Following from the page of quotations about the future, here are some predictions that didn't quite turn out as expected. It's interesting to consider why they went wrong.
- "The end of the world will surely come
in eighteen hundred and eighty one."
- Mother Shipton, English prophet, c.1600.
- "To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin." - Cardinal Bellarmine, on Galileo's trial, 1615.
- "One day there will be a telephone in every major city in the USA" - Alexander Graham Bell, c.1880.
- "The telephone may be appropriate for our American cousins, but not here, because we have an adequate supply of messenger boys." - group of British experts, c.1900.
- "[By 2000] every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water motors, turning dynamos, making electricity" - John Elfreth Watkins, Jnr, Ladies' Home Journal, 1900.
- Electricity transmission by wireless may be commercially feasible - Scientific American, 1920.
- "I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning." - J Rayleigh, leading British physicist, 1896.
- "Aircraft are interesting toys, but of no military value." - Marshal Foch, France, 1912.
- "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" - Associates of David Sarnoff, manager of an early US radio network, 1920s.
- "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossiblity, a development on which we need waste little time dreaming." - Lee de Forest, "father of radio", 1926.
- "Television won't be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six mmonths. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." - Darryl F Zanuck, 1946.
- "An automaton may be contrived that will have its 'own mind'." - Nikolai Tesla, 1900.
- "I think there is a world market for as many as 5 computers." - Thomas Watson, head of IBM,1943.
- Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons - Popular Mechanics, 1949.
- "I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." - Editor of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.
- "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 (who was wrong, even then, as the first Apple was already available. Maybe he had a very narrow idea of what people did at home.)
- "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be available. It would mean the atom would have to be shattered at will." - Alfred Einstein, physicist, 1932.
- Some predictions from Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener's 1967 book The Year 2000:
100 Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the 20th Century:
- "Human hibernation for relatively extensive periods (months to years)."
- "Physically nonharmful methods of overindulging." [in the movie, Dr Strangelove was a caricature of Herman Kahn.]
- "Artificial moons...for lighting large areas at night."
- "Stimulated and planned and perhaps programmed dreams."
(About 50 of the 100 predictions were more or less correct.)
- The first American demonstration of the videophone was on 14 November 1920, when pictures were wired between New York and St Louis. In 1975, Telecom Australia predicted up to 200,000 videophones in Australia by 2000. The actual figure: about 50. See "On the persistence of lackluster demand - the history of the video telephone" - Steven Schnaars and Cliff Wymbs, in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2004, vol. 71, pages 197-216.
- "The 'death ray' for destroying aircraft is a potentially valuable weapon" - Lt Cmdr Fitzhugh Green, US Navy, 1924.
- In December 1938, Lloyds of London was offering odds of 32 to 1 that there would be no war in the following year. In 1939, World War II began.
- "Before the twentieth century closes, the earth will be purged of its foulest shame, the killing of men in battle under the name of war." - Andrew Carnegie.
- "The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty." - President of Michigan Savings Bank, 1903, advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.
Checking the links to this page, I found an interesting comment on this prediction at theroblog.blogspot.com- "could well have been true for the distance into the future the author might have been speaking of (e.g. 10 years from 1902)". This raises the interesting idea that if I make a prediction for 10 years ahead, it could be be very different from the prediction I make for 100 years ahead.
- [When cars are in general use] "we shall probably find public taste changing so that many people will prefer to travel from place to place more slowly than at present" - Cleveland Moffet, USA, 1900.
- [By 2000,] "the automobile will have driven out the horse... The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only." - J E Watkins again, 1900.
- "The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect." - Harper's Weekly,, USA, August 2, 1902.
- " "Automobiles will start to decline as soon as the last shot is fired in World War 2. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter." - Harry Bruno, aviation publicist, 1943.
- The first cars were called horseless carriages, and the first radio was called a wireless. What else could be renamed whatlessly? Is an egg the headless chook?) And what might be the next thing to drop an association we now take for granted? The pageless book? The computerless internet?
Our hindsight makes these predictions seem ridiculous. How could they have been so wrong? But consider for a moment how these badly-wrong predictions came to be here. Did I read thousands of pages of old publications, every now and again finding a grossly inaccurate prediction? No: I half-remembered a few of them, and did a web search, which led to a few books, which led to all the rest. There may have been millions of correct predictions.
These wrong ones are of two types: either they predicted that something would be a miserable flop when it was obviously destined for success, or else they predicted that something would really take off - and it didn't. Interestingly, there are a lot more of the former type than the latter, even though there's a wealth of evidence that around 80% of innovations fail. So why don't we see more recollections of predictions such as "the kaspelburger will be the greatest innovation of the 20th century"? Simple reason: because nobody now remembers what a kaspelburger was. So a wrong prediction wouldn't be funny - just boring. Isn't hindsight marvellous?
Your task for tomorrow: make a prediction that will cause people to roar with laughter in 2025, because it will be so ridiculously wrong. This should be easy, because with an 80% failure rate, it's four times more likely that a prediction will be wrong than that it will be right.
Links to more predictions
The past and future - what they said and what they are saying- about 20 more quotes such as the above.
A selection of quotations mostly related to space travel and modern technology, at www.permanent.com.
I predict that... is a collection of historical gaffes - such as "The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen: the average American family hasn't time for it." - The New York Times, 1939, reviewing a demonstration of TV.
Many of the above quotes (and a lot more) can be found in the book The Experts Speak: the Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, 1984. Beyond the Library of the Futureby Bruce A Shuman (1997) has a lot, too.
On a grander scale is another book, The History of the End of the World, produced in 1982 by Yuri Rubinsky and Ian Wiseman. It shows that for thousands of years, people have kept predicting the end of the world. They are so persistent: it didn't happen yesterday, but there's still hope for next week. The interesting question to me is why so many people expect (even want) the world to end. But keep trying, prophets: some day you'll get it right!
Some quotable quotes for statisticsby JEH Shaw. Some! About 2000 of them, including a few about the future. This is a 140-page PDF file - so amusing that you can't stop reading it. Who said statistics was boring?
Looking for services with respect to understanding and planning the future? Steve Gould of Steve Gould Futures may be able to help.
On this site:
Links to the future: organizations, publications, and websites
Quotations about the future - except predictions Glossary of 100-odd terms used in futures studies