The document was produced by the Legislative Reference Service — what we today call the Congressional Research Service — and it is a compilation of some of history’s most spectacularly wrong forecasts. (Why “multilith”? That refers to the printing process used to produce such publications.)
I learned of the report from Dennis Chesters and Cynthia Lockley of Adelphi, Md. Dennis is a retired NASA scientist. Cynthia is a senior fellow of the Society for Technical Communication. They are curious who commissioned the report — and why — and wondered if I could find out.
We’ll get to that, but first, here’s a taste of “The Erroneous Predictions Multilith.” It starts in 1486 with the royal committee that advised the king and queen of Spain not to fund a numskull named Christopher Columbus. Sailing west to Asia, the committee insisted, would take an impossibly long three years. And, besides, there was nothing between Europe and that destination but a vast, featureless ocean.
Speaking of vast and featureless, nearly 400 years later, New York Rep. Orange Ferriss couldn’t believe the United States paid Russia $7 million for the Alaska Territories. “Of what possible commercial importance can this territory be to us?” he fumed in Congress.
In 1892, Alabama Rep. Hilary A. Herbert wanted to “put in the knife” into funding for the U.S. Geological Survey. Herbert said the agency wasn’t necessary to “carry on the government” and it didn’t contribute to “the protection of life or liberty or property.”
Rep. Henry C. Snodgrass of Tennessee felt the same way about establishing the National Zoo. “I do not believe the American people, hundreds and thousands of whom are today without homes, ought to be taxed to afford shelter and erect homes for snakes, raccoons, opossums, bears and all the creeping and slimy things of the earth,” he said in 1892.
Three decades earlier, Sen. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania wondered why Congress was being asked to fund the Smithsonian Institution. “I am tired of all this thing called science here,” Cameron said.
Wrong calls on technology make especially delicious reading now.
Writing about airplanes in the March 1904 issue of Popular Science Monthly, Octave Chanute proclaimed: “The machines will eventually be fast, they will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers.”
Astronomer William H. Pickering didn’t see much of a future for airplanes, either. Replace Atlantic steamships with passenger airplanes? Pshaw!
Said Pickering: “It seems safe to say that such ideas must be wholly visionary, and even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could own his own yacht.”
Capitalists with their own yachts made me think of today’s space-obsessed billionaires. And space, I think, is what prompted the creation of the report. It was compiled by a Legislative Reference Service researcher named Nancy T. Gamarra, who wrote other reports of a technical nature.
She prepared it at the behest of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. The first draft came out in 1967. A revised draft was issued in 1969. My guess is that someone on the committee was getting grief from constituents about the cost of the U.S. space program. “The Erroneous Predictions Multilith” was a way to silence critics: You don’t want to go into space? What if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue?
This is only a guess because the current policy of the Congressional Research Service is to treat all research requests as confidential. I can see why. I bet a bunch of senators and representatives are even now badgering CRS with “How do I delete — I mean really delete — my browser history and all of my text messages?”
It would be just awful if the names of those congresspeople were made public.
Anyway, back to the report. In 1839, the French surgeon Alfred Velpeau wrote that he saw no future for anesthesia, insisting that “ ‘Knife’ and ‘pain’ are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.”
There’s even a section on early opposition to vaccination. Edward Jenner’s attempts to use relatively harmless cowpox to prevent deadly smallpox prompted one 18th-century doctor to complain: “Smallpox is a visitation from God, but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation of our holy religion.”
The more things change, eh?
Isaac Newton said that he was able to make his discoveries only by standing upon the shoulders of giants. All too often, we have to stand under the heels of idiots.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.