In the 20th century, the world saw a turn around in technology,
replete with discoveries and inventions that changed the world. We moved
from horse and cart to motor vehicles and space travel, from messenger
boys to telephone and Internet communications, and from candlelight to
Yet despite the rapid changes in technology,
it is amazing how many experts failed to recognize the significance of
the inventions which have shaped our modern society. A number of famous
quotes from inventors, media organizations, and world leaders illustrate
just that. Viewing these pundits’ statements in hindsight shows just
how thoroughly they’ve been proven wrong.
Nobody Would Want A Home Computer
is no doubt that you are reading this article on a computer. Personal
PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones are part of our daily lives, and
there are billions of connected devices in the world today. So it seems
incredible to think that some of the original pioneers of modern
computer technology failed to imagine the enormity of their inventions.
1943, Thomas Watson, president of IBM, was famously quoted as saying,
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” At the time,
the vacuum-powered adding machines were gigantic, so it was a
reasonable assumption that nobody would want one in their home. In fact,
Watson is possibly being quoted a little out of context (and some say
he never uttered the statement at all). The computer applications to
which he was referring were large national data management systems, not
the microcomputers we use today.
However, the founder of the
tech corporation involved in developing the first personal computers
obviously underestimated the public demand to “be connected.” In 1977,
Ken Olsen, founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation, said, “There is
no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
there are over two billion personal computers in use worldwide, with
over three billion people accessing the Internet each day.
Television Is Just An Illusion
Many complain of being bored with television, albeit not to the extent a movie mogul predicted during the 1940s.
Zanuck, executive producer at 20th Century Fox, had more than 100
movies to his name when television sets began to become more popular.
Mechanical TV sets had been around since the 1920s, but only a few
thousand people had sets in their home. It wasn’t until the development
of electronic televisions, released commercially in the US in 1938, that
they gained popularity.
No stranger to entertaining an
audience, Zanuck dismissed the TV as a passing fad. In a 1946 interview,
Zanuck said, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it
captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of
staring at a plywood box every night.”
Today, more than 1.4 billion households across the globe have at least one TV set.
The Telephone Is Of No Use
hard to imagine a world without telephones, e.g. the days when we
relied upon “snail mail” and messenger boys to communicate. However,
some top communications officials failed to see the importance of this
technology when Alexander Graham Bell first patented his telephone.
received the first patent for a modern telephone in 1876. However,
Bell’s invention was not as readily accepted as you might think. When
trying to sell his patent to Western Union, the president of the
company, William Orton, was quoted as saying the telephone “has too many
shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
in the 1890s, William Henry Preece said, “The Americans may have need
of the telephone, we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Today,
there are around seven billion telephones in use around the world.
High-Speed Rail Is Not Possible
the early 1800s, rail travel was a rather slow affair. As rail
technology developed, though, trains became faster, and experts began to
warn of the detrimental health effects of rail travel. “Brain trouble”
and “vertigo” were cited among the many perils of this new mode of
transport. In 1823, scientist Dionysius Lardner reportedly said, “Rail
travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to
breathe, would die of asphyxia.” (Whether he truly said this has been
Similarly, the Prussian king couldn’t fathom why
anyone would want to use rail transport when the Berlin-to-Potsdam rail
system opened. King William I of Prussia said, “No one will pay good
money to travel from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour, when he can ride his
horse there in one day for free.”
If only they could see the
crowded metro stations around the world today, or the Japanese bullet
trains traveling at hundreds of miles per hour.
Horses Are Here To Stay
first production car first hit the road in 1885, when German inventor
Karl Benz first patented his Motorwagen. Automobiles didn’t become
widely available until Henry Ford produced his famous Model T.
everyone saw the future of the motor vehicle, and many felt they would
never be cheap enough to be commercially viable. There were fears about
the dangers of cars traveling along the roads at high speeds (23
kilometers per hour [14 mph] ), and many people felt they would never
In 1903, Ford asked his lawyer, Horace
Rackham, to invest in his automobile company. The president of the
Michigan Savings Bank advised Rackham against investing in Henry Ford’s
motor vehicles. “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a
novelty,” he reportedly said.
Today, there are over one billion cars driven on the roads worldwide.
Communication Satellites Won’t Be A Thing
modern-day “global village” relies on communication satellites in orbit
to keep us connected. Satellites relay signals which connect us to the
Internet, our cell phone networks, and television and radio stations
every day. So it seems incredible that an early communications pioneer
dismissed the possibility that this technology would ever happen.
Craven was a US Navy officer who had assisted in developing radio
communications. Craven was twice appointed to the Federal Communications
Commission, his second tenure lasting into the early 1960s, during the
space race between the US and the Soviet Union.
launch of the Russian Sputnik satellites, in 1961, Craven reportedly
reassured the commission that, “There is practically no chance
communications space satellites will be used to provide better
telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United
Just three years later, Americans enjoyed the first
live television coverage of the summer Olympics in Japan via the newly
launched Syncom 3 communications satellite.
Cell Phones Won’t Replace Wire Systems
people have a handheld mobile phone today. The first practical mobile
phones were developed during World War II and were limited to vehicles,
little more than an elaborate walkie-talkies. The technology was
eventually expanded to luxury vehicles, and major communications
companies were researching ways to make mobile phone technology small
enough to be truly portable.
In 1973, Martin Cooper,
researcher and executive at the Motorola company, made the first call
from a handheld mobile device. Using the 1.1-kilogram (2.5 lb),
30-centimeter-long (12 in), brick-like device, Cooper stood on the
streets of Manhattan and dialed his main competitor in the Bell labs to
let him know he was speaking to him from a handheld mobile. However,
even Cooper seemed to undervalue the enormity of his invention. He was
quoted in 1981 as saying, “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace
local wire systems.”
Today, landline phone service is quickly becoming somewhat of a dinosaur, with most people opting for a mobile service.
Nuclear Power Isn’t Possible
Einstein became the most famous physicist of the 20th century. Even the
least scientifically minded person is aware of his theory of special
relativity and his famous equation E = mc2.
research was fundamental to the development of nuclear energy and the
atomic bomb. Yet even Einstein himself failed to realize the
potential of his discoveries. In 1934, he was reported as saying, “There
is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be
obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at
In 1938, two Berlin scientists discovered nuclear
fission. This research, in turn, led to the development of the atomic
bomb and over 450 nuclear power plants around the world today.
Alternating Current Is A Waste Of Time
During the 1880s, two inventors were embroiled in an electric war over currents.
Edison, famed for his invention of the light bulb, phonograph, and
moving pictures, was working on a direct current (DC) power source. His
rival, Nikola Tesla, was working on alternating current (AC) power
source, which would allow greater amounts of power to be transmitted
over larger distances. Edison maintained that Tesla’s AC was too
dangerous to ever be of any use, saying, “Fooling around with
alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”
Edison’s DC today powers lower-voltage devices such as batteries, it is
Tesla’s AC that powers the cities around the world.
Online Shopping Will Flop
the younger generation, it would be hard to imagine a world without
online shopping, the days when the alternative to driving to a shopping
mall and spending hours trawling through the shops was to either mail or
call in an order to a catalog.
Since the first online
purchase was made in 1994, Internet shopping has become the preferred
method for many people. You can even order your groceries online and
have them delivered at a convenient time. Yet back in 1966, Time
magazine produced a “futuristic” article on what they thought life might
be like in the year 2000.
The article stated that “remote
shopping,” while entirely feasible, will flop because women like to get
out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to
change their minds.” That’s not only a controversial statement by
modern standards, but there would also be very few of us who would not
take advantage of the convenience of online shopping.