Coming soon! Truck-sized computers! Really!

   I never drive by A-1 Builders on Northwest without looking at their sign. It almost always has something interesting or funny or thought-provoking on it, and one recent message struck me as particularly humorous. It was a quote from a 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics: “In the future, computers could weigh as little as 1.5 tons.”
   Wow! Really?
   In the defense of the poor schmuck who wrote that article, let’s face it, predicting with any certinty where our technology is going to be in 50 years (or 10, for that matter) is just about impossible.
   My first PC, an 8088-based screamer with 32k of memory and a 12-meg hard drive, probably couldn’t match the computational abilities of your typical new electronic toaster. My new iPod has more than 200 times its storage capacity, but is smaller than most calculators, and I can watch movies on it, too — it’s right out of Star Trek (the ‘60s version).
   And what about the Internet? Nobody saw that one coming. Talk about a world-changing technology that skipped right past the noses of even the most free-thinking technological Nostradamus!
   So what else did past gurus miss the boat on? Lots, as it turns out, proving that even the most brilliant minds of the day have only a tenuous hold on where technology is taking the world. I did a little research and found some other goofs from “what the future holds” types; here are some of the choice selections:
   "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
   — Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
   As long as computers were made out of building-sized arrays of vacuum tubes, he was probably right, but first transistors and then microchips changed everything.
   "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
   — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
   Wow Ken, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong big time. See above, re: “Internet.”
   "You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I have no time for such nonsense."
   — Napoleon, commenting on Fulton’s steamship
   Whoops. Did anybody also advise you to stay away from Waterloo?
   "We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
   — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
   OK, not really anything about technology on this one, but when someone misses the boat in such historic fashion, it’s worth noting.
   "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
   If you ever wondered why Ma Bell became one of the hugest, most profitable companies in history and Western Union is still focused on faxing money orders around the globe (not that there’s anything wrong with that), this internal memo might shed some light on your query.
   "Space travel is bunk."
   — Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of
   Aw, Harold — if you had just waited two more weeks!
   “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances."
   — Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor of the Audion tube and a father of radio, February 1967
   Should have stuck to radio, Lee.
   It’s easy to poke fun at these folks, who at least had the nerve to stick their necks out and have an opinion — too bad for them they didn’t foresee the Internet, which would allow wiseacres like myself to come along years and years later and poach their quotes for my column.

John Thompson is publisher and editor of The Bellingham Business Journal. He can be reached by calling 647-8805, or via e-mail at

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