We’ve all said dumb things before, things we regret. Most of us are fortunate that our words aren’t recorded for posterity — unless you posted those thoughts on your Facebook page. The people listed below weren’t so lucky; they all made incredibly bold, and in retrospect, incredibly wrong statements that live on decades later. Here are 10 interesting predictions about science and technology that seem ridiculous today.
10. “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”
– Lord Kelvin, 1895.
Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society of England, made this statement only eight years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Kelvin did pretty well in other areas of science — the Kelvin Scale is named in his honor — but he made other predictions that look awfully bad in hindsight. In 1897, he observed that “Radio has no future,” and he once claimed that, “X-rays are a hoax.”
9. “That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.”
– Scientific American, in a 1909 report.
Well, even the editors from this much-esteemed publication can be wrong.
8. “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
– Harry M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1926.
When Warner’s younger brother, Sam, suggested Warner Bros. pursue the concept of using synchronized speech in its movies, Harry was skeptical. Nonetheless, Sam prevailed and Warner Bros. released the first “talkie” film, The Jazz Singer, the next year, revolutionizing the film industry.
7. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”
– Ken Olsen, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
None other than Fortune Magazine once hailed the cofounder and longtime CEO of Digital Equipment Corp. as “arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.” In the 1980s, Digital ranked second only to IBM in the computer market, thanks to its pioneering design of the minicomputer, the forerunner to the PC we know today. Olsen actually did say this, at a 1977 World Future Society conference in Boston, and the quote was reported in major publications at the time. However, Olsen has repeatedly insisted it was taken out of context. He claims he had been referring to the concept of a “supercomputer” in the home that regulates temperatures, controls lighting and prepares meals. In that case, he hasn’t been proven wrong … yet. On a computer-related note, former IBM Chairman Thomas Watson has been frequently erroneously linked to this off-base prediction supposedly dating to 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” A couple of sources have searched for the origin of this quote and come up empty.
6. “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 will.”
– Albert Einstein, 1932.
Even geniuses can be wrong. Yet Einstein showed enough prescience several years later to urge President Roosevelt to begin a program to build an atomic bomb, before Germany developed the technology.
5. “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
– French military leader Ferdinand Foch, 1911.
Marshal Foch would later command all Allied forces in the latter stages of World War I. Yes, he relied on air power as part of the campaign. He’s actually better known for another famous quote that at the time might have seemed reckless but given hindsight seems heroic. In the first Battle of the Marne in 1914, Foch reported, “Hard pressed on my right; center is yielding; impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent, I shall attack!” His forces helped repel the German invaders.
4. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
– A response to radio pioneer David Sarnoff’s solicitation for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
Few foresaw the future potential of radio when the first commercially licensed broadcasters hit the U.S. airwaves in the early 1920s. Sarnoff certainly did, playing a key role in startup networks RCA and NBC.
3. “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.”
– Oxford University professor Erasmus Wilson, 1878.
The professor was clearly not impressed with the new technology of electric arc lighting on display during the exhibition.
2. “The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced … Sooner or later, a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable.”
– New York Times article, May 21, 1975.
OK, technically this prediction is true. Sooner or later, we will have another Ice Age. But it’s not happening as quickly as the mainstream media predicted in the 1970s. The New York Times wasn’t the only major media outlet in that era that ran stories touting the dawn of a new Ice Age, providing those skeptics who dismiss global warming today with proof that sometimes, the scientific consensus can be wrong. Will today’s forecasts of global warming seem as ridiculous 40 years from now?
1. “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
– FCC Commissioner T.A.M. Craven, in 1961.
The first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965, and has since been joined by thousands of others. Also in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow uttered an even more memorable quote, referring to television as a “vast wasteland.”
“Everything that can be invented has already been invented.”
This would be the ultimate quote for a list like this, except it’s a fabrication. As widely reported, U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles Duell supposedly said this in 1899. This quote had been discredited as early as 1940, according to the Skeptical Inquirer, but it still repeatedly surfaces as true.