Friday, 21 September 2012

Some Missed Opportunities for Progress in History

History contains a record of infinite potentials discovered and countless opportunities missed due to a lack of perception, tradition-bound attitudes and insistence on anachronistic behaviours. Here are some of them:

In the 15th Century, a great number of Portuguese vessels were dispatched in search of a route around Africa, but all of them were repelled by an impenetrable barrier when they reached the tiny Cape Bojador midway down the Western coast of the continent. The barrier was the widespread belief that Bojador represented the edge of the world and that to sail beyond it was certain death. It took persistent efforts by Prince Henry, 12 expeditions, and a very large purse to persuade one bold captain to skirt the cape and break the perceptual wall. Once done, Portugal soon discovered the Southern route to India and became a leading mercantile power.

In 1950 Holland’s population exceeded 5 million, reaching a density that many believed approached the ultimate limits that this tiny landmass could support. Today the Netherlands has 15 million people, almost three times the population density, yet it ranks among the most prosperous nations in the world and is a major food exporter.

For a brief period in the 13th Century Korea led the world in printing technology, introducing the use of metal for making printing blocks. This distinguished position was short-lived because Korean scholars refused to accept a 25 character phonetic alphabet that King Sejong developed to replace the thousands of Chinese ideographic characters then in use. A human attitude barred the way to a nation’s progress. Korea’s printers were soon left behind by developments elsewhere.

Fifteenth century China possessed a navy unparalleled in size, skills and technology, but their expeditions led only to dead ends. The purpose of these expeditions was to display the splendor and prowess of the Chinese emperors. They obstinately resisted foreign ways of life and discouraged trade. The Chinese developed a traditional immunity to world experience. Confucian teachings would accommodate and sequester the most astonishing novelties that mariners found. A Great Wall of the mind separated China from the rest of the planet. Ultimately, threats from the Mongols made the Chinese emperors ban all marine ventures. Fully equipped with technology, intelligence and national resources to become great discoverers, an attitude doomed them to become the discovered.

One of the deepest and the most widespread of human prejudices has been faith in the unaided, unmediated human senses. When the telescope was invented for seeing at a distance, prudent people were reluctant to allow the firsthand evidence of their sight to be overruled by some dubious novel device. The eminent geographer Cremonini refused to waste his time looking through Galileo's contraption just to see what "no one but Galileo had seen.... and besides, looking through those spectacles gives me a headache." A famous mathematician, Father Clarius, said Galileo first built satellite and star-like objects into the telescope glass and then pretended to see them in the sky. Distrust of the new was for long an obstacle to the development of science.

The absence of roads in many parts of rural France kept the population isolated, poor, uneducated and culturally backward until late in the last century. A proposal for construction of roads in rural Gascony met with strong popular resistance because people feared that it would make them vulnerable to theft. Only after the roads were finally built did the rural population come to understand the enormous practical benefits roads provided by opening markets for farm produce and bringing modern medicine, education and manufactured goods to the countryside. The resistance of French peasants to efforts by the Government to spread education arose from the belief that reading and writing were totally irrelevant to their lives.

Clock makers' guilds were begun in Paris (1544) and London (1630) to enforce monopolies against foreign goods. The French guilds excluded new talent, imposed exorbitant dues on their members, and restricted the number of apprentices. The English guilds were less constricting and more favourable to development of the clock makers' crafts. When demand surged for seafaring clocks and better scientific instruments of all sorts by the mercantile powers, English clock-makers were free to respond to the opportunity and prosper.

Gold was a popular form for saving personal wealth and a hedge against inflation in many countries prior to the establishment of reliable banking systems. The safety of banks and the higher returns available from other forms of investment have gradually diminished the importance of gold as a form of savings. In some Asian countries, the traditional habit of saving and paying dowry in the form of gold jewellery has continued unabated, even after more secure and financially attractive forms of savings became widely available. The people of India possess nearly 30,000 metric tons of gold valued at $300 billion, an amount roughly twice the value of the public deposits held by Indian banks. Because India must import gold for conversion into jewellery, this form of savings removes liquidity from the national economy and prevents the reinvestment of personal savings in productive activities within the country. At a time when hundreds of billions of dollars are desperately needed for investment in roads, power plants and telecommunications infrastructure, an anachronistic habit forces the nation to depend on foreign investors while it sits on a huge hoard of untapped wealth.

Borrowed from Garry Jacobs, Robert Macfarlane, and N. Asokan in their Comprehensive Theory of Social Development


  1. What's up friends, how is everything, and what you would like to say on the topic of this piece of writing, in my view its genuinely remarkable in favor of me.
    My weblog :: young nite atn news

    1. I'm glad you find it remarkable and useful. Feel free to use it and hopefully it helps everyone, individually and collective, make progress.

  2. I coulԁ not гefrain fгоm сοmmenting.
    Well written!
    Also visit my page - train time schedule

    1. Thank you. I give all the credit to Garry Jacobs, Robert Macfarlane, and N. Asokan. I only compiled these truly amazing and insightful stories from a study they did on social developemnt. Once again thanks on their behalf.