Magazine article IPA Review

Famous Last Words

Magazine article IPA Review

Famous Last Words

Article excerpt

THE world is changing very quickly. The pace of change seems to be accelerating. Even the experts marketing their products can be far wide of the mark when they predict the changes they will cause.

Back in the 1950s, an IBM marketing report suggested that the entire world market for computers could be satisfied with just nine IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculators (SSEC). The error of this forecast is obvious today when there are more than 200 million personal computers, each more powerful than the SSEC, in use in homes and offices around the world.

Given this, I thought it would be fun to put together a collection of inaccurate forecasts about technology that have been made throughout history. The theme is set by Charles H. Duell, Director of the US Patent Office, who, in 1899, announced that his job was done. "Everything that can be invented has been invented," he said. Duell is not alone in his short-sightedness.

TRAINS: "What can be more palably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" The Quarterly Review, England, March 1825.

"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia," Dr Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859), Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London.

SHIPS: "What, sir? You would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense." Napoleon Bonaparte, speaking to Robert Fulton, American inventor of the steamship.

"Even if the propeller had the power of propelling a vessel, it would be found altogether useless in practice, because the power being applied in the stern would be absolutely impossible to make the vessel steer." Sir William Symonds, British Royal Navy, 1837.

CARS: "The ordinary `horseless carriage' is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle." The Literary Digest, October 14, 1899. "The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumours to that effect." Harper's Weekly, August 2, 1902.

AIRCRAFT: "Man will not fly for fifty years." Wilbur Wright, 1901.

"We hope that Professor Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time, and the money involved, in further airship experiments. Life is short, and he is capable of services to humanity incomparably greater than can be expected to result from trying to fly ... For students and investigators of the Langley type there are more useful employments." The New York Times, December 10, 1903. Seven days before Wilbur's brother Orville Wright lifted the first powered aircraft off the ground at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

"Airplanes will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers." Octave Chanute, 1904.

"A popular fantasy is to suppose that flying machines could be used to drop dynamite on an enemy in time of war." William H. Pickering, US astronomer, 1908.

"The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steamships. It seems safe to say that such ideas are wholly visionary. ... Even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers the expense would be prohibitive. ... Another popular fallacy is to expect enormous speed. ... The resistance of air increases as the square of the speed and the work the cube [of the speed... It is clear that with our present devices there is no hope of competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or our automobiles." William H. Pickering, about 1910.

"Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value. …

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