Impossible Is Nothing: Great People Who Achieved The Impossible

To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.

How many people had told the diminutive rugby player from South Africa, Faf De klerk, that he was too short for Rugby?

In a sport where the average player stands at 6”4 (190cm) 246 lbs (112kg), he seems rather out of place as a professional rugby player, but his bravery has earned him Man of the Match on several occasions during his international games.

De klerk stands at just 5”6 (170cm) and weighs 176 lbs (80kg) but during the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Japan which saw South Africa beat England for the world championship, De Klerk earned the nickname “Giant slayer” due to the fact that he was never shy of challenging even the largest opponent in the game and always took them down on a tackle.

“He never misses a tackle” said one of his teammates, “He reminds me of the honey badger,” said another, “once he gets a hold of you he never lets go.”

Usain Bolt was also told on many occasions that he was too tall for the 100m sprint, and was encouraged to focus on the longer sprints instead. For many years he did just that, running and competing in the 400m and the 200m sprints. The reason for this is that the shorter sprints favor athletes with quicker strides and stronger striking force.

Another obstacle for Bolt was that he was told that the 100m record could not possibly be broken at this time, and that sports science, nutrition, running shoe technology and track rubber texture had to improve first before the record could be broken. Sports Illustrated had predicted that 9.58 would not be run until the mid 2030s.

But Bolt — who’s name suits his speed — smashed the record 30 years before it’s time. His lightning fast speed of 9.58 was not supposed to be scientifically possible yet. Studying records set between 1965 and 2005, scientists established that the 100m dash record had improved from 10.06 seconds to 9.77 seconds, gaining an average of 0.007 seconds per year. Extrapolating the continuation of this improvement rate, the scientists safely predicted that modern athletes would only break the 9.60 seconds mark around 2035. But in 2005, Bolt shattered it with a record time of 9.58 seconds, a 0.19 second gain out of a statistical probability of 0.1 percent. Things always seem impossible until they’re done, says Nelson Mandela.

Today we have airplanes, cars, mobile phones, space travel and the internet. We wouldn’t have dreamt of these things 500 or a 1000 years ago, and anyone who dared dream of them was almost always laughed out the room.

But history is filled with great technological achievements and their inventors — brave men and women who believed in themselves so much that they were willing to put their entire professional careers on the line for their goal.

Some inventions are now so common and ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine modern life without them, but during their early days of development, the creations of these inventions were met with intense ridicule and scorn. Such as the 18th century philosopher Auguste Comte who famously wrote concerning the stars that: “We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere.” We know everything about the former and the latter today. In a similar journal, he wrote of the planets that: “We can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface.” His argument did not come from ignorance as he was a well respected scientist at the time.

His argument came rather from the fact that everyone believed that telescopes had been perfected and that there would be no further improvements that could be made to it. He also reasoned that while we could work out the stars’ distance, their motion and their mass, nothing more could be gained from them… there was no way to chemically analyze them.

The following decade, however, two inventors independently demonstrated that the spectrum of the Sun contained a great many dark lines which had been shown to be atomic absorption lines. Each chemical element could be identified by analyzing this pattern of lines, therefore making it possible to discover just what a star was made of.

Concerning airplanes, the number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers’ flight is almost too large to count. A world leading engineer and scientist at the time named Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known for he was at the forefront of engineering. In 1895 he confidently stated that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” While physicist and Director of the US Naval Observatory, Simon Newcomb, said of it in 1902, “Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” Both were proved wrong in 1903 when the Wright brothers successfully made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft.

Even when they had successfully demonstrated sustainable flight, many public officials were still not convinced and had not learnt from history; Marechal Foch stated in 1904 that “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” 10 years later when World War I broke out, Airplanes were indispensable in war, any nation that did not possess them was obliterated.

Notable scientists too would make this blunder; In 1934, Albert Einstein was asked what he thought of Nuclear energy and was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” Enrico Fermi would make the discovery that same year that if you bombard uranium with neutrons, the uranium atoms effectively split up into lighter elements, thereby releasing a huge amount of nuclear energy. Not long afterwards the Atomic Bombs would be used several times in World War 2 by the USA against Japan.

In 1949 inventor, mathematician, physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann thought we’d come to the end of the road when it came to computers. “It would appear,” he said in a public press release, “that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology.” He did add a caveat, however, leaving room to redeem himself in the future, “One should be careful with such statements, however, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years.”

Thomas Watson, who was the chairman of IBM in 1943, was quoted as saying; “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” And on another occasion wrote, “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp in 1977 wrote “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Not long after this, Apple introduced the Apple II which found worldwide commercial success. Today, almost every person owns a PC, or Laptop at home.

In 1927, a young engineer by the name of Philo Farnsworth had devised a system capable of capturing moving images in a form which could be coded onto radio waves and then transformed back into a picture on a screen. The 21 year old saw the potential of his invention and the impact it would have on home entertainment, but not everyone was impressed: Lee De Forest, self described “father of radio” and Inventor of the vacuum tube — a key component of all electronics at the time — slammed the prospect of television saying in 1926, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially, I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming of.”

Charlie Chaplin is quoted as saying in 1916 that; “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s a canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” And another, Darryl Zanuck, speaking of television in 1946, “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today, there is at least 1 television for every household in the world.

When Bell approached Western Union in 1875 offering them the full rights to his telephone patent for $100,000, he was laughed out the room with executives citing the “obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy.” Bell left undeterred and founded the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. Less than a decade later, over 150,000 people in the USA were the proud owners of a telephone.” Today, almost every adult owns a mobile phone.

Edison’s light bulb was met with continuous scorn by people who saw no relevance in the invention: scientist Henry Morton of the Stevens Institute of Technology predicted that the invention would be ‘a conspicuous failure’. On another occasion a British parliamentary committee concluded that the light bulb was ‘good enough for our transatlantic friends but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.’ Every modern household has a lightbulb today.

While he had been on the receiving end of criticism during his light bulb years, he was on the opposing side during his AC/DC years. Edison was a proponent of direct current power systems and frequently ridiculed Tesla’s model of alternating current, despite it being a more efficient and practical method of supplying power. ‘Fooling around with alternating current,” he was quoted as saying in a newspaper, “is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.’ Today almost all types of current use Tesla’s model and not Edison's.

Digest magazine In 1899 had this to say about automobiles: ‘The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.’

‘The horse is here to stay, the automobile is only a novelty — a fad,’ said the president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903. In 1918, the Ford Motor Company’s Model T would make up half of the total cars in America and the horse carriage industry was out of business.

in the 1920s, leading inventor and engineer Lee De Forest said of space travel, ‘I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances’ while The New York Times similarly stated: ‘A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.’ In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into space and in 1969, Apollo 11 had successfully landed on the moon.

Of Germ Theory, Pierre Pachet, British surgeon and Professor of Physiology at Toulouse in 1872 was quoted as saying, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” Louis Pasteur had always been laughed out the room and had never been accepted by the medical establishment until near the end of his life, which he had spent trying hard to convince the medical world of the merits of germ theory. Yet, his fearlessness to stand in the face of so much scorn for his entire life laid the foundation for modern medicine. Millions of people would be dead if Pasteur had listened to the naysayers and given up the fight.

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Paul Gwamanda

“Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” Ben Franklin