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Technology & Science Predictions That Failed

Technology & Science Predictions That Failed

1 “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” —Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

Here’s some food for thought—there are three computers within my line of sight as I write this. To further put things in perspective, 83 million computers have already been sold just this year so far, with the total numbers of personal computers in use having already crossed the 2 billion mark. And while it took 27 years to reach the 1 billion sales mark, it only took 7 to grow from 1 billion to 2 billion. Now let’s be fair, I don’t think anyone in 1943 had any idea that the personal computing industry would blow up the way it has in the last few decades.

And when Thomas Watson said “five computers”, he probably wasn’t talking about the advanced port
able computers we know now so much as “five vacuum-tube powered number adding machines that could fill up three rooms and consume an entire city block’s worth of electricity supply”; still, as far as predictions go, this isn’t particularly well-advised.

2 “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio, the 1920s And David Sarnoff’s associates were never invited to a conference table again.

In the US radio penetration currently stands at 59% of the population, behind only TV, and ahead of internet and print. Between 2009-2019, the advertising revenue generated from radio is expected to be around $17bn in the US and around $31bn globally.

Closer to home, the radio industry in India is expected to be worth between `5000-6000 crores by 2020. Not too bad for a “wireless music box” with “no imaginable commercial value” that “no one would pay for”, right? Alas, if only David’s associates were a little wiser, they would have struck the deal of the century.

3 “I’d shut Apple down and give the money back to the shareholders.” — Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell, 1997

When you’re a competitor, you’re sort of forced to take a contrary position by default. But Michael would have never imagined the ways in which this statement would come back to haunt him. Steve gave Michael some instant karma by mocking the living hell out of him in one of his media appearances following the latter’s statement, adding a prophetic, “We’re coming after you, buddy,” towards the end, and came after him, he did. The rest, as they say, is history: Apple eventually not only crushed Dell, but the entire PC industry as a whole. You can watch the video on YouTube by searching, “Steve Jobs hammers Michael Dell.” In recent years, Michael has repeatedly tried to backtrack on his statement, How ironic that Dell had to go private, after taking a $2 million loan from Microsoft and Michael Dell. Ouch!

4 “Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899

It’s almost as if someone jokingly challenged Lord Kelvin to intentionally poke fun at three of the greatest scientific ideas of the 20th century, then some rookie journalist jumped the gun and went to press without context, and the noble Lord has been misquoted ever since. It’s won’t be a stretch to say that one could write an entire book on just the applications of radio technology alone; oh wait a minute, someone already has, It’s called the Handbook of Radio and Wireless Technology and happens to be 640 pages long. Coming to the subject of planes, about 102,700 commercial flights are undertaken every day according to rough estimates, and we’re not even talking about the role of airplanes in military strategy around the world. As for X-rays, they happen to be the mainstay of primary diagnosis in the field of medicine worldwide. Severely misinformed?

5 “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” — Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum, 2004

Hey Bill its been 12 years now, I know you’re smart and everything, but please tell that to the Nigerian prince who just emailed me this morning requesting my bank details because he just inherited a few hundred million dollars that he needs to redistribute in multiple accounts across the world to hide it from his own predatory government. I shouldn’t be mocking; I must be getting my share of $7 million any minute now. The mandatory Nigerian prince spam joke aside, spam is still pretty much alive and kicking, although intelligent spam filters try to keep us protected from it. Kaspersky Labs recently estimated that almost as much as 70% of all email is spam. The reason why spam is so pervasive and often difficult to track is because a majority of spam is not sent by the spammer, but by infecting and hijacking the computers of other people like you and I using malware.

6 “We’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.” — Clifford Stoll, astronomer and author, 1995

It’s one thing to wrongly predict the success or failure of something and completely another thing to sound delightfully snide while doing so. This statement comes from an article published in Newsweek in 1995, very descriptively titled: “The Internet? Bah!”. In the article, Clifford goes on to debunk the hype behind the coming “information superhighway” as “baloney”. However, as an author of a few acclaimed books on hacking and technology, astronomer, and general mad-scientist type—Clifford’s scathing tone was probably rooted more in concern and experience rather than maliciousness. He believed that the Internet was too disorganized and chaotic a database to be of any practical purpose and that online shopping could never replace the personal touch and salesmanship you get in a retail shop. Of course, there were a lot of other things he failed to predict, including the emergence of trackers and algorithms that would keep throwing products in your face all across the Internet till you bought the product out of desperation just so it would leave you alone—who says the Internet doesn’t have salesmanship?

7 “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison

An unfortunate statement to make, certainly, but Edison had his reasons for making it. Back in the day, two current systems were competing neck and neck for mass adoption in the market: Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC), being promoted by his own Edison Electric Light Company and Nikolas Tesla’s alternating current (AC), whose patent was sold to George Westinghouse, owner of Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Edison’s commercial rival. The long drawn struggle between the two competing companies and the people behind them came to be known as the “War of currents.” The story gets complicated but the bottom line is that AC won over DC, mainly because the voltage of AC can be modulated to extremely high levels (“Danger: 11000 Volts” signs anyone?) and later stepped down at the point of delivery unlike DC—allowing it to be transmitted over longer distances using thinner, and therefore less costly wires, making the distribution much cheaper.

Even though DC is still extensively used in modern electronic devices such as computers, telephones, automotive systems, and more, Edison would have found little comfort knowing that AC is how the power is really reaching all these devices across the world in the first place.

Technology & Science Predictions That Failed

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