Jillian has been interested in computer science since her second year of high school. She tries to keep abreast with current trends in tech.
Even the smartest of us aren’t immune to making poor calls every once in a while. In the field of tech, particularly, experts have put forward a number of claims that, while feasible in the moment, would later prove spectacularly wrong.
Here are five of the worst predictions people throughout history have made about technology.
#1 - Computers Will Never be Lightweight
Back in 1949, Popular Mechanics, a magazine devoted to exploring interesting developments in technology, published the following statement: “Where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons."
The prediction seems absurd in today’s world—indeed, I’m writing this article on a phone that weighs a good sight less than 1½ tons—but in 1949, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable. As the writer notes, the lightest-weight “calculators” of the time, like ENIAC, weighed up to 30 tons and came eqiupped with a mind-boggling plethora of vacuum tubes. Compared to those, a 1½ ton computer would seem futuristic—if not downright impossible to produce, hence the writer’s liberal use of words like “maybe” and “perhaps”.
Although the prediction turned out to be wrong—hilariously so nowadays—it might be wise to cut Popular Mechanics a bit of slack. They were trying their best to piece together a picture of the future using information available at the time, a daunting task in any era.
Psst, kid... wanna buy some vacuum tubes?
#2 - The Internet Is a Fad and Will Die Out
In a now infamous piece of editorial fire published in February 1995’s issue of Newsweek, Clifford Stoll tried to call baloney on the idea of a society built around the Internet. “The truth,” Stoll wrote, is that “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”
While Stoll’s prognosis seems extreme for those of us reading in the modern day, some of his arguments would have held water in 1995. In protesting the rise of electronic reading devices, for instance, Stoll claims that “the myopic glow of a clunky computer” can never adequately replace “the friendly pages of a book.” Considering a device you might use to read books with in 1995 was larger, heavier, and filled with 100% more wires than an actual copy of the book, he’s entirely right. Nowadays, though, e-readers offer just as “friendly” an experience as ink-and-paper books.
Stoll’s predictions, however off-target, have been memorialized for enternity on Newsweek’s mobile site—the only place you’ll be able to find them now that the newspaper chain has shifted to a wholly online presence. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s ironic or not.
The only thing harder to predict than the future of the Internet? What Clifford Stoll’s hair will look like in the morning.
#4 - The iPhone Will Be an Economic Flop
Today, it’s difficult to imagine how the world would look without iPhones. More than 90 million people use them on a daily basis to connect with friends, play games, and conduct business, contributing to a globally interconnected marketplace of ideas.
We might take the iPhone’s success for granted now that it’s secured such a massive role in the marketplace, but back in 2007, some reserved their doubts about the device’s future.
One skeptic, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, made the following remark when asked about the iPhone, which at the time was making its grand debut in Apple stores across America: “There's no chance,” he said, “that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”
As unfortunate a prediction as it turned out to be—216 million iPhones were sold in 2018 alone—Ballmer wasn’t shooting entirely in the dark with his projections. As he explains in an interview almost ten years after his initial remarks, he thought the iPhone would flop because, at $600, its price ”was too high” for most consumers to pay. But because Apple came up with a “business model innovation ... to get [that cost] essentially built into the monthly cell phone bill,” the iPhone took off in a way Ballmer couldn’t have predicted.
I like to imagine Mr. Ballmer wipes away the tears articles like this bring to his eyes with crisp Benjamins.
#5 - Television Is Too Boring to Have a Future
Think back to the last great television show you watched. Odds are, it had you glued to your seat, eyes fixed on the screen as you anticipated what might happen next. Perhaps it was the finale of a season you‘d spent the whole day binging, an increasingly popular pastime in the age of streating services like Netflix and Hulu.
In 1946, however, leading figures in the movie industry had their doubts about the prospect of an in-house theater. Darryl Zanuck, a prodigious screenwriter and founder of Twentieth Century Fox, had this to say about TV:
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.
What he didn’t fathom was that the ”plywood box” would go on to become one of America’s most profitable systems of entertainment, selling 12.2 million units in 1970 and laying the foundations for an industry that thrives to this day.
Jillian Cameron (author) from CA on March 14, 2019:
Yeah, exactly. I’d figure the writers would have at least one (if not more) connections with researchers in the fields they were writing about in order to ensure they were getting, and publishing, the most accurate information they could. It would only be expected, as you say, of such a popular magazine to stay on top of innovations like the transistor.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 13, 2019:
I'm not sure how widespread knowledge of transistors was by 1949. I do recall that it was the mid-50s before transistor radios hit the market. So, it's not surprising that the PM editors hadn't realized the significance of this new technology in 1949. On the other hand, keeping on top of current tech research so their readers would know what was on the horizon is something you'd expect a magazine like that to be doing.
Jillian Cameron (author) from CA on March 13, 2019:
Oh wow, I didn’t know that! Ironic, indeed.
Do you think the writers at Popular Mechanics simply weren’t aware of how the transistor would change the way we approach hardware development? Or were they already being used by 1949 to replace vacuum tubes?
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 13, 2019:
The irony of Popular Mechanics' computer size prediction is that the invention that would change everything was already on the scene. Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947, making the concept of "1000 vacuum tubes" in a computer already outdated when the PM article came out in 1949.