“Predicting the future is easy,” goes an old saying. “Getting it right is the hard part.”
My grandmother used to say that during her lifetime, transportation had undergone so much change it was hardly recognizable. Her father would hitch the horse to the buggy for a trip into town, which was about as far as they ever went. And later in her life, she rode on jet planes to visit her grandchildren and great grandchildren, sometimes overseas.
While many people had faith in the inventions we take for granted now and worked diligently to make them feasible, there were always skeptics. Many of them were well-known figures who made predictions that were proven spectacularly wrong.
"How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s
"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia." - Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830
"No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free." - King William I of Prussia, on trains, 1864
"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty--a fad." -- President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, 1903
In the March, 1904 issue of Popular Science Monthly, William S. Pickering opined about the possibility of transatlantic flight: “Even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could own his own yacht.”
Things as basic as electric lights had their doubters.
"Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure." - Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880
“When the Paris Exhibition (of 1878) closes, electric light will close with it, and no more will be heard of it. – Oxford Professor Erasmus Wilson
Most of us are dependent upon computers and their word processing programs in our writing. But when they were new, not everyone saw the advantage.
“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” Editor of Prentice Hall business books, 1957 New York Times.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
Even those who embraced progress could miss the reality of coming technology.
“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Popular Mechanics, 1949
Much as we depend upon photocopiers rather than carbon paper, in 1959, executives at IBM told the upstarts who would found Xerox, “The world potential marketing is 5000 at most,” and said there was no market large enough to justify production.
I don’t know if I would be writing if we didn’t have modern technology. I know that if I tried, I would be a lot more frustrated (how many messy corrections before you have to retype the entire page? Ever get tangled in a typewriter ribbon that decides to jump track and smear its ink all over both you and your work?)
Sources for the information in this blog include:
“25 Famous Predictions That were Proven To Be Horribly Wrong,” List 25 25 Famous Predictions That Were Proven To Be Horribly Wrong (list25.com)
Kelly, Gene. “History’s Most Boneheaded Predictions’” Washington Post, September 7, 2021
Tina Sieber, “8 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions About Computers & the Internet, March 15, 2011 8 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions About Computers & The Internet (makeuseof.com)
Szczerba, Robert J. “15 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time, Forbes, January 5, 2015