Accurate and amusing tech predictions from the past!

  • 13th August 2020
  • Evgeniy Anisimov
  • Technology
Accurate and amusing tech predictions from the past!

Over time, people have enjoyed predicting the future. The consequences of this are both eerily precise and utterly ridiculous! So, let's see some of the best in both categories.

To begin, we will look at the wildly inaccurate quotes:

  • In 1876, William Orton, the President of Western Union, had stated: “This telephone contains too many shortcomings to seriously consider it as a means of communication.”
  • 13 years later, in 1889, Thomas Edison had decided that “fooling around with alternating current (A.C.) just wastes time.” He continued to declare that no one will ever use it.
  • Horace Rackham, President of Michigan Savings Bank, had this to say in 1903 - “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” He was advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in Ford Motor Company.
  • In 1946, Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox asserted that “television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will get tired of staring at a plywood box”.
  • In 1951, TIME was tackling the TV-obsessed society- “Our people are becoming less literate by the minute.” The author feared that too much television would eat up more time than people would ordinarily use to read etc. The writer continued to say “By the 21st century our people doubtless will be squint-eyed, hunchbacked and fond of the dark, but why am I carrying on like this? Chances are that the grandchild of the Television Age won’t know how to read this.”>
  • U.S. Postmaster General, Arthur Summerfield stated in 1959, “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered in hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail."
  • Another inaccurate prediction was in 1961. T.A.M. Craven, of Federal Communications Commission, asserted that "There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States."
  • “Remote shopping, while feasible, will flop” according to TIME Magazine in 1966.
  • In 1981, Marty Cooper, inventor, predicted that "Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems."
  • A 1992 article suggested that we would “soon be able to feel and smell what is on our television” - coined as ‘multi-sensual media’. Nicholas Negroponte, then director of M.I.T’s media lab, said this would appear in the 21st century. (But on a positive note, we still have a few decades to go yet!)
  • Another significantly erroneous statement followed in 1995. Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, believed "the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."
  • Steve Chen, C.T.O and co-founder of YouTube, has expressed concerns about the company’s future in 2005, saying "There's just not that many videos I want to watch."
  • In 2006, David Pogue of The New York Times was regularly asked when Apple will come out with a cell phone. His reply? “Probably never.”
  • And in 2007, it was forecast that the iPhone would get no significant market share by Steve Ballmer, Microsoft C.E.O.

And now time for some of the uncannily accurate projections:

  • In 1888, Science-fiction writer Edward Bellamy Debit spoke of an early version of a debit or credit card. In his novel Looking Backwards 2000-1887, it is explained that “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen…and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, whatever he desires.”
  • Mr John Elfreth Watkins was a civil engineer and in 1900, offered an article to Ladies’ Home Journal. The item, named ‘What May Happen in the Next 100 Years’ contained some very accurate calculations. These included “Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span”, “Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later, photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colours.” Yet another was “Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.” Pretty amazing technology predictions right there!
  • In 1909, Nikola Tesla told The New York Times - "It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can own and operate his own apparatus.” Tesla also anticipated that “this wireless device would be handheld, straightforward to use” and even “the household’s daily newspaper will be printed wirelessly in the home during the night.“
  • In 1937, the author H.G. Wells envisioned what he called ‘The Permanent World Encyclopaedia’ which was in turn published in the book World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia. It is said, "A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date, and it will be made accessible to every individual...It need not be concentrated in any one single place...It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa." This should sound very familiar now, with the advent of the World Wide Web, Google, social media, and the internet as a whole.
  • In 1948, the author George Orwell wrote the now acclaimed novel, 1984. In the book, the dystopian society was kept under 24-hour surveillance by Big Brother. In 1948, the very idea of CCTV was not remotely a realistic thought. He also wrote of “telescreens that received and transmitted simultaneously” resonating with our ‘video and audio’ smartphones of today. The telescreens in the novel are used by the fictional government to watch everybody. Again, although we are not watched through our televisions, our networks and webcams can be hacked. His predictions didn’t stop at technology. He says that “surgeons can alter people beyond recognition”. With plastic surgery and the world's first face transplant having been performed, Orwell was way ahead of his time.
  • In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the famed novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. By joining forces with Stanley Kubrick in later years, the film was produced. In both film and book, two astronauts are seen reading a newspaper from what looks like an iPad. A quote from the book sums it up perfectly:

    “When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flashback to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination. Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds, he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word "newspaper," of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites. It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.”

    This description, and the depiction in Kubrick’s film, were so dead-on that Samsung used them in defence of its Galaxy tablet when Apple sued for patent infringement.
  • In 1987, Roger Ebert, a renowned movie critic, was asked a question. Upon being asked how he thought the competition between movies and television, his reply was- “We will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialling system to order the movie you want at the time you want it. You’ll not go to a video store but instead order a movie on demand and then pay for it. Videocassette tapes, as we know them now, will be obsolete both for showing pre-recorded movies and for recording movies. People will record films on 8mm and will play them back using laser-disk/CD technology . . . With this revolution in delivery and distribution, anyone, in any size town or hamlet, will see the movies he or she wants to see.” On-demand and Netflix, anyone?

It will be fascinating to see what other predictions become real in our lifetimes that have once been thought utterly ludicrous!