William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Worst Invention Of All Time?

Your help is urgently needed to decide what is the worst invention of all time.

Any man-made item, and only man-made items, are eligible. Rocks, for instance, no matter to what purpose they are put, are therefore disqualified. So is language as a category, which isn’t man-made per se, even though more harm has been done by words than by any other thing. Individual languages, however, are surely in the running. Esperanto, with its built-in Utopianism would make any list. Kingsley Amis would nominate French. In The King’s English, he gave this account of its origin:

[ROMAN] LEGIONARY (in vile Latin, [in order to communicate]): I want water. Bring me water. Aquam.

YOKEL: Ugh?

L. Aquam! Say aquam, you bloody fool. Go on—aquam.

Y. O? (To be spelt eau when they go to the writing stage centuries later.)

L. Bring it to the high cliff. The high cliff. Altum.

Y. Ugh?

L. Altum! Say altum, you bumpkin. Go on—altum.

Y. O? (To be spelt haut when, etc.)

You may say weaponry if you like. Any device whose purpose is to kill, maim, or wound is certainly no kind of fun—especially, say, if you end up on the business end of an ax. On the other hand, wielding and even the mere possession of these things has produced large amounts of good, peace, and security. At best the result is mixed.

“Government” doesn’t count, because wherever two or more gather, governance spontaneously and inexorably springs into existence. Government to people is as natural as peristalsis.

Some wag will suggest books, or printing, reasoning that these creations are just as bad as language, or worse, since they can suffer from fire damage. But then we only have to remind ourselves that books bring to life men such as G.K. Chesterton. On the other hand, we must endure works such as this.

So charge up the little gray cells and submit your entry.

Here is my entry, sure to take the prize:

     CAR ALARMS

These excrescences are surely Satanic. As a means to induce insanity they are orders of magnitude more effective than State of the Union addresses. They are singularly useless, except in a negative sense. They are touchier than a Spanish Don. More finicky than a lady who lunches. More temperamental than a Chicago mayor.

Who anywhere when he—for the thirteenth time that day—hears a car alarm believes that a car is being stolen? Who rushes to call the cops. If you are a supporter of car alarms—that is, if you use one—tell me this statistic: How many cars of those that were stolen had car alarms? Stumped? I’ll tell you: Except perhaps for the rare and romantic filching of a Model T or a Pierce-Arrow that was once sat in by Theodore Roosevelt, every damn one of them.

This being so, it being proven that car alarms are not in place for their stated function, there must be an alternate explanation for their being. I can think of none except Forces of Darkness. Designed by Hell itself as a way to create a constant dull pain, and, even worse, anticipation of pain (if you don’t hear one now, you know you soon will). This makes us despair, which then drives us into activities we would not otherwise contemplate, like attending folk music concerts or eating only “vegan” foods.

Incidentally, car alarms are a relative of “back-beepers”, and born of the same instinct; i.e., those useless, annoying sounds which emit from ass-end of working vehicles as they are put in reverse, beep-beep-beeping even if the vehicles are not actively moving. Some garbage trucks in New York City appear to be equipped with these turned permanently on.

53 Comments

  1. Hard to disagree, especially as one whose garden adjoins a car-park where the effing things go off every time there’s a breeze or someone brushes against the vehicle, and no-one EVER comes to investigate, or even recognises their own…

    Since you’ve already bagged them, I will suggest blister packs, which are invariably impossible to open without a heavy-duty pair of scissors, which you don’t have handy and so substitute a knife with which you then slice the top off your finger and end up embedding in your desk/wall/thigh. They were invented purely for the convenience of the manufacturer, not the consumer.

  2. Noisemaking baby toys.

  3. Rats! The first thing I thought of was the Pet Rock which you immediately disqualified. Gotta agree about car alarms but they are useful for finding a car in a parking lot. Given the noise generated by garbage collectors, the back-up warning is the quietest of the bunch.

    I would have guessed you’d have picked p-values.

  4. If we’re going for the most annoying the Boom Box and 600W+ car stereos are my pick.

  5. Mobile phones. They are as bad as car alarms when you have to overhear loud conversations in public and people yapping on them while driving.

  6. I’m surprised that no one has yet reacted to your comment on Esperanto “with its built-in Utopianism”, so I will. You’re entitled to his point of view, William, but I see things differently. Esperanto is a successful international language, in that it is spoken by people in a wide range of people in a wide range of countries who have no other tongue in common. It is used by speakers of Hindi, Indonesian, Arabic, Turkish, German and Chinese.

    Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers and get to know people from a very different cultural background.

  7. Many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as “failed” – others say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. Now that the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language – see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    Their online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per month. That can’t be bad :)

  8. I have to second Doug’s choice. Cell phones do nothing but encourage people who have nothing worthwhile to say to say it 24/7. In public. At loud volumes. Add in the issue of texting while driving and the case is closed.

  9. “Esperanto is neither artificial …”

    Really? Esperanto was created in the late 1870s and early 1880s by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. It’s a constructed language — as artificial as C and R.

  10. Gaia worshippers and other misanthropes might nominate penecillin.

  11. I would say hormonal contraceptives. I can think of nothing which has contributed more to the decline of manners and morals in Western civilization. They best serve the desires of the very worst of men — those who would use a woman and cast her aside like a condom. They are enabling technology for every sort of sexual immorality and vice, creating a cultural expectation that women are always available to be so used and discarded. Examples abound, from the smut that covers all of our popular media, to the truly vile pornography that forms a large part of the content of the World Wide Web, to the hook-up culture, to single motherhood and live-in boyfriends who are the single greatest indicator of threat to children. And in contaminating our water supplies, they are feminizing everything from salmon to frogs to … us.

  12. 2nd – Neckties. Self explanatory.

    3rd – American cheese. If you want your own style of anything, including cheese, don’t aim low.

    4th – New Age music. Removing tension and release from music is like removing flavor from food.

    5th – Reclining commercial aircraft seats (the ones that recline into someone else’s space). Airlines the have fixed seatback angles refer to them as “pre-reclined” to appease the sleepers. They need to cater more to the awake and alert.

    6th – Microsoft Word. Proprietary format, page and print based. It, along with IE6 should be immediately deleted from everywhere. That would be less disruptive than any form of continued use.

  13. Organised religion

  14. Briggs

    8 June 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Steve Crook,

    Right. Who needed hospitals, orphanages, charity, and acres of hopefulness anyway?

  15. Jet Skis.

  16. Briggs,

    Maybe there was a lightweight attempt to troll in my suggestion which should perhaps have been followed by a :-)

    I’m not sure that an organised religion is a precondition for anything in your list, and there are plenty of downs to counter your ups.

    I do like ‘acres of hopefulness’ though….

  17. Serious considerations: Contraception, no goods and all evils. Even in cases where it is used for “medical purposes” it fails. Since the pill masks any real issues and makes the woman FEEL better without actually CURING the illness, any hope of research to find a cure is stifled.

    Non-serious:
    Car alarms are really not as bad as they used to be (perhaps that’s because I’m in a more suburban area). The alarm feature can be turned off and that panic button is mighty handy when trying to locate your vehicle in a large parking lot.

    I’d second MS Word; however the newer versions do use XML, although they still make it as icky as possible. Excel is rather lovely though.

    I’d never heard of Esperanto…so no wide-spread evil influence.

    So left with blister packs (or any child-safety device). In general the only ones who CAN get into it are the children, the adult with the splitting headache only ends up being hurt more with the desperate attempts to open them.

  18. In no particular order…

    – namespaces

    – fiat currency

    – the two-ended dildo

  19. Perhaps not the worst, but certainly worthy of dishonorable mention is the Congressionally mandated flush-brush-flush toilet.

  20. Nuclear bombs are the worst invention of all time.

    Christina, are you a medical research scientist?

  21. I’m extremely surprised so many supposedly erudite posters misunderstand the purpose of “car alarms”, but a select few did “get it”. They are meant to be “locator aids” and they serve that purpose remarkably well. Each year at a two week charity event we received truckloads and truckloads of new “courtesy cars” for our use. The keys all came to us in a large box. If it weren’t for panic buttons on car alarms it would have taken us all year to locate which car went with which key.

    By the same token back-up alarms on garbage trucks are not meant for residential or suburban usage. Their purpose is to warn the drunks – those who were carried to the landfill and spewed out on the last load, and are only now slowly regaining a modicum of sobriety – to be alert that the next load of garbage has arrived and will momentarily come rushing pell-mell down the tip face with another crushing load of debris and drunks (who thought sleeping in a trash bin a safer bet than camping on a railroad track).

  22. Completely OT, but the BBC are currently broadcasting a series that “considers the tensions between faith and doubt over the last 3000 years”. The man who’s writing the essays is a former Bishop of Edinburgh. I’ve found them to be quite interesting. See here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jhp1v and wondered if others might want to listen…

  23. George O'Har

    8 June 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Gas powered leaf blowers. While it could be argued they have a legitimate function, especially for lazy sods, the noise level negates it. The remote control, in that it has enabled a generation or two of Americans to become lazy, obese and stupid at the same time, a trifecta of unwanted consequences.

  24. I’m trying to figure out if Esperanto in itself is constructed in a Utopian fashion. I can’t think of anything in particular except using root words from all over Europe, but this might be more laziness or personal choice based on sound of the words or an attempt to get everyone happy with the language because they already know at least some of the vocabulary rather than anything more noble in purpose.

    The Utopian aspect seems more like the “special” coating they put on my car at the dealership. All the cars get it, you have no choice, but it’s not something the factory put on.

  25. Modern traffic circles.

  26. The United Nations Organization
    It has spent billions of US dollars and hasn’t solved any of the belligerent international problems defined in its charter. Lately they have become the masters of the world demanding that the developed nations share their wealth through cap and trade. The IPCC organization with their complete commitment to environmental activism has stultified the economic growth in undeveloped countries. They have aligned all the minor fiefdoms in the world to reject the United States attempts to make peace and instead thrive on creating dissentions and turmoil to maintain their power base with the minor participants

  27. Milton Hathaway

    8 June 2012 at 8:25 pm

    JavaScript. I’m amazed people put up with it. Imagine picking up a book or a magazine and having the pictures jump around or the pages turn themselves. Nasty, irritating behavior.

  28. Earned Value management

  29. Jeez, this one is too easy. Its wind turbines.

  30. I have to go with universal suffrage.
    Car alarms are disgusting but will not lead to the downfall of civilization.
    Allowing welfare recipients to vote for more welfare just might.

  31. Car alarms are one of the taxes you pay for living in New York City. Gas powered leaf blowers are a tax we pay for living in nicely groomed suburbs or for sitting quietly in a municipal park. In reality, neither is more annoying than a new baby who cries in the middle of the night demanding food and attention. Both (the alarm and blower) will eventually pass and be replaced by other (sometimes beneficial) annoyances.

    Esperanto (like the French language for non-Francophiles) is a harmless hobby just like stamp collecting or bird watching having both social and time killing benefits for the practitioner and few harmful side effects.

    Those decrying the horrors of hormonal contraceptives should spend some time with the work of Hans Rosling on the links between education, poverty and population growth (fertility).
    http://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling.html
    Those with religious objections can choose not to use hormonal contraceptives but don’t project your beliefs into my life.

    The only truly bad invention is central planning where one person or a small body prevents individuals from choosing how to live among all that is good, all that is bad and all that is just annoying.

  32. The general purpose computer. Introduced into into schools under the delusion that education will occur as a consequence. Into offices under the delusion that productivity will rise when in fact productivity remains the same but employment falls. The computer is great used wisely. Where is the evidence that it’s used wisely?

  33. I find my self in agreement with all of the suggestions above except for two – the notion that ‘traffic circles’ and ‘human contraceptives’ somehow are to be compared to cell phones, leaf blowers and car alarms.

    I would nominate ‘Marxism’ and by this do not wish to suggest that the problem is simply the writings of Marx himself.

    I was tempted to vote for modern ‘wind mills’ but by a circuitous route of thought while gardening I decided that ‘by swerve of shore and bend of bay’ they flow from Marxism

  34. “During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. ”

    “Top” by what measure? I think its adherents would claim that the likewise-artificial language “Klingon” is “top” measured by “most rapid year-over-year percentage increase in speakers”. The claim (false, I believe) is made that Klingon has more speakers than Navajo. None of which means that Klingon is a “top” language but that the claims of “top”-ness for anything, devoid of a measurement or scaling framework, are not particularly persuasive.

    I nominate the semi-colon. Stupid piece of punctuation! Stop, or join, or warn me of a following list, or make a parenthetical remark. Or ejaculate. Whatever. Butt don’t freaking HESITATE in the middle of a thought.

  35. margaret berger

    9 June 2012 at 11:07 pm

    Chewing gum.

  36. The audible voice warning system built into some cars at one time.
    I’ve read once of one families experience with their ageing car that had this system. Every time they started the car, the system seemed to want to say something and finally belching out “your door is ajar”. And the kids would yell out not it’s not, it a door.

    Speaking of Esperanto, William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, was in a 1966 movie Incubus that was entirely spoken in Esperanto.

  37. “Christina, are you a medical research scientist?”

    No, I’m also a woman who has seen too many of her fellow sisters be told by doctors that the “treatment” for their problem was the pill, only to find out later that it treated nothing. Sometimes I’m able to direct them to the NaPro doctors I know to get them the help they actually need and they are always shocked to find out there are actual CURES for their illness. Oftentimes cheaper than BC and always healthier.

  38. “I nominate the semi-colon.”

    Pouncer, no, there are worse punctuation evils. The EN-DASH is a particularly nasty one in typesetting because the horrid character is somewhere between a hyphen and an em-dash and almost like a minus sign. So you always end up having to fix them because they are the wrong character or blown out completely.

    As for actual rules…the stupid one where the punctuation goes inside the quotes even if it has nothing to do with the quoted material. If the punctuation is not part of a quote then it doesn’t not belong inside the “quote”.

  39. Michael Larkin

    10 June 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Karaoke

    The Abrahamic God (terrible fellow, not a patch on The Real Thing);

    Home movies

    Bankers’ bonuses

    but above all,

    CAGW

  40. I agree with Margaret Berger – Chewing gum!

  41. I would have to nominate the common chair, and uncommon chairs as well. Uncommon chairs, thrones, sedan chairs, judges benches, office chairs, are all pernicious in their intent and ability to separate people by class. Common chairs serve no purpose other than to support the idle when they should either be working, or sleeping off their exhaustion from working.

  42. Car alams were more annoying in the ’80s when a strong breese (or a car passing at moderate speed) could trigger the alarm. In the bad old days, the alarm manufacturers were in an arms race of who could make the most anoying alarm that might get a passers by attention.

    wow-wow-wow-wow—eee-aww-eee-aww-eee-aww—brap-brap-brap-brap

    Culminating the the ED-209 “Step away from the vehicle!”

    Modern alarms are much more sedate affairs. They honk for a minute, and are either dismantled by the theif / burglar, or shut-off on their own.

    Worst inventions:
    the San Francisco Muni Bus system.
    Anything sold after midnight on the unwatched cable chanels.
    I’ll second the leaf blower.
    Internet slide shows that pretend to be “news” stories.

  43. Not the worst but among the more useless inventions: the hmtl keword <blink >

  44. Gregory Norton

    11 June 2012 at 3:47 pm

    My nomination is those oxygen masks that drop down when a passenger aircraft loses cabin pressure. Or when a sensor fails, falsely indicating a loss in cabin pressure. They seem to be adult security blankets that alleviate passenger fears but, as far as I have been able to discover, no lives have ever been saved by them. But at least 110 people have been killed by them: the Value Jet crash on 11 May 1996.

    Slow leaks in the airframe give time for the pilot to descend to an altitude where supplemental oxygen is not needed before anyone dies from hypoxia.

    These gizmos operate by generating oxygen from a small fire, not a problem when they are properly installed. But they must be replaced periodically and then boxed in bulk and shipped somewhere for disposal or refurbishment. Think about it: thousands of little firebombs regularly boxed up and shipped. This isn’t a problem when the proper safety procedures are followed but, sooner or later, someone is bound to make a mistake, not install the safety mechanisms properly, and put the box on in the cargo hold of an airliner. Oops. In all probability, boxes of oxygen canisters without proper safeties where flown in cargo holds dozens of times until, one day, vibration set one of the little darlings off; it got hot, set off its neighbors, started a fire and brought the airliner down.

    The “law of large numbers” says that anything that can possibly happen will happen eventually, given enough time and trials, no matter the precautions. Humans screw up. Lots of things experts tell us “cannot happen” do, in fact, happen. The existence of those supplemental oxygen things creates an entire system of moving them around. Failures in the operation of the system turned the “safety” feature (which doesn’t seem to have ever saved a life – but, of course, the “law of large numbers” indicates that, eventually, somebody will be saved by a supplemental oxygen mask) into a deadly hazard.

    110 lives: a steep price for a security blanket.

  45. Speed, how about those with moral objections, or health objections? Can they opt out of taking oral contraceptives, too? Or do we all get to take them, because those with no objections haven’t figured out a way not to pee them into our water supply?

  46. george kaplan

    11 June 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Lists of the best/worst things of all time.

  47. La méthode Monnet, arbitrage, salads,
    Egomaniacal creaky-voiced ballads,
    Planned obsolescence, loans without strings:
    These are a few of my least favourite things.

    The Whig’s view of progress, the subsidized arts,
    The notion that science can belch while it farts
    By establishing truth while it’s counselling kings:
    These are a few etc.

    (Do I get a prize for trying too hard?)

  48. I thought everyone knew there’s a special place in perdition for the inventor of clamshell packaging.

  49. Mandolins. The food slicers, not the instruments.

    Bagpipes. The instrument.

    Fitted sheets.

    Canned peas. Bleeugh.

  50. I don’t know if this thread is still open, but for me the worst invention is WYSIWYG word processors. Used to be that you thought about the content before you considered the style, format and presentation – now the only thing is presentation and the content is pretty much forgotten.

  51. GoneWithTheWind

    14 June 2012 at 11:15 am

    American cheese!!!??? That’s kind of elitist. Certainly tastes vary among individuals but do you really think American cheese is somehow so inferior that it requires a put down?

  52. Alcohol as fuel.
    As with other worst inventions, it has advantages to a few. Farmers who grow corn get a higher price for their corn, producing the alcohol makes money, or used to, and it gets some politicians elected. The bad effects almost everyone with ruined fuel systems, higher fuel cost and increased emissions. It’s a bad deal now, even admitted by Al Gore.

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