I have recently been dipping into a book called Imagination and a Pile of Junk (“A droll history of inventors and inventions”) by Trevor Norton. The chapter ‘Full Steam Ahead’ deals with the development of the steam locomotive. The following excerpt describes popular (mis)conceptions about steam travel in the 1820s or thereabouts:
“For a generation that knew of nothing faster than a galloping horse, speed was a concern. Stephenson assured a House pf Commons committee that his trains would run at a stately 12 mph (19 kph). He lied, of course: he had no choice because ‘experts’ prophesied that travelling at more than 20 mph (32 kph) would suck all the air from your lungs or you would go mad. Even watching the landscape rush by would damage your eyes. The hiss and clank of the engine would cause women to miscarry and leave the male traveller ‘in a state of confusion that it is well if he recovers in a week.’ Daily commuting would be out of the question.
Even innocent bystanders were in danger. A passing train could wilt vegetables in the fields, kill birds in flight and dry up a cow’s udders. An objector collared Stephenson on the danger of a cow on the line with a train approaching. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘that would be a very awkward circumstance.’ ‘Aye,’ Stephenson replied, ‘very awkward… for the cow.’
… A cartoon captioned ‘The Pleasures of the Railroad’ depicted an exploding locomotive with detached limbs flying in all directions from the torsos of surprised passengers… It took the public some time to get used to the speed of trains. Some believed that the locomotive really did get bigger as the train approached. Others leapt from the carriage when they were close to their destination and were rewarded with a broken leg or worse. When the train reached 23 mph (37 kph) a passenger found it ‘frightful… it is impossible to divert yourself of the notion of instant death for all.’ Nevertheless, the public soon learned to sit back and enjoy the thrill of speeding ‘swifter than a bird… when I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful.’” pp. 30-31, Imagination and a Pile of Junk by Trevor Norton.
What busy, urgent inner lives we humans have. We are blessed with the imagination to come up with innovative ideas alongside the capacity to play out lively scenarios of risk and doom within the confines of that same imagination. As a species we veer between pushing back the boundaries and being terrified of the monsters that live under our beds.
I guess most new things have to run the gamut of suspicion and wild surmise before they get the chance to be accepted. Being sensible about risk is an important survival trait our species has had to develop over the millennia but in the worst case scenario, risk aversion kills off new things before they even get off the ground.
What do you think? Have you had experience with seeing some new invention or innovation challenged or even undermined by undue amounts of caution or scepticism? How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water?