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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

They Didn’t Really Get It Right by KM Rockwood

“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

 

 

 

 

9 comments:

Jim Jackson said...

I'm curious: did Ford's lawyer invest in the company or heed the banker's advice?

Kait said...

When I was 9 I read an article in TV Guide that stated that in the future all homes would have computers. In 1961, when I was 9, I had no idea what a computer was. My dad told me they were machines that occupied entire rooms and that the TV Guide article was science fiction. Score one for the little TV weekly, they did get it right!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I remember giving a speech in B-school advocating work from home. What a novel idea!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Three cheers for computers!

My friend just told me a story about a man who lived in Gloversville telling a neighbor, who was my friend's husband's great uncle, that they were making movies in Hollywood. He was going there and asked his neighbor to go there, too. My friend's husband's great uncle said he was staying in Gloversville because people would always need gloves. Well, the man from Gloversville, whose name was Samuel Goldfish, went to Hollywood and changed his name to Samual Goldwyn. The rest, as they say, is history.

Grace Topping said...

I went to the World's Fair in New York in 1964 or 65 and remember seeing a demonstration of telephones where you could see the person calling. It took a long time for it to become a household thing, but it still happened. At the same fair, we saw illustrations of the cities of the future, which had flying cars. Thankfully, that one hasn't happened--yet.

Shari Randall said...

Kathleen, my hubby's grandfather used to drive a horse drawn carriage "bus" to earn money to attend school. When he passed away in the 1980s, he'd seen the transition from horses to spacecraft. I wonder what progress I'll see by the time I'm his age. I'd really love to see a self-cleaning house, but no one's invented one yet.

KM Rockwood said...

That's a good question, Jim. Maybe I'll see if I can find an answer (like I really need to dive down more research rabbitholes for the fun of it!)

Kait--TV guide obviously had its finger on the pulse of the population in a way executives did not.

Margaret--yes, we're back to working from home. Only now it's some of the good jobs, not just poorly paid piecework so a manufacturer does not have to maintain a workplace.

KM Rockwood said...

Marilyn, people do always need gloves, but sometimes you just have to set out and take a chance.

Grace, I grew up on Long Island and that World's Fair gave us one of the best summers we had! We must have gone thirty or forty times.

Shari, my hubby's grandfather delivered ice cream to restaurants in Philadelphia from a horse-drawn wagon. My husband remembered "helping," although I have a feeling he was too young to really be of much help. And since I moved to a retirement community when I for more assistance with my husband's care before he died, I have the next best thing to a self-cleaning house. A housekeeper shows up on schedule to clean, and a phone call (to the operator, no less) produces someone when there's an off-schedule chore or maintenance that needs attention.)

Marilyn Levinson said...

Kathleen,
Where did you grow up on Long Island?? I've lived here since . . . for a very long time.