By Frederic Friedel

What will computers look like fifty years from now? Don’t even try to predict that. Famous corporations and thinkers failed miserably when they tried to do it in the past. Take a look at how people sixty years ago saw future PCs.

In 1954, we were told, scientists from RAND Corporation created this model to illustrate what a “home computer” could look in the year 2004. They admitted, however, that this computer would require not yet invented technology to actually work. “But 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With a teletype interface and the Fortran language the computer will be easy to use.”

Of course in 2004, when I published the above story, home computers looked nothing like the above. They came as mini-tower PCs under your desk, or wide-screen notebooks you could carry around with you. So it was a cute note about bad predictions — but unfortunately not true.

The picture was a fake — actually a “fark”, since it was part of a Fark Photoshop competition. The image was generated from this color picture of a Smithsonian Institution full-scale display of a nuclear-powered submarine’s maneuvering room at the time. A full unraveling of the background can be found at Snopes, a site one should visit before one publishes anything at all.

However, it is true that that predictions from six decades ago failed to foresee that computers would become much smaller and cheaper; that these changes would enable every business and home to have its own computer to be used for a variety of applications, and that those machines would be linked together in a world-wide network. Instead, futurist scenarios frequently presented a world of very few, very expensive all-powerful computers the size of large buildings, used only for divining answers to complex problems beyond the ability of man to solve on his own. Here for your critical examination are a few more predictions that did not exactly hit the nail on the head.

  • “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • “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, responding to Karl V. Karlstrom (a junior editor who recommended a manuscript about data processing), circa 1957.
  • “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
  • “But what…is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
  • And from the book Bad Predictions by Laura Lee, which records failed forecasts: “Man will never fly… Electricity is a passing fad… By the year 2000 there will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet — they will be abandoned because unnecessary… In the year 2005 we will see the extension of the pneumatic tube system in every house, thus ensuring the immediate delivery of mail as soon as it arrives in the city… Mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles.”
  • And some more bad predictions.
Charles Darwin, writing in the foreword to On the Origin of Species, 1859.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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