Status: Not Hoaxes
A few days ago the Financial Times
ran a brief list of major technological breakthroughs that were either ignored or ridiculed. This raises an interesting issue: the danger of over-skepticism, or dismissing startling new discoveries as hoaxes simply because one refuses to believe that anything new or out-of-the-ordinary can be real. I can't find a link to the FT story, but here's a summary of their list:
The Wright Brothers' discovery of flight:
"When two American bicycle repairmen claimed to have built the world's firstaircraft in 1903, they were dismissed as cranks. Newspapers refused to send reporters or photographers to witness any of the flights. More than two years later, Scientific American magazine was still insisting that the story was a hoax. By that time, the Wright brothers had completed a half-hour flight covering 24 miles."
Steam Turbine Propulsion:
"The claim of Irish engineer Charles Parsons to have developed a radically new form of marine propulsion was scorned by the Admiralty, until his steam turbine vessel made an unauthorised appearance at the 1897 Spithead naval review going at 37 knots - faster than any other vessel in the fleet."
Atoms as a source of energy:
"The idea that atoms could be a source of energy millions of times more potent than coal or oil was dismissed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford as "moonshine"."
Amorphous semiconductor materials:
"During the 1950s, self-taught American physicist Stanford Ovshinsky found a way of creating materials lacking a regular crystal structure - an achievement dismissed as impossible by scientists. They are now standard components in devices ranging from flat-panel displays to solar cells."
"While developing the technology behind the laser, American physicist Charles Townes was approached by two Nobel-Prize-winning colleagues who told him he was wasting his time and threatening their funding. Even after the first laser was built in 1960, it was described as "a solution looking for a problem"."
The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope:
"The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), invented by scientists at IBM in Zurich in the early 1980s, now plays a key role in fields ranging from biology to nanotechnology. But many scientists remained deeply suspicious of the claims made for the STM until its inventors won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1986."
To this list I can add:
Marcus Aurelius Root, a 19th century American photographer, recorded that: "In 1839, and on the very day of the publication of Daguerre's discovery in the Philadelphia daily papers, Dr. Bird, then chemical professor in one of our medical schools, was asked, at a gathering of several scientific men, what he thought of this new method of copying objects with the sunbeam? The Doctor, in a lengthened reply, pronounced the whole report a fabrication--a new edition of the famed "moon-hoax
"--such a performance being, in his view, an intrinsic improbability."
The Duckbilled Platypus.
When George Shaw, keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, examined a specimen of a duckbilled platypus
sent to him from Australia, he wrote that, "it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure."
Of course, all these real discoveries that were regarded as hoaxes provide an endless source of encouragement to all the crackpots who are convinced that their devices for extracting infinite energy from magnets, or using water as a fuel, are similarly misunderstood.