Technology has given us everything from smart TVs that can hear you talking to self-driving cars, but before we became the digitally-driven society we are today, fear of new technology commonly served as one of the greatest threats to innovation. What we see as dated and relatively harmless inventions of the past were once the new technology that people freaked out about. Without an efficient way to educate the masses about the latest, hottest new inventions of their era, paranoia and confusion quickly took the place of logic and curiosity for many consumers. While many of these inventions are now seen as revolutionary and their modern counterparts are a part of our daily lives, there was once a time when these gadgets were some of the most frightening topics of discussion.
The human body can only travel so fast before a person becomes fatally injured. While this is true, the speeds needed to harm the human body are far faster than 30 miles per hour. Back in 1825, nobody knew that. When the Stockton-Darlington Railway opened that year, people insisted trains were an unsafe mode of transportation for people. Cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell explained to the Wall Street Journal that critics of trains believed people would fall victim to gruesome deaths if they hopped on board. Some people believed the body would simply melt, while others insisted limbs would be torn from riders' bodies. Others warned women’s uteruses would fly out if they reached speeds of 50 miles per hour.
We now live in a world where five minutes without a cellphone seems like an eternity, so it’s hard to imagine that at one point many people wanted nothing to do with telephones at all.
When telephones were introduced in the late 1800s, the New York Times was quick to attack. The paper’s critique of the technology included the suggestion that telephones would only be used to invade people’s privacy. One contributor even went so far as to say that the telephone introduced society to a slippery slope where we would soon be “nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.” Other attacks on the telephone insisted that it would make society lazy and anti-social and some even claimed the new technology would be used to communicate with the dead.
When the telegraph was first introduced, critics insisted the new technology would ruin the poetry of the English language. The widespread belief was that by encouraging people to communicate in short, incomplete sentences, the telegraph would eventually train people to always speak in sporadic, choppy thoughts. Criticism of the telegraph was so widespread that it eventually took center stage in a popular magazine of the time. Back in 1889, Spectator magazine released an editorial warning against the “constant diffusion of statements in snippets,” while also observing the “peculiar conversational abbreviations” between two men who were communicating via the telegraph. The same critics would surely be horrified by emojis and chatspeak.
The fear that surrounded the invention of the radio is particularly interesting. While all the items on this list share a common denominator—being feared by the general population, to which radio was no stranger either—the radio was feared by its own inventor, as well. Guglielmo Marconi believed he had perfected “wireless technology” back in 1895 but more than two decades would go by before Marconi’s technology would be used to broadcast to the masses, rather than to just one other individual.
This is what made Marconi second guess his technological contribution. In an undelivered speech given to Sir James Irvine and later referred to in an article published by The Herald in 1940, Marconi asked himself if he had “done the world good” or just “added a menace?” Marconi explained that he only intended for his invention to improve communication between ships at sea. Even he never saw the true potential the radio introduced in terms of broadcasting content across an entire region.