Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument.
—Quoted in Richard H. Babbage (1948), “The Work of Charles Babbage”, Annals of the Computation Laboratory of Harvard University, vol. 16 [quoted in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood]
Charles Babbage designed the first computer (since the Greeks, anyway) around 1840, but it was never built because he couldn’t convince the government that it had any useful function. That didn’t stop his friend Ada Lovelace from writing the first computer program for Babbage’s machine, even though it didn’t exist. Imagine how much father ahead we would be if Babbage and Lovelace had been able to put their theories into practice and the computer age had begun 150 years ago?
Update: Someone has indeed imagined what would have happened had Babbage’s computer had been built. The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, explores that very scenario. Add one more to the TBR list!