Monday, December 3, 2012

4 Hilariously Wrong Predictions About Telephones And Computers

This is a guest post by John Unger.

The conquest of the iPhone seems pretty unsurprising these days. Apple gave us palm-sized access to everything of value in the world, and by now it’s become clear that the only thing that will ever separate us again would be final, all-consuming Armageddon. Even then, it’s doubtful—someone may keep an Apple device intact and roam the wasteland until they can find a way to recharge the battery, like Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli.

It’s strange to think of a time when computers—or even telephones—were considered fanciful, but intelligent professionals are on record stating that the most common tools of the 21st century would never develop into widespread use. In light of the staggering triumph of the iPhone, here are 4 examples of people incorrectly predicting that gadgets and devices would never be sustainable:
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
-- Western Union internal memo, 1876.
This quote definitely has a feeling of feigned casualness to it, sort of like the man who must’ve said “I don’t think anything will come out of that silly motorized carriage I saw careening down the road yesterday, do you? Of course not. Now, here are the premier buggy whip designs for the fall 1905 season. This one has a lovely chestnut-sable finish, with a shortened grip perfect for the young hands of your houseboy.”

Most businesses don’t look forward to things that could undo decades of work, and that’s only natural.  Western Union had conquered the nation with the blood, sweat, and tears of its employees, and didn’t want thousands of miles of telegram wires to suddenly become nothing but expensive hangouts for birds. And it got a few more good years out of the cable service before the telephone came into prominence, so the writer of that memo must have felt quite prophetic at first. Hopefully, he retired before the first switch boards were being built.
“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” 
Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, British Post Office, 1878.
This one is funny for its old-time elitist charm, where you can imagine the British Empire scoffing at innovation, preferring instead the comfortable warmth of lower-class servitude.  “Oh my dear boy, what on Earth would we want with that charmingly bizarre contraption?  Machine-assisted labor is for the savage, don’t you know.  Now I really must see you out. I’m awaiting the return of my faithful manservant Nigel, who is presently transporting a letter of mine the 80 treacherous miles to Sir Pennington’s estate, confirming that I will be in attendance for his 12th of October quail shoot.”

The messenger boys of the British Government Services must have breathed a sigh of relief on the day the first telephone started ringing in their master’s study.

But Sir William Preece is far from the only professional to mistake an ample labor source as superior to technological innovation. Some of the world’s best and brightest have refused to update their business models when a better method came along, and it’s an expensive lesson to learn.
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
-- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
This quote seems particularly odd coming from an executive of a computer company, but you have to consider the era: jet planes were a recent invention, a large part of the world was still without daily electricity, and the economic uncertainties of the largest war our planet had ever seen were still in full effect. Nobody knew what countries were still going to exist in fifty years’ time, let alone what inventions would become mainstream.

Also, computers were a very different animal back then. 1943 marked the year the Vacuum Tube Multiplier was created, a computer that replaced the older model based on electrical relays. It allowed information to be processed thousands of times faster than before, but the computer was still decades away from offering even a glimpse of its ultimate potential.

Still, it’s amusing to consider if Mr. Watson had been right, and there were only 5 vacuum tube computers scattered throughout the world by 2012, with 5 lonely engineers playing the slowest possible game of minesweeper and sending each other jokes in binary code that took days to arrive.
"But what ... is it good for?"
-- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip."
This is the most sobering of all 4 quotes: it comes from someone who is working directly in the field from which the microchip comes, asking a question that probably made a couple of the first-design guys slap their heads and scream about the folly of mankind’s ignorance. Imagine if you were Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate, and after he gave you the rundown on what would shortly make him the world’s youngest billionaire, you shrugged indifferently and said “But what’s the point? People just upload photos of themselves and list their favorite movies and quotes from books they’ve never actually read? And you have to ‘friend’ them first to see all of this? Doesn’t sound like it’s going to catch on.”
That IBM engineer was probably a very capable professional, someone who made countless contributions to his company’s legacy during his time there. But he was hilariously, wildly wrong on one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. The microchip is responsible for most of our standard of living today, and the devices that it powers have paved the way for further innovations that will really take us into the unknown. 5000 years from now, the microchip could be considered the single most important discovery in the history of our species, even greater than the first time our ancestors learned how to spark a flame.        

He may not have been on the right side of things, but that engineer serves as a reminder to always keep your mind clear of absolutes, or one day you may join the tarnished group of naysayers who claimed that machines will never fly, the germ cell theory of illness is nothing but hogwash, the sound barrier will never be broken, and the Internet is nothing but a passing fad.

About the Author

John Unger is a blogger who writes about a variety of topics from insurance quotes to technology and gadgets. He has previously written for brands such as Protect your bubble, a leading iPhone 5 insurance specialist that offers affordable protection for all smartphone and gadget owners.