25 Historic Technology Predictions

It's the end of the year and you won't be able to escape a wave of technology predictions for next year. Most of them seem to fairly reasonable, but they aren't quite as aggressive and entertaining anymore as they were in the past. Here are our 25 favorite technology predictions that were not exactly true.

1878 - Erasmus Wilson (Oxford professor): "When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it." Fact: The first electric light was made in 1800 by Humphry Davy. Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb in October of 1879.

1903 - Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer, Horace Rackham: "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty -- a fad." Fact: The first working steam-powered vehicle was designed by Ferdinand Verbiest in 1672. Karl Benz is generally considered to be the inventor of the modern car. He patented his Motorwagen in 1886. Ford's iconic Model T car was built from 1908 through 1927. More than 15 million were built.

1909 - Scientific American: "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." Fact: We do know that the automotive industry is still going through rapid innovation cycles, almost 125 years after the patent for the Motorwagen was filed. We are not seeing an end yet, especially since we will be getting the most interesting hybrid vehicles in 2011 so far.

1926 - Lee DeForest (Inventor of the vacuum tube): "To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth -- all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances." Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in April of 1961. Today we are talking about commercial spaceflights -- there is a Commercial Spaceflight Federation and you could even book spaceflights through carriers such as Virgin Galactic for $200,000 per seat (no flights scheduled yet).

1932 - Albert Einstein: "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." Fact: Enrico Fermi achieved the first nuclear reaction in 1941.

1936 - New York Times: "A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere." Fact: The first rocket capable of reaching space was Germany's V2 missile that was first launched in 1942. The first rocket that actually carried something into space (the Sputnik satellite) was launched in 1957.

1943 - Thomas Watson (president of IBM): "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Fact: Gartner predicts that 352.4 million PCs will be sold in 2011. Including the iPad and other tablet devices, more than 400 million personal computing devices are forecasted to be sold next year.

1946 - Darryl Zanuck (movie producer, 20th Century Fox): "Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." Fact: We may fall asleep in front of the TV, but the modern TV is just about to be reinvented with connected TVs as well as the first naked-eye 3D TVs that could make an appearance at CES 2011 in two weeks.

1949 - Popular Mechanics: "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Fact: Apple's 11" Macbook Air weighs 2.3 pounds.

1955 - Alexander Lewyt (president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt): "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years." Fact: Dyson vacuum cleaners look like they are nuclear powered, but they are, as far we now, powered by standard electricity that may be generated by nuclear power plants. Lewyt was sold to Budd (today ThyssenKrupp Budd) in 1957.

1959 - Arthur Summerfield (U.S. postmaster general): "We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." Fact: The average letter still takes about 2 days to be delivered. For faster delivery times, faster than rockets that is, check email or SMS.

1962 - Dennis Gabor (British physicist): "Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition." Fact: The first email was reportedly sent in 1971. Among the first commercial email services was CompuServe, which began offering such services in 1978 under the name Infoplex.

1966 - Time: "Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop -- because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds." Fact: U.S. Consumers spent more than $28 billion in holiday online shopping in 2011.

1968 - Business Week: "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market." Fact: According to The Wall Street Journal, Japanese car manufacturers currently hold a combined 38% of the U.S. new car sales market.

1969 - A British bank manager to John Edwards, a former RAF radio engineer, when he asked for 250,000 British pounds of investment in cell phone technology: "No one wants to carry around a phone all the time." Fact: There is a dispute who really invented the cell phone. Edwards apparently developed the cell phone parallel to efforts in the U.S. and got stuck when he ran out for money. He maintains until today that he is the true inventor of the cell phone and says that he forgot to patent the technology, because he was simply excited about the technology. Today, he holds several other patents such as the hijack alarm in air planes.

1977 - Ken Olsen (founder of Digital Equipment Corporation): "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Fact: The most famous IT prediction.

1983 - Bill Gates (Co-founder and CEO, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) ): "Microsoft will never make a 32-bit operating system." Fact: Windows NT was Microsoft's first 32-bit operating system in 1994.

1995 - Bob Metcalfe (founder of 3Com): "The Internet will collapse in 1996." Fact: According to Internet World Stats, there are currently 1.97 billion Internet users. Attacks on free speech and spam remain the biggest threats to the Internet. Otherwise, it is still going strong. IDC estimated the number of Internet users in 1995 at 16 million.

1997 - Nathan Myhrvold (CTO of Microsoft): "Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) is already dead." Fact: Apple's stock closed 1997 with a price of $13.13 and a market cap of about $12 billion. Today, Apple has a market cap of $297 billion, ahead of Microsoft's $242 billion. Apple also surpassed Microsoft in quarterly revenues.

1998 - Bill Gates (Co-founder and CEO, Microsoft): "This antitrust thing will blow over." Fact: From today's view, Gates may have been right. Microsoft was sued by the DOJ and 20 U.S. states in 1998. A settlement was reached in 2001 and Microsoft's settlement obligations expired in 2009. It took more than a decade, but Microsoft has not seen considerable damage by this suit, but seems to be shooting itself in the foot instead. However, companies such as Google may want to keep the Microsoft lesson in mind.

1999 - Hans Moravec, Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University: "By 2050 (assuming a global population of 9 billion), $1000 worth of computing power will equal the processing power of all human brains on earth." I could not resist adding this one to this list. Someone should keep this one in a diary and check back in 39 years. By 2020, we are predicted to get the first exascale supercomputers, which can deliver 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 calculations per second for a little more than $1,000, we assume.)

2003 - Bill Gates: "These Google guys, they want to be billionaires and rock stars and go to conferences and all that. Let us see if they still want to run the business in two to three years." Fact: Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin are ranked among the 25 wealthiest people in the world with an estimated wealth of $17.5 billion each. The do not appear at conferences very often anymore.

2004 - Bill Gates: "Two years from now, spam will be solved." Fact: Gates was wrong.

2005 - Gene Munster, Piper Jaffray: "Apple could release a 1 TB iPod by the end of 2010." Fact: There is no need for a 1 TB iPod. The hard drive model is dead and 64 GB is the most you can get right now. Your storage space will be in the cloud in the future.

2009 - Cisco: "The first commercial quantum computer will be available by mid-2020." Fact: Another one to be checked -- in 9 years. However, I was fascinated how precise this forecast was. If it is released in Q4 2020, can we consider it to be late to market? However, there have been several quantum breakthroughs this year and we remember that D-wave announced the first Quantum computer in 2007 and the first quantum processor was announced in 2009.

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Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Apple and Ford are Motley Fool Stock Advisor choices. The Fool has created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft. Motley Fool Alpha owns shares of Cisco Systems. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2010, at 1:22 PM, yogaman101a wrote:

    Some of those predictions held true for more than 10 years. In some technology industries, 10 years should count as forever, so those predictions should count as accurate.

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