Beyond Future Imperfect – Part 2: Energy, Computers, and Communication, How Absurd

So we’re off to a good start. As you may see, sometimes the future is never what we imagine it. And sometimes what we think was impossible is made possible. And none of that can be emphasized than in this post. In this edition of Beyond Future Imperfect, we go over what people initially surmised about energy, computers, and communication. To people who lived before these caught on, they would’ve thought such things were the stuff of science fiction. For instance, before the late 1800s, nobody would imagine lights being powered by electricity. Then the light bulb was invented and it took a savvy inventor named Thomas Edison to popularize it. And before WWII, nobody thought nuclear power was possible, even Albert Einstein. Yes, that Einstein. Then there’s the development of computers which people in your grandparents’ generation wouldn’t dream of having due to them being incredibly expensive and the tendency to take up a whole room. But the development of the microchip changed all that which led to the rise of Silicon Valley as well as the emergence of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Internet. And there’s communication which before the Industrial Revolution, hadn’t seen much development since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and movable type in the 1400s. Yet, messages were still delivered through horse, coach, and messenger. But the Industrial Revolution saw the development of the telegraph which led to the telephone. Later on, you then had the invention of radio and television. And in the 1980s and 1990s, you had the Internet, whose development for the massses was funded by the US government in a bill passed through Congress that was sponsored by a little known Senator named Al Gore. So without further adieu, I now bring you my second post in the series of Beyond Future Imperfect.

Electricity? Just a Phase


Sure Edison didn’t really invent the light bulb and he knew it. But it was his light bulb that turned out more practical, long lasting, and commercially viable among the masses. And they said electricity was just a phase. Well, his idea of direct current, that is.

“Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.” – -Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison’s light bulb, 1880 (Boy, he had no idea that Edison’s lightbulb would help bring electricity into people’s homes and that it’s still around to this day. Some failure that turned out to be.)

“When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” – Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson (Seems like Professor Wilson is sorely mistaken, since everyone in industrialized world uses electric lights to this day.)

“There is no plea which will justify the use of high-tension and alternating currents, either in a scientific or a commercial sense.”— Thomas Alva Edison, 1889 (We still use the alternating current today. Direct current, on the other hand….)

“Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress.”— Sir William Siemens (on Edison’s announcement of light bulb), 1880 (Clearly this guy has no idea how the light bulb will change the world.)

“Do not bother to sell your gas shares. The electric light has no future.” —Professor John Henry Pepper, Victorian-era celebrity scientist, sometime in the 1870s (Yes, it has a future like you wouldn’t believe. Seriously, we still use it in the 21st century.)

Nuclear Power? Forget It


And Einstein thought this wouldn’t be possible in the 1930s. Guess that’s one of the few things he was definitely wrong about. Nevertheless, would I say it’s safe? No freaking way.

“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. (This is probably one of the few instances in the history of science where Einstein is wrong. Seriously, splitting the atom was done in his own lifetime for God’s sake. And yes, nuclear energy does exist for that.)

“There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom. The glib supposition of utilizing atomic energy when our coal has run out is a completely unscientific Utopian dream, a childish bug-a-boo. Nature has introduced a few fool-proof devices into the great majority of elements that constitute the bulk of the world, and they have no energy to give up in the process of disintegration.”— Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize winner in physics, 1920 (Man, he’s going to be in for a shock come the 1940s.)

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.”— Ronald Reagan, 1980 (Seriously, can someone please school Ronald Reagan on how nuclear energy works. Tell him how much waste a nuclear plant generates a year. It’s a matter of tons.)

“The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who looks for a source of power in the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.”— Ernest Rutherford, 1936 (He won’t be saying this by 1945.)

Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” -– Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., in the New York Times in 1955. (Thank the Lord this didn’t happen. Noisy vacuum cleaners are bad enough. Radioactive vacuum cleaners are the stuff of nightmares.)

“There is little doubt that the most significant event affecting energy is the advent of nuclear power…a few decades hence, energy may be free—just like the unmetered air….-“- John von Neumann, scientist and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1955. (Uh, no, it won’t. Seriously, people receive electric bills. Also, nuclear power isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.)

Computers? You Mean These Useless Magic Machines?


Back in the day, it was said that computers in the future would weight 1.5 tons and that there would be a market for 5 of them. Guess they weren’t betting on the invention of the microchip.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943. (Today there’s a market for countless computers.)

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, 1949.  (Today’s computers are made with no vacuum tubes and can fit on a desk, lap, or palm in your hand.)

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” — The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957. (Well, data processing is alive and well because it’s used in practically everything.)

But what…is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip. (Well, for making computers more accessible, affordable, smaller, more useful, and more powerful. And basically changing computers as we know them.)

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977. (Yes, this is as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs showed them and got rich over it.)

“Get your feet off my desk. Get out of here. You stink. And we’re not going to buy your product.”—Joe Keenan, President of Atari, responding to Steve Jobs’ offer to sell him the rights to Apple (Atari just made a very dumb mistake.)

“It would appear that we have reached the limits of what is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years.”— John von Neumann, computer inventor, 1949

“We have reached the limits of what is possible with computers.”— John Von Neumann, 1949 (Just wait until the microchip is invented.)

“We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” — Bill Gates (Oh, yes, you will, Bill. Yes, you will.)

“The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”—Steve Jobs discussing the Kindle (Newsflash: they do.)

“I’m sorry… but really? This is really what you think the iPad will cause? What we have now with this tablet craze is a trend, like Pogs. (…) I don’t know how anyone can possibly think that the iPad will be some sort of paradigm shift.”— moocat commenting on this Gizmodo article about the iPad being the future. (Sorry, but the he iPad is a hit that they’ve made other computer tablets as well. In fact, I have an LG Tablet from Verizon which I got for Christmas.)

“For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few … On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper.” – Erik Sandberg-Diment, The New York Times, 1985. (Clearly this guy has never foreseen laptops, Kindles, or iPads.)

Communication? Come Back to Reality


Wonder why Western Union turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s offer of $100,000 for his telephone company? Seriously, isn’t transmitting voices better than Morse Code? Oh, well, their loss.

“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. (Of course, telephones made wire communication much easier due to a speaker and receiver you can talk into and hear through. Sure beats Morse code. Phones are still around to this day. Western Union, on the other hand is not.)

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, 1876. (I’m sure messenger boys aren’t as efficient as communicating through wires.)

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s. (Uh, a lot of people since David Sarnoff knew what he was doing and he got rich on it.)

“The radio craze…will die out in time.”— Thomas Alva Edison, 1922 (No, it won’t, Mr. Edison.)

“The Internet will catastrophically collapse in 1996.”— Robert Metcalfe, internet inventor (date unknown) (The Internet is still around and it’s 20 years after 1996.)

“The Internet? We are not interested in it.” –Bill Gates, 1993. (Really, Bill? Think you’d better start.)

“It is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires as may be done with dots and dashes of Morse code, and that, were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.” – Boston newspaper, 1865. (Guess what happened within the next decade.)

“Radio has no future.”– Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), British mathematician and physicist, ca. 1897. (Once again, Lord Kelvin is wrong. Dead wrong.)

“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”— William Orton, Western Union President, turning down Alexander Graham Bell’s offer to sell his telephone company for $100,000 (As a matter of fact, the $100,000 for that electric toy was worth it.)

“[Apple’s iPhone] is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard which makes it not a very good e-mail machine…”–Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, 2007. (Meanwhile, Steve Jobs just earned Apple millions of dollars and is laughing his way to the bank.)

“The telephone is a curious device that might fairly find place in the magic of Arabian Tales. Of what use is such an invention?”—A newspaper reporter, 1876. (Uh, talking to people over long distances.)

“The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.”–Guglielmo Marconi, pioneer of radio, Technical World Magazine, October, 1912, page 145. (Just because something makes war ridiculous doesn’t make it impossible. Also, guess what happens 2 years later.)

“The truth is 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.” – Clifford Stoll, 1995. (Maybe not, but the Internet is changing everything as we speak. Ever heard of Amazon?)


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