Predictions that missed the mark

In 1894, the president of the Royal Society, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, predicted that radio had no future. The first radio factory was opened five years later. Today, there are more than one billion radio sets in the world, tuned to more than 33 000 radio stations around the world. He also predicted that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. The Wright Brother’s first flight covered a distance equal to only half the length of the wingspan of a Boeing 747. He also said, “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” 

Center of the universe

In the 6th century BC Greek mathematician Pythagoras said that earth is round – but few agreed with him. Greek astronomer Aristarchos said in the 3rd century BC that earth revolves around the sun – but the idea was not accepted. In the 2nd century BC Greek astronomer Erastosthenes accurately measured the distance around the earth at about 40,000 km (24,860 miles) – but nobody believed him. In the 2nd century AD Greek astronomer Ptolemy stated that earth was the center of the universe – most people believed him for the next 1,400 years.

Running out of chauffeurs

In the early 20th century a world market for only 4 million automobiles was predicted because “the world would run out of chauffeurs.” Shortly after the end of World War II (1945), the whole of Volkswagen, factory and patents, was offered free to Henry Ford II. He dismissed the Volkswagen Beetle as a bad design. Today, more than 70 million motorcars are produced every year. The Beetle became one of the best-selling vehicles of all time.

Irish scientist, Dr. Dionysius Lardner (1793 – 1859) didn’t believe that trains could contribute much in speedy transport. He wrote: “Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers ‘ would die of asphyxia’ [suffocation].” Today, trains reach speeds of 500 km/h.

Electronic future

The telephone was not widely appreciated for the first 15 years because people did not see a use for it. In fact, in the British parliament it was mentioned there was no need for telephones because “we have enough messengers here.” Western Union believed that it could never replace the telegraph. In 1876, an internal memo read: “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Even Mark Twain, upon being invited by Alexander Graham Bell to invest $5 000 in the new invention, could not see a future in the telephone.

In 1927, H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, asked, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” In 1936, Radio Times editor Rex Lambert thought “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.”

In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM forecast a world market for “maybe only five computers.” Years before IBM launched the personal computer in 1981, Xerox had already successfully designed and used PCs internally… but decided to concentrate on the production of photocopiers. Even Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

After the invention of the transistor in 1947, several US electronics companies rejected the idea of a portable radio. Apparently it was thought nobody would want to carry a radio around. When Bell put the transistor on the market in 1952 they had few takers apart from a small Japanese start-up called Sony. They introduced the transistor radio in 1954.

Way out predictions

In 1894, A.A. Michelson, who with E.W. Morley seven years earlier experimentally demonstrated the constancy of the speed of light, said that the future of science would consist of “adding a few decimal places to the results already obtained.”


In 1954, a concert manager fired Elvis Presley, saying, “You ought to go back to driving a truck.” In 1962, Decca Records rejected the Beatles, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”

In 1966, Time Magazine predicted, “By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy.” In that year too CoCo Chanel said about miniskirts: “It’s a bad joke that won’t last. Not with winter coming.”

Sometimes a few decimal places make a massive difference. Investment banks rely on computer models to direct trading activity; in August 2007, Goldman Sachs’s hedge funds and other quant funds were left exposed by a series of market swings, each of which their software predicted would occur only once every 100,000 years. Goldman Sachs required a $3 billion (€1.9 billion) bailout, with other banks joining the hand-out queue.

Perhaps the guy who got it wrong most was the commissioner of the US Office of Patents: in 1899, Charles H. Duell, assured President McKinley that “everything that can be invented has been invented.”

“To prophesy is extremely difficult – especially with regard to the future.” – Chinese proverb. (See more Witty Quotes)

Cartoon by Harn Lay

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02/04/2010. Category: did you know. Tags: , .

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