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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.

Everyone Believed Trains Would Rip You Apart in 1825

Photo:  WikiImages/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

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.

The New York Times Attacked the Telephone in the Late 1800s

Photo:  Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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.

Spectator Magazine Bashed the Telegraph in the Late 1800s

Photo:  Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Even the Inventor of the Radio Criticized It in 1940

Photo:  Unidentified photographer. Smithsonian Institution from United States

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.

The Television Became Even Scarier Than the Radio

Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Everything people feared about the radio was amplified with the introduction of the television in 1927. There was a fear that radio would turn people away from reading or having intimate conversations with one another; the television received that very same critique. Media historian Ellen Wartella told Slate that critics of the television insisted it would “hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.”

Poor television was receiving backlash from both sides. Those who feared what technology might do to human interaction were opposed to the television and those who were optimistic about new technology, but had already invested in the world of radio, were afraid the new medium would tarnish their investments.

Filmmakers Pushed to Ban VHS in 1982

Photo: Miramax

Even something as simple as a VHS tape was feared at one point in time, but this fear had little to do with health a lot more to do with greed. It was generally believed that the ability to record films would bring the entire movie industry to its knees. “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone,” Motion Picture Association of America’s Jack Valenti told the US Government in an attempt to get VHS recorders completely banned and taken off the market in 1982. The comparison itself was a bit extreme to say the least, but Valenti didn’t stop there. He doubled down on his statement and insisted that VHS technology would cause the film industry to “bleed and bleed and hemorrhage.”

Authors Coined the Phrase “Computerphobia” in the 1990s

Photo: MGM

Today, almost everyone has a computer in their pocket, but when these machines were first introduced they spread a wave of panic and fear at a rapid pace. This fear of computers was so severe that “computerphobia” became an actual term. A 1996 book titled Women and Computers even explains the variety of phobias that surrounded computer. According to the text, “computerphobia” included everything from the “fear of physically touching the computer or of damaging what’s inside it” to “a reluctance to read or talk about computers.” The book also discusses the crippling fear of believing computers could replace people or enslave society as a whole.

Author Attacks Virtual Reality Back in 1992

Photo: Universal Pictures

Virtual reality has only become available on a widespread consumer level of late, but the fear of this technology extends back more than two decades. “If you are in a virtual world and you have a model of your office and you pick up a virtual shotgun and blow your boss away because it might be amusing, then does that blur the line between activities you do in fantasy and the activities you do in real life,” questioned author Howard Rheingold in 1992.

It’s a concept that lives on even today. There is a widespread concern that virtual reality will cause people to live out violent fantasy which, in theory, would encourage them to carry out those behaviors in their real lives. Other fears of virtual reality fall in line with the usual critique of new technology—a negative impact on social skills and on the overall intelligence of its users.

2015 New York Times Article Led Some to Believe Tech Wearables Cause Cancer

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Wearable technology is constantly being promoted as the future, but before the first smart watch even hit the shelves there was fear that wearable tech would have a negative impact on our health. Once again, the New York Times led the charge in criticizing new technology, publishing an article that seemed to suggest smart watches could cause health issues like cancer. Slate’s Phil Plait was quick to respond and point out that there is still no reliable evidence that suggests wearable technology causes any form of cancer – or any other illness for that matter. The New York Times amended the article with multiple editor’s notes, as well as a headline change, admitting the original (“Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”) “went too far in suggesting any such comparison.”

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