Strange Statements and Apocryphal Claims

They make you think, “Wait, they said that?”

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You and I were born into a world where space travel has been done many times, and air travel, cars, and drones, are business-as-usual. But there was a time when these technologies were non-existent. And at that time, people made some predictions and statements that made me react by saying, “They said that?” I share three of those claims in this post.

The Parable of the Horseshit

In the 1890s, New Yorkers thought their future would be filled with animal dung. (In fact, not only that but also dead horses.) This is more commonly known as The Great Manure Crisis and termed “The Parable of the Horseshit” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. One of the predictions was that by the 1930s, New York City would be filled with horse dung up to three stories high.

Photo by LSE Library on Unsplash

Wait, they said that?

At that time, the most popular mode of transport especially in big cities like New York and London were horses. New York had up to 150,000 horses living there. Horses work daily and guess what, horses poop daily too. They did so, dropping an average of 20 to 30 pounds of dung each per day. Kolbert quotes “the streets were literally carpeted with a warm brown matting.. smelling to heaven.” It was natural to enthusiastically think that their city was in crisis where they literally could be buried under all that dung.

Fortunately, New York and London didn’t have to live through such a crisis as Henry Ford mass-produced cars only a few decades later. By 1912, cars outnumbered horses in New York. Shortly after (by 1917), horses were out of the transport industry in that city.

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible

Photo by Skyler Smith on Unsplash

Of all the people who doubted humanity’s ambition of aviation, the most famous one is probably Lord Kelvin. This is interesting because Lord Kelvin was a clever man, an expert in his field with astonishing achievements. In 1895, he said “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

Wait, he said that?

Why was there so much scepticism? During this time, people were used to hot air balloons but have never seen air planes. The prevalent designs of air travel were mostly flapping wings. Furthermore, we needed a power source stronger than slowly burning liquefied gas that is used for hot air balloons.

It turns out the machines that flew needed a gliding mechanism, not flapping. Eight years after Lord Kelvin said this statement, he was disproved by the Wright Brothers with their first successful flight in North Carolina. In addition, the combustion engine had already been invented. That had progressed the production of what we know now as the airplane.

Today, an average airplane, like the Boeing 737–800 has a maximum take-off weight of 80,000 kg, half of it for plane itself, a quarter for the fuel and a quarter for people. So much for the impossible.

Everything that can be invented has been invented... in 1901

Photo by Ramón Salinero on Unsplash

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” This was reportedly said by Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the US Patent Office from 1898 to 1901.

Wait, he said that?

It was a good story circling around for a time because he was thought to have said that applications for patents would dry up and his office would no longer be needed. It also makes for a good point that people believe bizarre things.

Actually, it turns out he didn’t say this. What he did say was quite the opposite — “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold." Now this statement seemed plausible for someone who has overseen applications for patents for a living.

I find such statements interesting and reflective of how humans make sense of technological progress. Unfortunately or fortunately for our entertainment these days, it does not take much to find strange statements and apocryphal claims. Just go on Twitter.

Mathematics, books, and writing | With a penchant for self-reflection | Born and raised in the Philippines, lived in New Zealand, based in London

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