5 Groundbreaking Inventions that Were Shockingly Underappreciated in Their Time

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Human history was built on the tension between our natural curiosity and inventiveness, and our natural suspicion of the unknown. But sometimes, the latter prevents us from recognizing a good idea even when it smacks us upside the head. Or keeps us dry in the rain. Or is a literal light bulb.

Below are 5 inventions that didn’t get the recognition they deserved when they were first introduced.

The light bulb

The light bulb has become a universal symbol of good ideas, but when Edison first came out with his model, some people were less than impressed. In 1878, a British Parliament Committee declared that the light bulb was “good enough for our Transatlantic friends… but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”

A chief engineer for the British Post Office also called electric lights “an absolute ignis fatuus” — a will o’ the wisp, a sham.

Talk about getting left in the dark.

Fighter jets

For much of human history, people have dreamed of being able to fly. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made that dream come true with the first functioning airplane.

Some people, however, thought they were useless. Ferdinand Foch, a French general and commander during World War I, called them “interesting scientific toys” and said they were of no military value.

Needless to say, the air force is now a cornerstone of every modern army.

Umbrellas

A portable cover that protects you from the rain. One might think this invention was a no-brainer, especially since parasols had existed for literally thousands of years, but it took until the 18th century for Europeans to start using them in the rain. The word parasol means “stops the sun” in French. In 17th century France, women began to carry parasols covered with wax, and by the 18th century they were used against the rain as well, and the word parapluie — “stops the rain” — entered the dictionary.

But since the parasol had been primarily a women’s fashion accessory, English men balked at the concept of carrying them. Around the year 1750, Jonas Hanway became the first Englishman to brave the streets with an umbrella in hand. He was subjected to a lot of ridicule and teasing before people finally realized that maybe there were better ways to express one’s manliness than getting sopping wet.

Shopping carts

Until the late 1930s, shoppers had to carry their groceries around the store in baskets. They were bulky and cumbersome, and limited the amount of merchandise a customer could purchase to the amount he or she could carry at once.

Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma, sought a solution to these problems, and eventually came up with the design for one of the first shopping carts.

It took a while to catch on, though. Apparently, men saw the shopping cart as unmanly (we’re sensing a theme here…) while women saw it as just another carriage they’d have to push. In a 1977 interview with CBS, Goldman said, “The housewives, most of them had decided, ‘No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.’ And the men would say, ‘You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?’ and he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.”

Goldman understood that getting people to use his invention would require a shift in social norms. So he hired good-looking men and women to walk around in his stores pushing shopping carts. This strategy proved effective, and the rest is history.

Coffee

It is believed that coffee was first drunk by Sufi Muslims to help them stay alert during their nighttime devotions. The beverage became more widespread in the 15th and 16th centuries, and by the 17th century, it was becoming popular in Europe.

Not everyone approved, however. For a short period in the 16th century, it was banned by conservative imams at a theological court in Mecca for its stimulating effects. In the 17th century, when coffee reached Venice, it was condemned by local clergy. Eventually, this conflict was resolved when Pope Clement VIII took upon himself the dubious task of sampling this “Devil’s drink” to see just how dangerous it was. Reportedly, he declared that it was so delicious, it would be a shame to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.

Thanks to the Pope’s blessing, coffeehouses spread throughout Europe, and women — who were banned from these establishments — began to resent them. In 1674, an anonymous “well-willer” published The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, arguing that coffeehouses lured men away from their homes and families and caused them to neglect their domestic duties, all for “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.”

The author even claimed that coffee “made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought, so much so that the offspring of our mighty ancestors would dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies.” In other words, that it made them impotent. These claims were also made in an earlier pamphlet from 1663, The Maiden’s Complaint Against Coffee. And they weren’t just wild inventions meant to scare men away from the stuff: according to the prevailing health theories of the period, coffee “dried up” the humors and therefore decreased libido.

The petition did not go unanswered. Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was published later that year, and it claimed — in a little too much detail — the exact opposite.

Well, we don’t know about coffee’s aphrodisiacal properties, but since women were granted equal access to coffeehouses, the objections seem to have evaporated.

So, to summarize, here are three easy steps to getting the world to embrace your brilliant yet underappreciated invention:

  1. Don’t show it to British people. Or French generals.
  2. Do let the Pope sample it.
  3. Abolish gender inequality.

Discover more fascinating information about the inventions of yesteryear in our historical newspaper collection!

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