8 Hilarious Historical Fears That Seriously Delayed Progress
There are two equally dumb ways to think about the future. There's either blind optimism that every single change is for the better ("The invention of the atomic bomb will surely end the concept of war forever!") or blind panic that every new innovation will send society into a tailspin. But, while it makes sense to get worried when scientists start breeding strains of genetically modified, superintelligent flying spiders, there have been panics about even the most mundane, common-sense advancements. For example ...
They Said Street Lighting Would Destroy Our Concept of Day and Night
For millennia, the nights belonged to murderers, perverts, and thieves. Back when sunset was regarded with as much unease in the real world as it is in Minecraft today, people would scurry back to their homes, lock their doors, and hide under the covers, with candles lit as, presumably, life outside resembled a scene from The Purge. That was until cities came up with the idea of street lighting, which was originally achieved by installing gas lamps along city streets. Beyond the public safety benefits, there was just the fact that you could finally leave your house without carrying a flaming torch with you, as if you were on your way to storm Frankenstein's castle.
"Either an angry mob's coming to burn down my house,
or Steve from down the street needed to go get milk."
Yet, many authorities opposed the idea for reasons ranging from health concerns to theological implications. For one thing, people were afraid that keeping cities lit up after the sun went down would create a health crisis, as citizens staying up past their cosmically-dictated bedtime would cause them to catch cold. To be fair, people on the cusp of the 18th century could be forgiven for not realizing that's not how colds work, and they actually weren't too far off the mark in predicting a sleep-deprived future (if only they could have foreseen Netflix's reckless policy of auto-playing the next episode in a series -- we have to get to work, goddammit!).
But then, there was the Catholic Church, who opposed street lighting on the grounds that God very clearly established the delineation between night and day, and putting lights up after sundown was like spitting right in Jesus' face, while cats chase dogs and giant wieners ladle mustard over screaming human beings. In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI went so far as to ban gas lighting in Papal states, fearing that the extra hours of visibility might enable rebellion against the church.
"We were going to rebel during the day, but this is so much more scenic."
Unsurprisingly, he was unable to fight one of the most basic and obvious advancements of human civilization, and, today, we're able to complain about too much light while we're trying to get some goddamn sleep. (WHY DO ALL OF OUR ELECTRONICS HAVE BRIGHT BLUE LED LIGHTS?!? That shit lights up the whole house!)
Allied Pilots Were Forbidden to Wear Parachutes Because of "Cowardice"
On a list of essential equipment for a fighter pilot, a parachute would probably be at the top, much like a hard hat for construction workers, or "a water bottle filled with vodka" for kindergarten teachers. This was doubly true during WWI, when we had just figured out how to mount planes with guns to kill other planes. But, while the Central Powers had no qualms with their pilots bailing out to fight another day, Allied commanders outright forbade parachutes for their men, fearing the possible pussifying effects such life-saving measures could have.
"My plane's fine, but I just remembered that the new Nicolas Sparks book came out today."
Allied commanders, overall, were massive dicks about "cowardice" among enlisted men. Their belief was that if a pilot knew he had even a chance of surviving by bailing out, he would be less likely to try and save the war effort a few bucks by attempting to return his burning, shot-up aircraft back to a friendly airfield to be salvaged. A much better solution, apparently, was to maintain a constant and intimate relationship with the Spectre of Death.
And because WWI-era biplanes were constructed mainly of wood, canvas, and a priest's blessing, getting into the air and landing safely was basically a miracle to begin with. Pilots were often instructed to deal with issues such as "wings on fire" by maneuvering the plane -- so as to extinguish the flames with that timeless fire-fighting technique, "blowing on it a lot."
Snoopy actually died a thousand grim deaths in these death traps.
With parachutes banned, many pilots were reduced to falling back on the only real alternative to burning alive and praying that the fall killed them quickly -- they carried a service revolver in the cockpit, with a bullet in the chamber. Knowing that, each time they took to the air, it was likely that they would have to commit suicide a mile above the ground (which you have to assume had a somewhat negative effect on morale). Still, this policy remained Allied practice for the entire war and several years afterward. German pilots, on the other hand, shamelessly used parachutes since 1916. And if you wonder how that crippled their air force, you can just ask anyone who got their ass kicked by the Red Baron -- if they weren't all dead. You know, from old age, if nothing else.
Some Feared Lightning Rods Impeded God's Wrath
Humanity has always lived under the tyranny of lightning, which, from the days of Zeus, has been regarded a clear and direct "fuck you" from heaven. Then, in 1749, American statesman, inventor, and certified pimp Benjamin Franklin struck back with the "Franklin rod," which, given Ben Franklin's legendary randiness, is a double entendre we wish we came up with.
Franklin's lightning rods raised a giant middle finger to the heavens, redirecting its bolts harmlessly into the ground. However, this was a time when lightning was still basically seen as the responsibility of demons, and the lightning rods were accused of causing a 1755 earthquake in Massachusetts, due to redirecting these demonic emissions into Earth's crust. Similarly, in Bohemia, priest Prokop Divis had independently invented lightning rods, installing several throughout nearby villages; they were soon accused of causing droughts by somehow shocking moisture out of the earth.
And, let's be honest, they probably got some people thinking of boners.
In 1756, Divis' lightning rods were torn down by angry peasant mobs. Meanwhile, in Boston, Franklin's were denounced by Protestant clergy as "heretical rods" that invited divine punishment upon the city by providing lightning with a path of least resistance, thereby preventing God's wrath from smiting its intended sinners.
Ironically, these bolts of righteous fury always seemed to bypass nearby pubs, gambling dens, and whorehouses to hit churches instead, which were usually the tallest buildings in any given town, and often had giant, metal, lightning-teasing bells in their towers. In 1769, for example, the tower of the church of San Nazaro in Italy, after refusing to install a rod for years, was struck by lightning, igniting the 200,000-plus pounds of gunpowder hidden within, killing 3,000 people, leveling up to one-fifth of the city of Brescia, and briefly launching the entire tower into the air. Although, this might have been a positive thing, if we're suspicious about why a church was hoarding 200,000 pounds of gunpowder in the first place.
Gunpowder Plot II: Literally an Electric Boogaloo
To the shock of no one (except, of course, those who had actually been shocked to death), churches soon began to install lightning rods as a basic precaution.
Lawsuits Insist Wind Turbines Can Cause Anxiety and Nausea
Wind power provides countries such as Denmark and Germany with anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of their energy production, all without polluting the environment (except for the gooey bird slurry at the base of each windmill). But, within some places such as the United States and Australia, plans to build wind turbines are opposed for fear of a health boogeyman referred to as "wind turbine syndrome."
According to sufferers, being close to wind turbines can trigger a whole plethora of vague symptoms such as vertigo, anxiety, heart palpitations, nausea, and forgetfulness. Also, according to scientific research, it's not a thing that exists, despite dozens of court cases attempting to argue that their vague feelings of unease are attributable to the malice of a giant fan.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the oxygen ...
Self-proclaimed victims theorize that it's the low-frequency hum of the blades, often too low to actually be perceived by human ears, that is disrupting their bodily harmony. To test this theory, scientists educated a bunch of people on the supposed dangers of low-frequency sounds and then put them in a room and either blasted them with real "infrasound," or total silence that they were told was infrasound. The result was that people recorded a spike in anxiety whether they were exposed to the sound or just believed they had been.
This means that "wind turbine syndrome" is probably just the "nocebo effect," which is the asshole brother of the placebo effect. Whereas the placebo effect is a neat feature in human psychology that means just believing that we took real medicine can make us feel better, the unfortunate counter-effect is: just believing that something harmless can make us feel sick makes that come true as well. Nobody can convince wind-farm protesters, though, who are sometimes so vocal in their opposition that they burn goddamn wicker turbines in effigy.
"All this smoke is way better for our health!"
And some politicians are taking the bait, such as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who repeatedly insists that "more research" needs to be done on the matter before the nation commits to blighting the natural landscape with wind farms -- as opposed to natural, healthy, visually appealing coal smoke.
Polyphonic Music Was Called a Tool of the Devil
In the early medieval church, the only music you were allowed to play in Jesus' house was solemn Gregorian chant, which, while beautiful in its own way, is strictly monophonic -- that is, everyone is always singing the same note at the same time. Because the only appropriate way to worship the Lord in song was through carefully measured, orderly notes, all lined up in a sensible row. But, in the 13th and 14th centuries, there came a theological crisis as young, liberal musicians began infecting the church's sanctity with the Devil's noise: polyphonic music. That is, there was more than one instrument involved, and they were all doing their own thing like some kind of out-of-control ear orgy. You might recognize this as pretty much the basis of all music today, except for your watch alarm.
Whoa there, buddy, don't interrupt God's jam.
Pope John XXII immediately laid down a ban on polyphonic melodies, insisting that they "intoxicate the ear without satisfying it." They would also create a "sensuous and indecent atmosphere" at Mass, fearing that, moments after the band started playing one of these hip, disorderly hymns, the whole congregation would be rolling around naked among the pews and smearing filth on each other like a birthday party at Caligula's house. And, no, in case you're wondering, there is nothing about this in the Bible.
"Jesus wept because that rift was just so sick."
The ban on "lascivious, impure" polyphonic music was largely upheld until the mid-1500s, when Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli" was composed. A performance of the polyphonic Mass blew the Vatican's robes off, and Pope Marcellus II decided that this Mass, written in his honor, was too beautiful to keep from the people. So the modern church, and modern music, should take a moment to thank Marcellus for his fine taste and narcissism.
Critics Worry the Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Barrier Might Look Ugly
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular suicide destinations in the world, which is not a claim to fame that San Francisco prints on its travel brochures. Between 50 and 100 people try to jump to their death per year, and although not everyone succeeds in their attempt (water tends to break your fall better than concrete), 2013 saw a record death toll for the bridge, with 46 successful suicides.
This is when the city said enough was enough and earmarked $76 million to construct a safety net under the bridge that would catch would-be suicides and potentially save dozens of lives every year. Unfortunately, the plan has been held back by resistance from the community. Why would people oppose a suicide net on the world's most popular suicide bridge? Because it might look kind of tacky. After polling the progressive, life-affirming citizens of San Francisco about their thoughts on the project, most respondents wholly rejected the plan due to the fear that it might mar the perfect aesthetics of the bridge. So what if it has a reputation far worse than history's most prolific serial killers? As one commenter put it, that's "not the bridge's fault."
We're sure the bridge was lying awake at night, worrying about that.
One of the most popular arguments is that people who choose to commit suicide are going to do it anyway, no matter what fancy precautions you put in place to stop them. But, the research shows this simply isn't true -- suicide is most often an impulse decision. In the specific case of bridges, it's been demonstrated that, when people are deterred from jumping due to a barrier or net, the vast majority of them abort their suicide plans -- even if there's another, unsecured bridge just a few blocks down the road.
Of course, if you're really concerned about people committing suicide in the first place, a much worse method is probably to raise a fuss about how their lives are worth much less than keeping a bridge from possibly looking a bit silly.
"But why would you want to kill yourself when you live in a world with such a beautiful bridge?"
Early Cyclists Were Warned About "Bicycle Face"
The Victorian Age saw a revolution in recreation with the invention of the "velocipede," which is what they used to call a bicycle and what we wish it still was called. Victorians of all classes were thrilled with the idea of a mode of transport much more efficient than trying to walk anywhere in 10 layers of encumbering clothing, while still staying fit.
Women, in particular, were liberated by the conveyance, but the sight of gals riding around with reckless abandon, unaccompanied by men, created a litter problem with all the popped-out monocles covering the streets. Soon, doctors began to warn that this devilish contraption was dangerous, specifically due to a potential health condition that they, in all seriousness, called "bicycle face."
Which, today, is the face someone makes when he or she is about to hear
people talk about their organic diet without being asked.
Their thinking was that, due to a woman's unique inability to competently work any kind of device with moving parts, or really maintain basic human motor function without fainting onto a strategically positioned couch, the complicated task of keeping balance on a bicycle while, at the same time, trying to work the pedals would wreak havoc on her dainty posture, and the stress of it would permanently disfigure her face. The horrors of bicycle face included lady cyclists developing pale complexions, tight lips, dark shadows around the eyes, and a permanently weary expression, owing to the intense concentration required just to stay alive.
Some more egalitarian medical practitioners tried to reform the bicycle design, such as the position of the handlebars, in an attempt to make them more accessible to women without transforming them into hideous trolls, but others recommended that you simply didn't let your woman near the bicycles if you wanted to remain able to look at her in daylight.
Aieee! Begone, foul beast!
And, in case your lady simply insisted on maintaining her quaint, aesthetically dangerous hobby, newspapers ran columns of advice for women to enjoy their velocipedes to minimal negative effect -- advice such as "don't scream if you see a cow" and "try not to ask every man you see what he thinks of your bloomers." Man, you have to admit, misogyny in the 1800s could be kind of adorable ... like a really stupid kitten.
But, even this paled in comparison to the fact that ...
It Was Claimed That Traveling by Train Could Disintegrate People
In the 1820s, humanity's pipe dream of traveling vast distances in a cramped, heavily polluting sardine tin on wheels was realized with the invention of the steam locomotive. It is impossible to overstate how huge this was -- the ability to travel and/or move goods at a speed faster than a pack animal trotting changed everything. Plus, you suddenly could visit faraway places, without worrying about getting bogged down in the prairie and having to eat your fellow passengers.
Not everyone was thrilled, however. Specifically, people were worried about the effects that traveling at blistering, unfathomable speeds of up to 20 mph would have on the frail human body. Anti-train propagandists warned that climbing aboard one of these death traps could, at worst, cause the human body to disintegrate under the stress of traveling at speeds that, these days, would make you want to pull a gun on the car in front of you. It was feared that men would asphyxiate, and women would suffer a more violent death due to their more fragile assembly.
That's not steam; that's the fine mist of human bodies.
In fact, there were even concerns that merely witnessing a vehicle traveling at a school-zone pace would damage the environment and reduce people to madness. The fear was that a train moving at more than 20 mph across the landscape would blight crops, cause milk to curdle in cows' udders, and even induce a form of insanity they called "delirium furiosum." It was actually recommended that six-foot barriers be erected alongside tracks to protect people from seeing the trains, lest it have a similar effect on them to gazing into the eyes of one of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones.
"May the gods pity the man who, in his callousness, can remain sane after gazing upon this terrible visage!"
Oh, how quickly times change -- by 1896, people were so comfortable with the idea that they were staging massive train crashes for their own amusement. OK, so maybe they went a bit too far in the opposite direction there.
For more ridiculous things people lost their shit over, check out The 6 Most Insane Moral Panics in American History and The 5 Most Embarrassing Things Angry Mobs Have Rioted Over.
Are you on reddit? Check it: We are too! Click on over to our best of Cracked subreddit.
Help celebrate short-sightedness, click the Facebook 'share' button below.