The Little Big Dogs Of Invention

This is a story about two dogs I know. It is also a story of the U.S. Navy, aviation, and nuclear weapons. Sometimes it is easy to see things in dogs or other people, but hard to see those same things in ourselves. It’s a good thing that dogs can’t read (that we know of) because this is a bit of an embarrassing story for Doc. He’s a sweet good-natured dog and he’s a rather large labradoodle. He occasionally visits another usually good-natured dog, Rocky — a sheltie who is much smaller than Doc.

I say Rocky is good-natured and with people, he is. But he doesn’t care so much for other dogs. I often suspect he doesn’t realize he’s a dog and he is puzzled by how other dogs behave. You would think that when Doc comes to visit, the big dog would lord it over the little dog, right? Turns out, Doc doesn’t realize he’s way bigger than Rocky and — apparently — Rocky doesn’t realize he should be terrified of Doc. So Rocky bullies Doc to the point of embarrassment. Rocky will block him from the door, for example, and Doc will sit quaking unable to muster the courage to pass the formidable Rocky.

It makes you wonder how many times we could do something except for the fact that we “know” we can’t do it. Or we believe someone who tells us we can’t. Doc could barge right past Rocky if he wanted to and he could also put Rocky in his place. But he doesn’t realize that those things are possible.

You see this a lot in the areas of technology and innovation. Often big advances come from people who don’t know that the experts say something is impossible or they don’t believe them. Case in point: people were anxious to fly around the start of the 1900s. People had dreamed of flying since the dawn of time and it seemed like it might actually be possible. People like Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Wright brothers, Clément Ader, and Gustave Whitehead all have claimed that they were the first to fly. Others like Sir George Cayley, William Henson, Otto Lilienthal, and Octave Chanute were all experimenting with gliders and powered craft even earlier with some success.

In the Navy

In the future, the U.S. Navy would become a heavy user of airplanes. But Rear Admiral George Melville, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy in 1901 wrote an article for the North American Review about people’s desire to fly. He considered the idea to be childish and a waste of effort, saying  there was no other field where “so much inventive seed has been sown with so little return.” The Navy was conspicuously in error on this topic as the director of the U.S. Naval Observatory stated in 1902 that “Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.”

Thankfully, the Wright brothers were too busy building to read the papers.

In 1903 — nine weeks before the Wright Brothers made their first flight — the New York Times had an article about failed attempts to fly. It read, in part: “…it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years — provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.”

Wow. Glad the Wright brothers didn’t get the New York Times. Even the illustrious Lord Kelvin didn’t believe in airplanes (or X-rays, apparently, although he was right about transatlantic cables).

Even by 1910, the director of the Harvard College Observatory stated that airplanes would never reach the speeds possible with trains and automobiles. About that same time, Ferdinand Foch, the French general, thought that planes were of no military value.


The philosopher Wittgenstein, who died before Sputnik started the space race, used the concept of people going to the moon as an example of something absurd that we all know isn’t possible. In 1950, he wrote: “What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it isn’t possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that that is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know.”

Of course, during his lifetime, going to the moon was impossible and there are still people who think we haven’t been to the moon despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But many people were unconvinced that a moon landing was a reasonable goal for just a few scant years in the 1960s.

Every field has stories like this, it isn’t just flight. When Edison announced the lightbulb was going to be a reality, the British government set up a commission to look into it. Their conclusion? “Good enough for our transatlantic friends… but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”

99 Luftballons

What if Germany had the bomb in WWII?

But perhaps the most important and fortunate bad statement from an expert happened during World War II. You’ve certainly heard the name Werner Heisenberg. A physicist of note, he headed up the German effort to harness the atom. Early in the war, there was consideration of building a nuclear bomb using uranium until Heisenberg calculated that a critical mass of U235 would be on the order of 10 tons.

Daunted by the production and transportation of that much uranium, the Germans turned to experimenting with heavy water and more or less ignored the kinds of bombs the Americans would successfully build using far less U235. The correct number for critical mass of U235 is just over 100 pounds and by using reflection, compression, and other techniques, a bomb really only takes around 20 or 30 pounds of U235 and even less plutonium 239 or uranium 233.

Historians have long debated what this means. Heisenberg was an excellent physicist, so it is hard to imagine he would make such a large mistake. But it isn’t clear if he made it deliberately or if it was just in error. Heisenberg and some colleagues were “guests” of the British when the news announced the bombing of Hiroshima. Hidden microphones picked up Heisenberg’s reaction: “Some dilettante in America who knows very little about it has bluffed them,” he said. “I don’t believe that t has anything to do with uranium.” He mentioned that it was impossible that the Allies had ten tons of pure U235. Unless he was performing for hidden microphones he suspected were there — which is certainly possible — it would seem he really did think it would take tons of material.

To Dream the Impossible Dream

So what projects have you decided were not possible? I know you do have to temper it a little. No matter how badly you want to invent perpetual motion or warp drives, they seem out of reach. Then again, so did the moon.

Vince Lombardi gets credit for saying “We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.” Good advice for all of us. Especially Doc.

[Banner Image: “One of the first airplanes built in Canada” by ArchivesOfOntario, Public Domain]

53 thoughts on “The Little Big Dogs Of Invention

  1. Dogs spend their lives with people. So they get excited when other dogs are near, but then it’s llike they are shy, or indifferent. It’s like they don’t know how to act. But being near other dogs is still the most important thing.

    Contrast this with dogs and people. About a month ago, a first kind of nice day of spring, I saw two dogs wagging tails and all happy. One noticed me watching and came over, and I was like a long lost friend. A few blocks later, a dog waiting for the light approached me in the same way.

    1. Dogs have been bred to be companions to Humans for at least 20,000 years, in fact Dogs are the only animals (besides humans) that can understand Human facial expressions. I guess if you spend 20 millennia with people you get to know them pretty well.

        1. Heh, you read some stuff about how certain human cells seem to be almost highly specialised bacteria, and you wonder if you’re just a bio-mech for a whole frigging city of simple organisms.

    2. Interesting start to this article because the “impossible” thing I have been thinking about lately is a dog human translator. Seems like a perfect job for AI. I know scientists have been trying to translate dolphins and whales for years but I think they are off track. Oh yeah, it would be useful, but a dog human translator would be a hugely profitable commercial product! Followed not far behind by a cat human translator. Look at how much money we already spend on our pets.

    1. Don’t forget the astrodogs, though I guess that a Russian thing, the US using chimps.

      I keep seeing stories about dogs able to detect all kinds of specific things, like disease.

  2. A couple of points here. Most commercial product development IMHO starts with a charter, a budget, stakeholders, scope of work, allotted timeframe with Gantt chart, assigned engineers, etc., in other words highly unlikely to produce any transformative flavor other than vanilla.
    Octave Chanute, a well respected engineer, met with the Wrights in Kitty Hawk the winter before the flight and did calculations on the engine, props and wings and flat out told the Wrights the engine wouldn’t put out what they needed and there was no way the aircraft would fly.
    Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, al., didn’t really care about the commercial aspects of their homemade computer. They were just doing it for fun and were too young and idealistic to know it wouldn’t work.
    Cessna took a group of rebellious engineers and moved them to a hidden off-site lab to develop the tricycle gear for private planes because management thought that the factory culture would poison the project.
    Linus Torvalds made an OS b/c he wanted to program at home, not because he was trying to revolutionize the computer world.
    MIT AI department wrote all the command line utilities b/c they didn’t want to pay the Solaris licensing fees.
    IMHO almost everything useful is developed in garages and skunk works by people who don’t care if they fail and don’t have deadlines. Mostly by people who are doing ‘product development’ after they get home from their commercial jobs.
    Keep in mind that it was never a sure thing that the PC would ever be something other than a toy. Had Bricklin not written VisiCalc ….

    1. What Cessna are you thinking of?
      If it was the 150 the Tri-Pacer went into production before that.
      The Beechcraft Bonanza first flew in 1947 so that also predates the 150.
      Then you have the Ercoupe which flew in the late 1930s.
      All of these are considered private planes. So what reference you you have for the Cessna Story?

    2. I think the 1950’s and 60’s were high water points for pure research. The big companies had big research branches like Hughs Research, Boeing Research, etc. There was a lot of fundamental research and the engineering talents of the companies could produce test equipment quickly. For example Boeing had a gas gun that could fire an instrumented slug at 5km or 5 miles a sec (can’t remember) that was used for all kinds of deformation and crater formation and impact studies. The funding for this work dried up as NASA took more and more and the NASA umbrella covered more areas of study. NASA was more goal oriented than some of the labs. I recall Hughes existed for decades beyond the others and produced a lot of really cool basic stuff.

      Re: Woz and Jobs, Jobs wanted to sell things and make money from the beginning with selling “blue boxes” for phone phreaking and their subsequent run-in with the FBI.

      I suppose the successes of the independent inventor/researcher should be tempered with the many many lifetimes and fortunes wasted on perpetual motion, free energy machines, and 100mpg carburetors.

    3. Good lord! Nearly every story about Woz and Jobs is a self-serving fable, or–at best–an overstatement of the facts. (As pointed out by a commenter below.)

      Usually when confronted with the facts, there’s a lot of back-peddling. (i.e. Jobs about “great artists steal”. About the Apple Mac being a rip-off of the Xerox Alto.) Each re-telling is further embellished (often with details that were incorporated later).

      Google was just two college kids in a dorm (except they had over $1,000,000 from investors). And they got their name because they mis-spelled “googol”. Wrong also.

      And don’t get me started on Intel.

      1. Steve Wozniak was the technical guy, and plunged in because it was interesting.

        Steve Jobs, it’s still not clear what his technical abilities were. Yes, his father was into electronics, but he almost seems to want to retroactively rewrite his childhood. Without Wozniak, Jobs would be lost. “Help me design this game”.

        Steve just wanted a computer, and to impress his friends. The other Steve wanted a business. Giventhat, I assume it was the same with blueboxes, though it’s been sometime since I read the history.

  3. My high school chemistry book taught that inert gases like xenon did not form compounds. A few years later in college I got to see stable xenon tetrafluoride crystals sitting in a bottle.

  4. Sam Worden did not know you can not make a portable spring balance so sensitive you can measure the difference in gravity between the floor and a table-top. The Worden gravimeter from Texas Instruments was a mainstay of gravity surveys for 50 years. It was displaced by the much more expensive Lacost-Romberg meter that could tell if you moved it 1 centimeter further from the center of mass of the Earth-Moon system and was almost as small as a Worden, which could fit in a lunchbox.

    Surveys were used for a lot things from oil exploration to geological volcanic studies. One crucial job was mapping the regions around ICBM launch sites so that inertial navigation systems could count for the variations in g in the early low altitude part of flight! I repaired a Worden once with phone help from an expert at TI.

    Robert Forward said phooey to curved spacetime messing up experiments in orbit and made spacetime flatteners that were used on the Shuttle and ??? (He also invented an instrument that measures the gravity gradient in real-time regardless of accelerations of the instrument platform.)

    There must be a good story behind the nulling voltmeter or potentiometer. Imagine telling your peers in the days before electronics or amplifiers, etc. that with a variable resistance, a wet cell, and a galvanometer you can measure voltages (or potentials) while drawing zero current? Isn’t that infinite resistance or impedence on a modern meter?

  5. I always try to approach projects with a “Says who?” outlook.

    This might be better if I work on gaining intelligence… A few projects have resulted in trips to the ER.

        1. I think you can go into the past as long as you land far enough away from your departure point. If you go 2 years back you have to appear 2 light years away to avoid FTL communication of information. (And what if it takes 2 subjective years in the time machine in order to go back 2 yearts?)

          You can’t go into the future because it doesn’t exist yet. There is no there there.

          1. You can go “back” in space-time but not in space or time alone? You can go back if the path is time-like? You can’t enter the “absolute elsewhere” on a light cone? Something like that. Basically you are restricted so that nothing you do in the past can affect your starting point until after the time when you departed.

            So it is impossible to kill your grandfather or any of that. Maybe a good story idea. Someone wants to see the dinosaurs and winds up 84 million years in the past and 84 million light years away!

    1. I see it like how the average speed of traffic in London is around 12mph, if you’ve got somewhere to be in a hurry, take the Tube. Just gotta figure out how to install tube trains in the not-the-ether, spacetime, wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff or whatever it’s called these days.

  6. The other day I wasted an hour trying to talk someone out of building what amounted to a perpetual motion generator. Then I was then content to sit back and watch them fail, as we all know they will do.

    There are some things that look impossible because we perceive or calculate them to be VERY impractical to achieve – like heavier than air flight with large heavy gutless motors, or rocketry with electric turbopumps, fusion power, etc. Then someone finds a clever method, or material, or makes significant efficiency or performance gains, or something else revolutionary – suddenly it went from “impossible” to possible, and people go “A-ha! Never say never!”

    And there are other things that actually ARE impossible like that perpetual motion, or faster than light travel/communications, time travel, teleportation, and other sci-fi tropes.

    There’s a difference. One is a fantasy, and the other is a very difficult or completely impractical idea.

    1. In that vein, what things are impractical today that might become practical within our lifetimes? Fusion power and commercially viable recycling of lithium batteries would be nice.

    2. We can’t actually rule out time travel, teleporter or faster than light, as there are so many elements of the most fundamental elements of how the universe works we know we don’t know, the best we have a educated guesses and mathematical models that appear consistent with the observations seen so far.

      So while they might be impossible, all we can say at the moment is we don’t have a clue where to start so they are as good as impossible.

      To some extent you can’t even categorically rule out what we would currently have to dub perpetual motion either – if no energy is being put in from sources we are aware of doesn’t mean there are no other possible sources of energy we don’t even know exist, harnessed entirely by accident as is the case for so many discoveries.

  7. I would suggest the Admiral was correct pursing human flight is childish ‘folly’* at the time it was written – at the time any air travel at all was some way off and the technological progress to make really functional heavier than air flying machines still further off. If they then continued in the belief its not worth the time, effort an money once small engines make things like the early fliers of WW1 possible, which is only a few years later I’d say he was incorrect – but when looking at practical matters in a very pure engineering way airplane at the time were undoubtedly not very possible, and would be wildly impractical.

    In the same way comments that you would only ever needing a small number of computers globally with all the multi user remote mainframe time sharing are not really as foolish as they appear now in hindsight – as at the time there really isn’t a need, and in many ways there still isn’t now – what is the cloud that so much is going towards but a journey back to that starting ideal where a handful of very capable computers do the work and send it to the user.

    *IMO there is nothing wrong with childish excitement and enthusiasm for trying something seemingly pointless and stupid – it is something that should infact more often that not be encouraged. However from the point of view of practical real world military spending putting limited resources into novel ideas that are unlikely to go anywhere soon, if ever, does not make sense unless your backs are against the wall – like the last years of Nazi Germany desperately searching for that step change in tech that stops, maybe even reverses inevitable defeat, where a few more in quantity and little development of your existing arms couldn’t ever be enough.

  8. it takes little effort or expertise to tell someone their ideas are rubbish. but it takes true genius and a good work ethic to pull it off and prove the “experts” wrong. impossible is a word for lazy quitters.

  9. Very up lifting indeed. I recall my high school teacher saying I could only catch flies for a living. My first boss said “you can’t be a ceo”. Oh boy, weren’t they dismissive and negative people. Glad I never listened to them.

  10. We do not realize that as much as we ‘domesticated’ dogs, they ‘canified’ us. Some human behaviors (pack-like) are more canine than primate. I see the fundamental connection patients coming to my office demonstrate when they see the therapy dog in my office. They forget their anxiety about their cancer or whatever. The elderly , wheelchair bound despondent become animated humans. Our desire to transform ourselves into ‘advanced civilization’ by packing ourselves into the hives we call cities and depriving ourselves of the symbiotic relationship we evolved with canines is a significant stressor. How many crimes are committed by people who have a loving canine? How many mass shootings would there be if everyone was required to have a dog with them in public?

    1. “Davey, I don’t think shooting those people is a good idea”.

      Isn’t there a corelation between people who hurt animals and peolle who hurt people?


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