We all enjoy pointing fingers at experts when they make mistakes. Popular sites love to publish hack lists of embarrassingly wrong predictions by famous people, complete with snappy image macros and a dump truck full of condescension . It’s understandable: seeing someone successful make obvious errors of judgment helps us feel better about our own bloopers.
Yet in our eagerness to point out their blunders, we often end up getting it very wrong. For instance:
10. “We Can Close the Books on Infectious Diseases.”
William H. Stewart was a U.S. Surgeon General from 1965 to 1969. He is the man responsible for those cheerful warning labels you see on your cigarette packs. In 1969, he supposedly made the above statement to the U.S. Congress. His claim was soon disproved by the emergence of AIDS and other virulent diseases. Even William’s 2008 obituary mentions the criticism he received because of his optimistic prediction.
William never spoke those words. Two authors performed a rigorous search for the primary source of this quote. They failed to find any. More than that, secondary sources disagree on the date of the alleged statement: was it 1967 or 1969?
There is only a single book that points to the primary source of the quote. The book claims it comes from a speech William gave in 1967, at the 65th Annual Meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. But guess what? That speech contains no such quote at all! Not only that, but in that same speech William actually said this:
“Warning flags are still flying in the communicable disease field … While we are engaged in taking on new duties … we cannot and must not lose sight of our traditional program responsibilities.”
That doesn’t quite sound like a man “closing books” on infectious diseases, does it?
9. “This ‘Telephone’ Has Too Many Shortcomings to be Seriously Considered as a Means of Communication.”
In 1876 William Orton, the president of Western Union, was offered to buy a patent from a man you may have heard of – Alexander Graham Bell. The patent? A little invention called the telephone. William Orton’s response? That shortsighted quote above! How could it be that William Orton didn’t immediately see the potential of this technology?
The answer is simple: he did! He just didn’t want to pay for Bell’s version. In fact, what William Orton likely said was “this electric toy has too many shortcomings … ” He was trying to downplay the importance of specifically Bell’s invention, not the idea of telephone as a whole. How do we know this? Because in less than a year Orton had started another company – American Speaking Telephone – to develop his own version of the device. What’s more, Orton’s telephone even ended up being superior to Bell’s. Aggressive market competition followed, culminating in a court case. Something about Orton supposedly stealing Bell’s ideas, which seems silly. It ended in 1879 with Western Union giving up the telephone business. More importantly, all of Western Union’s telephone patents were assigned to Bell Company.
We bet William Orton wished he had just bought Bell’s patent in the first place.
8. “Computers in the Future May Weigh No More than 1.5 Tons.”
This chuckle-worthy quote comes from an old Popular Mechanics magazine. The quote found its way into many compilations of bad predictions. Anyone reading it today on their tiny smartphone can only laugh at the hilariously conservative estimate.
This quote is from an issue of March 1949. Only two short years before that the first general purpose computer was launched. It was a little thing called the ENIAC and it weighed 30 tons. Popular Mechanics were making their prediction within that specific technological framework. In fact, here’s the full quote:
“Where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”
To be fair, Popular Mechanics did fail to anticipate revolutionary inventions like transistors and microchips. But even so, their prediction still stood the test of time almost ten years later. In 1957, the IBM 608 came out. It was the first transistor-based computer. Its weight? 1.2 tons. In the rapidly-evolving computer industry, this prediction isn’t quite the laughable gaffe we make it out to be.
7. “Fooling Around with Alternating Current is Just a Waste of Time. Nobody will Use It, Ever.”
This 1889 quote is brought to you courtesy of Thomas Edison, one of the most well-known American inventors. It’s enough to look at almost any electrical appliance in your home to discover how wrong his prediction was. Nowadays, alternating current (AC) is exactly what delivers electricity to households. Yet Edison called it “a waste of time.” Oops!
Edison’s words are far from a genuine attempt at predicting the future. If anything, they were the desperate cry of a man personally threatened by the invention of AC. You see, Edison was earning money on his own invention: the direct current (DC). Any progress on the AC front was automatically bad news for Edison. Thus, Edison stopped at nothing to undermine and discredit AC. He lobbied the US government to ban it. He went to great lengths to portray AC as dangerous. He even staged public AC electrocutions of animals, including a freaking elephant. Unfortunately for Edison, AC won the ensuing “war of the currents” and became the main method of distributing electricity.
Seen in that light, Edison’s words are no more than a failed smear campaign. They are the equivalent of Sony claiming that the X-Box lost the console war. That actually happened, by the way … in 2001.
6. “I Think There is a World Market for Maybe Five Computers.”
This 1943 quote is attributed to Thomas J. Watson, who was the chairman and CEO of IBM. What a puzzling statement from the head of a company that would eventually become one of the leading computer manufacturers in the world. Was Watson ill when he said something so bafflingly wrong?
Watson never said anything like that. This quote is not mentioned by any major newspapers or magazines. There are no speeches, meetings notes or letters that hint at him entertaining this idea. The attribution first appeared in 1986, when a Usenet poster used the alleged quote as his signature. However, an earlier Usenet discussion points at these words having nothing to do with Watson.
Instead, a similar sentiment was supposedly expressed by a Cambridge Professor Douglas Hartree in 1951. It’s not certain whether Hartree indeed said something along those lines. But notably, even if he did, he was talking about the first, large, very specialized computers that he himself developed. They were to modern PCs what Godzilla is to a pet lizard. Suddenly his market-size estimate sounds a lot less off base.
5. “There is Nothing New to be Discovered in Physics Now. All That Remains is More and More Precise Measurement.”
Lord “Absolute Zero” Kelvin is said to have spoken these words in 1900. To a bunch of physicists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, no less. That’s not an audience you want to make such an obvious blooper in front of, is it?
The quote is disputed. There are no primary sources documenting Kelvin’s words. Even some people who have previously used this quote as an example are questioning its origin. More importantly, in the same year as he supposedly made the wrong prediction, Kelvin spoke about “two clouds on the horizon [of theoretical physics.]” These clouds were eventually addressed by the emergence of revolutionary ideas like quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.
So it appears Lord Kelvin was just a tad more open minded about new possibilities than his alleged statement would have us believe.
4. “There is No Reason for Any Individual to Have a Computer in His Home.”
This was said in 1977 by Ken Olsen – founder, president and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). DEC was a major player in the computer industry and the first company to introduce a mini computer to the market. How foolish it was of Ken to dismiss a huge potential market for personal computers, when his own company was busy developing computer equipment.
Yup, Ken Olsen did say something like that. But he wasn’t talking about PCs. He was referring to a central computer controlling things at home. That’s right, he was essentially describing the dangers of HAL 9000. Olsen was actually exasperated over what he felt was a “ridiculous” interpretation of his words. He stressed that, at the time of the quote, his whole family was already using the equivalents of personal computers.
So, did Ken wrongly predict the future importance of personal computers? Most likely not. Did 2001: A Space Odyssey make him a little paranoid? Quite possibly.
3. “Who the Hell Wants to Hear Actors Talk?”
Harry Warner of Warner Brothers spoke these words in 1926. How strange to see such lack of foresight from the co-founder of a huge movie studio. Really, Harry? You’d rather movies stayed silent forever?
Not at all. Harry was just being a shrewd businessman. Here’s the full quote: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? The music – that’s the big plus about this.”
Harry was not dismissing the use of sound in movies. He was, however, suggesting to use it for music as first priority. In the silent era, movie studios employed musicians to provide live accompaniment to films. By “canning” the music, Warner Brothers could spare the musicians’ salaries, which would be a significant cost cut. On top of that, prior attempts at making “talking” films had flopped, so Harry was naturally being cautious. It also didn’t help that actors of the era were hired for their looks and many had terrible voices. Anyone who heard Pierce Brosnan sing in Mamma Mia may look more kindly upon Harry Warner.
2. “640K Ought to be Enough for Everybody.”
This 1981 quote comes from none other than Bill Gates himself, referring to the amount of usable RAM. For a man who started the Microsoft powerhouse, and one of the richest people alive, he sure was laughably mistaken. Many of today’s games need 4GB of RAM to run smoothly, which shows just how wrong Gates was.
The quote seems to be an urban legend. Bill Gates himself, while admitting many past errors of judgement, denies ever saying it. Nobody can identify the true origin of the quote. We do know Gates is responsible for the optimistic prediction of eradicating spam by 2006. Check your mailbox. That didn’t quite pan out, did it?
However, the specific 640K quote is just a myth that manages to get Bill Gates really fired up. Maybe that’s exactly why people keep bringing it up?
1. “Everything that Can be Invented has Been Invented.”
Charles H. Duell was the commissioner of US Patent Office. In 1899, he definitively concluded that people were just about done with the whole “inventing new stuff” business. Soon afterwards, the 20th century proved him wrong by giving us the miracle of human flight, space travel, and blankets that you can wear directly on your body. As the man in charge of the US Patent Office, Duell should really have known better!
Oh, he knew better. In fact, he was convinced that inventions of the 20th century would dwarf all prior progress. So why would he say something so patently (yes, we went there) stupid? The answer is simple: he never said it. A librarian named Samuel Sass set out to find the original source of the alleged quote. He concluded that, far from pulling the brakes on innovation, Duell actually lobbied for improvements to the US patent system to encourage potential inventors.
So where did the quote come from? Sass suggests that it surfaced as the result of a 1843 report by the Henry L. Ellsworth – Patent Office commissioner at the time. Henry used “a bit of rhetorical flourish to emphasize that the number of patents was growing at a great rate.” At some point, his words were taken out of context, misquoted, and then wrongly attributed to Duell.
Authors Cerf and Navasky were behind a 1984 book The Experts Speak, which repeated and popularized the misattributed quote. This is what Sass had to say about them: “Evidently it did not occur to Cerf and Navasky to question that statement. They simply copied it from the earlier book. One can expect that in the future there will be more such copying because it is easier than checking the facts.”
Oh snap, now that’s some Sass!