Then in 1918 an inventor showed the US army a flying suit that he had invented which happened to use the fastener. The only thing that did not go to bits when the suit was tested was the fastener. A navy officer ordered ten thousand.


Web-page : http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/socinvent.htm


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.