A choice selection of not terribly good predictions

David Olive
Financial Post

First 'telephone' reception.

Horseless buggy.

Albert Einstein

Elvis Presley

The forecasting trade invites humility.

If timid, the forecaster sees nothing more than a reflection of today. But if he is bold, he risks being seduced by a mirage.

Thus, safe predictions are best. Stephen Leacock, the humourist and McGill University economics professor, captured the spirit of the forecasting trade by having Mr. Yahi-Bahi of the Yahi-Bahi Oriental Society, a character in his 1914 novel, Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, pronounce that "Many things are yet to happen before others begin."

Here are some less successful predictions:

- "There does not appear the slightest probability that, under any circumstances, Hong Kong will ever become a place of trade." -- Robert Montgomery Martin, British colonial treasurer, reporting home during a visit to Hong Kong in 1844. By the 1980s, Hong Kong led the world in per-capita ownership of Rolls-Royces.

- "It is in vain to suppose that a free-trade system will be beneficial to a new and struggling colony which has nothing to export but raw materials." -- Abraham Gesner of Halifax, inventor of kerosene, in 1849. A few years later, a brief experiment in free trade with the U.S. boosted the economies of Britain's Canadian colonies; and trade between Canada and the U.S. has roughly doubled since the introduction of the Free Trade Agreement in 1989.

- "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.

- "When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it." -- Erasmus Wilson, Oxford University professor, in 1878.

- "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." -- Lord Kelvin, president of Britain's Royal Society, in 1895. He also believed "radio has no future" (1897) and "X-rays are a hoax" (1900).

- "Everything that can be invented has been invented." -- Charles Duell, director of the U.S. Patent Office, in 1899.

- "Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching." -- Tris Speaker on fellow ballplayer Babe Ruth in 1921.

- "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" -- Harry Warner of Warner Bros., resisting the novelty of "talkies," in 1927.

- "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanent high plateau." -- Irving Fisher, Yale University economist, in 1929, weeks before a $29-billion plunge in share values.

- "By the year 1982 the graduated income tax will have practically abolished major differences in wealth." -- Irwin Edman, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, in 1932.

- "The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad." -- The president of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford's lawyer in the early 1900s against investing in Ford Motor Co. The lawyer ignored the advice.

- "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson Sr., chairman of IBM Corp., in 1943. His successor, son Thomas Watson Jr., would bet the company on mainframe computers.

- "You'd better learn secretarial work or else get married." -- Emmeline Snively, director of the Blue Book Modelling Agency, advising would-be model Marilyn Monroe in 1944.

- "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. That would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." -- Albert Einstein in 1932.

- "Video won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." -- Film producer Darryl Zanuck, on the gloomy prospects for television, in 1946.

- "It will be gone by June." -- Entertainment newspaper Variety, on rock 'n' roll, in 1955.

- "Space travel is utter bilge." -- Richard van der Riet Woolley, upon assuming the post of British Astronomer Royal, in 1956.

- "You ain't going nowhere, son -- you ought to go back to drivin' a truck." -- Jim Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, on firing Elvis Presley after one performance, in 1954.

- "Nearly all experts agree that bacterial and viral diseases will have been virtually wiped out [in the next few decades]. Probably arteriosclerotic heart disease will also have been eliminated." -- Time magazine in 1966. The AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s.

- "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -- Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., in 1977. In the 1990s, Mr. Olson was ousted from ailing DEC, once a dominant computer maker. Last year, DEC was absorbed into Compaq Computer Corp.

- "This antitrust thing will blow over." -- Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Corp., in an internal memo a year or so before the U.S. Justice Department decided to subject Microsoft to one of the most ambitious antitrust actions in history.