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Firsts and First Reactions

Yisrael Rutman

New ideas and inventions are often met with suspicion. Read about the first reactions to things that we take for granted today

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

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W hether it’s your new classmates on the first day of school, your first time in an airplane, or your first trip to the dentist, first impressions can make or break your attitude for the rest of your life. Sometimes, those first impressions are accurate, sometimes not. Here’s what happened to some of the world’s most important first impressions. Try to imagine if you would have agreed with what people said back then…

The Skyscraper Controversy

Today, skyscrapers are everywhere. It’s hard to imagine New York City without the Empire State Building, or Chicago without the Sears Tower.

But when they first began building high, a lot of people were against the idea. Until the late 1800s, cities grew by expanding outward, adding more buildings, not higher ones.

But people wanted to be in the center of things, and with the price of land rising, they began thinking of vertical solutions that would put more office and living space on smaller plots of land.

Reaction: Skyscraper builders faced opponents like the Committee of Congestion of Population in New York, which warned that skyscrapers would block air and light, creating dark, gloomy caverns and overcrowding that would paralyze traffic and endanger health. The Committee proposed a special tax to discourage these architectural monsters, and Chicago put a ten-story limit on buildings, though it only lasted for a few years.

Builders solved these problems with artificial lighting and by designing plazas and other open spaces around the skyscrapers. There was light and air and room for people and cars after all.

Gradually, most people got used to the idea, and enthusiasm overtook anxiety. “So swiftly do the wheels of progress revolve that one great achievement may not be finished before another and more wonderful improvement is on the way,” proclaimed the New York Times on December 29, 1907, referring to the new 47-story Singer Sewing Machine Company Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time.


On June 17, 2013, the same newspaper reported that the Singer Tower had become “the world’s largest skyscraper ever to be peacefully demolished.” 

The owners moved company headquarters from Lower Manhattan (near the site of the former World Trade Center, which had been violently demolished on September 11, 2001) to Midtown.

Artificial Writing

Who would be against printing? It was incredibly faster and cheaper than writing and copying things by hand. Wasn’t it obviously a great improvement?

Yes. But it took a while to catch on, thanks to the competition.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, it was called “artificial writing,” in comparison to the “natural writing” of scribes who wrote with quill pens on parchment.

Reaction: The scribes were not fond of the new product, which threatened to ruin their business. As the monk Johannes Trithemius put it: “The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper… The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years,” referring to the fact that parchment, made from animal skin (like our sifrei Torah), last much longer than paper, made from wood pulp. (Paper made from rags can last hundreds of years, though.) (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 683)

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