The history of technology is littered with great ideas, but you've gotta make a distinction between the ones that are truly, timelessly great, and the ones that, well, the ones that seemed good at the time.
It's usually heartening to see a great mind recognise an error in judgement, or a personal accomplishment gone awry — it's humility, and we love it in our heroes. Sometimes, though, it's just depressing. Anyhoo! Here are eight inventors, technologians and scientists who've come to terms with what they've wrought. Or who've at least tried.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee and those stupid slashes: The man largely credited with devising the World Wide Web as we know it today is sorry:
Really, if you think about it, it doesn't need the //. I could have designed it not to have the //
We laugh, sure, because it's just a couple characters, and for those of us who were weaned on older browsers typing them out is second nature. But the sheer on-the-phone-with-mum inconvenience caused by this oversight is impossible to quantify.
Bill Gates, and, uh, "Windows": OK, so this one feels like a bit of a gotcha, but it's a classic. Back in 2008 we asked Bill what Microsoft product could have used a little more polish before release. He answered kind of frankly!:
Ah, ask me after we ship the next version of Windows. (Laughs.) Then I'll be more open to give you a blunt answer.
That was blunt enough for us. Windows 7, among other things, earns this one a pass.
Vincent Connare, and Comic Sans: Font of choice for kitschy restaurant menus, passive-aggressive office notices and the worst websites on the internet, Comic Sans is merely a lame font, made evil by its endless, widespread use. From the WSJ, the creator on his most maligned creation, which was originally intended for use exclusively in Microsoft Bob:
He cringes at the most improbable manifestations of his Frankenstein's monster font and rarely uses it himself, but he says he tries to be polite when he meets people excited to be in the presence of the creator.
Connare's penance has already been paid: Microsoft owns the font, so he couldn't earn any royalties from its viral—and I mean that in the worst way possible—spread.
Thomas Midgley, and the destruction of earth: This one's more sad than regrettable: A brilliant scientist, Midgley solved the engineering problems of the day spectacularly well. Car engine making knocking sounds? Have some leaded fuel! Wish you could refrigerate things without huge blocks of ice? Here's a bucket of Freon! Midgley died well before it became clear just how dangerous leaded fuel and chlorofluorocarbon were, so the lamentation was left to others. According to J.R. McNeill,
he had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history.
Well, you know, it happens. Image via HowStuffWorks
Robert Propst, and the cubicle: Everyone has learned the pained, tragicomic lore of the cubicle farm in one way or another, but to those of you reading this from a box right now, there's nothing to smile about. The man who designed the first cubicle shuddered at the thought:
Before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."
Granted, his design was a box, which you'd assume to be a safe move.
Oppenheimer, and the atomic bomb: As director of the Manhattan project, J. Robert Oppenheimer headed up one of the most spectacular scientific undertakings of the 20th century. Then a lot of innocent people died. This made him sad:
I have no remorse about the making of the bomb and Trinity [the first test of an a-bomb] . That was done right. As for how we used it, I understand why it happened and appreciate with what nobility those men with whom I'd worked made their decision. But I do not have the feeling that it was done right. The ultimatum to Japan [the Potsdam Proclamation demanding Japan's surrender]was full of pious platitudes ... our government should have acted with more foresight and clarity in telling the world and Japan what the bomb meant.
This is less an issue of an stray invention than it is the unavoidable, unintended consequences of technological progress, but still. Wow.
Lou Montulli, and this: He's the name associated with the BLINK tag that played no small part in ruining broad (and admittedly low-rent) swaths of the internet, but he didn't write any code for it:
The blink tag will probably be remembered as the most hated of all HTML tags. I would like to publicly state that at no time did I actually write code or even seriously advocate for the tag. It is true that I put forth the initial inspiration, but it really was merely a thought experiment.
A thought experiment which invariably ends with a theoretical group of web designers, sitting in a theoretical room, theoretically consoling one another while they theoretically cry tears of blood? Interestingly, he will bear this burden himself, because he is a Man of Honour:
I am not going to name any names of the people who coded the dastardly deed, if they wish to step forward, they will need to do it themselves.
Yeah, that's probably for the best.
Doc Brown, and his DeLorean: Because it didn't just cause some serious awkwardness for Marty McFly; it resulted in two sequels that we probably could've done without. The Doc:
I wish I'd never invented that infernal time machine. It's caused nothing but disaster.
For this I forgive him, mainly because he isn't real.