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Useful And Fantastic: People They Laughed At - 9

Val Yule, a person who welcomes innovation, emphases that new ideas should be carefully tested before being greedily rushed into production.

People They Should Have Laughed At

A poet wrote:

The saddest words of tongue or pen -
It might have been..

Equally sad, and sometimes even more so, are the words “It seemed a good idea at the time.”

The worst and most disastrous reason for ‘It seemed a Good idea at the time’ has usually been greed.

Many big financial schemes driven by greed have eventually blown up and collapsed. Greed drove the people of ancient Athens to send a great armada to capture the rich city of Syracuse. The Athenian fleet that never came back, and Athens itself was destroyed.

Greed blew up the South Sea Bubble century, also the Dutch Tulip craze three hundred years ago. And still people are suckers to enormous fiascos. Even governments have fallen to the wiles of conmen and charismatic financiers. thinking to gain vast riches. Bonanza, Boom and Bust have been the stories. When Uncle Scrooge McDuck in the Walt Disney comic has dollar signs in his eyes he is a blind sucker for anything.

The second reason for falling for ideas that Seemed a Good idea at the time’ has been failure to consider possible consequences.

Other reasons have been, as Hitler found, that people are much more likely to be fooled by a big lie than a little lie, by a big idea than a little idea. Instead of starting with a little pilot trial, companies and governments have invested their millions in some vast schemes that turn out to be badly thought out, overlooking vital factors - such as many early settlements in the New Worlds to the British big Groundnuts scheme in Africa. Hubris is a common factor.

When everyone is agreed on a course of action, it can be hard for individuals not to join in. And so Hans Andersen’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, when only a little child dared to recognise that the Emperor had been cheated by his fabricating tailors and had no clothes on at all.

Other reasons why ideas should have been laughed at have been that ideals can break on the rocks of corruption and plain nasty human behaviour. Hundreds of idealistic communes have been set up to be new gardens of Eden but not taken account that even there, people do not need a serpent to squabble and make mistakes and end up like the desert island children inWilliam Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.

It is possible for the most idealistic of social systems to become murderous as the idealists become power-hungry, ending up as corrupted as that which they sought to replace. This is the fable of George Orwell’s animal farm, when the animals rise against their farmer overlords, led by the pigs, who pretty soon walk on their two feet as the overlords themselves. Soviet Russia and the Pol Pot regime were not originally intended to be what they became.

This is not to say that a humane, just and prosperous society will always be impossible - but that it cannot be implemented like a grand dream that ignores human nature, nor by means that are not humane and just as well.

Here are two inventions to make us pause. People were so eager for inventions to blow up obstructions in construction work, and a kill-all insecticide, that the likely consequences of dynamite and the possible consequences of the insecticide were not well considered.


Governments were delighted wih it. The use of the insecticide increased stocks and enabled population increases. But then it was found that animals, including humans, were collecting DDT in their bodies. It was killing creatures which ate other creatures. Even seals and penguins in the Antarctic now have DDT in their fat.

Nowadays DDT is considered a dangerous pollutant, but itis still used widely in tropical countries because other chemicals are too specialised or too costly.


People were very greedy for Alfred Nobel’s Safety Blasting Powder. In 1846 Italian Ascanio Soberor invented an explosive so dangerous he begged everyone to forget about it. Nobel was curious and in 1863 invented the blasting cap for safe detonation but the public was very suspicious about it, and an experiment in 1864 killed his young brother and severely injured his father.

In 1863 Nobel discovered a way to tame nitroglycerine, calling his invention dynamite. He had a hard time getting it patented and developed. Gunpowder manufacturers tried to stop it, and others tried to pirate it. But everyone wanted to use it and he died a multimillionaire

New ideas should be carefully tested.


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