The seemingly improbable predictions about the future, and how most of them turned out to be right

The men who supposedly saw the future said things that bordered on the ridiculous, but on closer inspection, one has to confess that they came pretty close to nixing it. Here is a list of such forecasts on technology.

This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us. — A memo at Western Union, circa 1878.

In other words, the folks from the 19th Century simply hung up on the telephone. Considering the fact that one can’t send and receive SMSes, download ring tones, play games, surf the Net or catch up on Facebook using the telephone, one has to admit that it does have too many shortcomings to be seriously considered a means of communication. Truly a device that’s inherently of no value to us — couldn’t they have made it smarter, like the smartphone, perhaps?

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. — Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

One will never know what made the bigwigs at 20th Century Fox switch off at the very mention of television, but it is a fact that people did get tired of staring at a plywood box every night. And that was how TV evolved to its current hot, wall-mounted avatar. Now, it was up to people to get tired of staring at a plastic frame-mounted LED screen every night, but the TV guys were too smart to let that happen. They came up with IPL.

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

Intense research was done to figure out if the passengers would be able to withstand the breakneck speeds at which trains travelled initially, often clocking 15 miles an hour effortlessly. Eventually, serendipity helped uncover the cause of asphyxiation and difficulty in breathing — it was the stench from the toilets. Ever since, trains began a new era in transportation and have progressed to operating at over 200 miles per hour.

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

Though this is as erroneous as Bill Gates' “640k memory ought to be enough for anybody” quote, it’s a pretty accurate estimation of the number of computers currently being sold in India, what with everyone opting for the likes of tablets and phablets.

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain. — Martin Luther, German Reformation leader, Table Talk, circa 1530s.

The world took him seriously and soon, the sale of books went down dramatically (barring those titles that had shades of grey in them). But then, blogs came into our lives — everyone wanted to blog, be read and eventually be published. Today, the multitude of blogs is a great evil. There’s no limit to this fever for writing; everyone must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain.

Computers in the future will weigh no more than 1.5 tons. — Popular Mechanics, 1949.

Haven’t you heard your colleagues huff and puff with their laptops, claiming they weighed a ton? Close enough!

(sureshl.india@gmail.com)

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