This is the computer Watson was talking about when he said the following: “I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”
So not only was he not making a prediction about the future, he never said there was a “world market for maybe five computers,” and even in the moment he was reporting that, in fact, there was more demand than expected.
Another computer-related favorite is a quote by Digital Equipment Corporation cofounder Ken Olsen at a 1977 talk to the World Future Society in Boston. Olsen allegedly said he saw “no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Olsen has been trying to set the record straight ever since that he wasn’t talking about personal computers, but about a computer that could control an entire home—the kind of completely autonomous, fully integrated computer system seen in science fiction of the 1970s (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Other times, these so-called predictions are really strategic denials for public relations purposes. Take the telephone—in another oft-repeated example of pessimistic foolishness, the Telegraph Company (the predecessor to Western Union) is said to have turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone. The exact person who turned Bell down changes between stories—sometimes it’s William Orton, other times it’s Chauncey M. DePew—but either way, the company declines, saying things like “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” In one telling of the story from 1910, Orton says, “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”
These quotes themselves have been called into question by modern historians, including Phil Lapsley, author of Exploding the Phone, who has tried to track down the origin of the quotation and concluded that “the quote isn’t true. It’s a made-up blend of several different, but related, stories.” On top of that, the idea that the Telegraph Company was shortsighted and failed to see the potential of the telephone doesn’t seem to bear out. The company wasn’t staffed by foolish technophobes; it was run by businessmen. In fact, according to an autobiography by DePew, when the men of the Telegraph Company reviewed Bell’s patent they decided that “if the device has any value, the Western Union owns a prior patent called the Gray’s patent, which makes the Bell device worthless.” Western Union immediately went on to use said patent and create their own version of the telephone.
In other words, the doubt was not in the idea of the telephone, the doubt was whether purchasing Bell’s particular patent was a prudent business decision when they had a similar one of their own.
Perhaps the most popular source of inaccurate and pessimistic past predictions is the Pessimist’s Archive, founded by Louis Anslow in 2015. The project started as a Twitter account and then branched out to a podcast, newsletter and website. It averages about a million views a month and boasts follows from Gwenyth Paltrow to Matt Taibbi.