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Predicting the Future: The Best and The Worst Tech Predictions of All Time

These days, predicting what is going to happen next month in the tech world is opening yourself up to either miserable failure or ego-boosting success. The world of technology moves so quickly currently, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970s and 80s when fax machines were seen as the most modern and efficient way to send messages and documents, it was predicted that ‘every household would have a fax machine’. This prediction didn’t materialize simply because home computing took over before it could happen.

Good and Bad Tech Predictions

Back in the day, owning a PC was pretty geeky and rare. Dial up connections took ages – just sitting listening to the various tones that let you know how far along the connection process you were, then trying to search for something – usually in those days through Yahoo, you had to put in the exact words to get any return, no results found was the most likely result of a search, and when you did get it right, you were presented with few results – if you had 10 you were doing really well!

Predicting the Future: The Best and The Worst Tech Predictions of All Time
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Alvin Toffler

Building a website was easy as long as you could understand tables, and content was king – in fact, in many cases, content was all. Including some different colored text added ‘eye-candy’ in those days. But as we struggled along with the slowness and dullness of connections and website design, we were pretty sure it would get better, and slowly it did. Now, however, it is more and more difficult to keep up with changing technology, so many new devices, software, programming languages, CMS platforms, etc, etc… it is easy to get left behind, and this brings us to our first absolutely accurate prediction from American futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Toffler recognized that technology would continue to grow and the need to continue learning and move on to the new technologies would be the benchmark for literacy. We may not be quite at that point yet, but nowadays it is in sight, and we can see how that is going to be the case in the not-too-distant future.

Alvin Toffler

Thomas Watson

On the other hand, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM could not foresee any improvement in computers from the whole-room machines that were in use in 1943. In those days, having a computer that worked needed a room of its own, temperature control and specialized people to keep it working – it was like a small factory operation. Without the vision of computers being reduced in both size and price, it is easy to understand his prediction at the time:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Nikola Tesla

But not everyone was limited in their vision of the future. Nikola Tesla, a Serbian American inventor, engineer and futurist was incredibly accurate with his predictions on technology in the future. In the infancy of television, in 1926, he predicted in a TV interview:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Einstein on Tesla

John Elfreth Watkins, Jr

In 1900, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr, a civil engineer and curator at the Smithsonian Institute, contributed an article to the Ladies’ Home Journal, in which he predicted ‘What May Happen in The Next Hundred Years’. But the predictions were not his own, as the opening paragraph of the article reads:

“These prophesies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 – a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.”

“Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.”

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later . . . . photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors.”

“Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

The Ladies' Home Journal

Imagine trying to make such predictions over 100 years ago – it is true visionary genius on the part of all concerned!

Robert Metcalfe

Some people thought there was no future for the internet and that it was to be a flash in the pan, even those closely involved in the development and furtherment of technology had their doubts. In 1995, Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet declared:

“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

He was wrong! But he did acknowledge his error, and in 1999 whilst addressing the Sixth International WWW Conference, he put a copy of his column in a blender and drank the pureed paper – thereby ‘eating his words’.

Ray Kurzweil

We are now in the position of knowing how these futurists were correct or not. But we have missed out one futurist from this article so far – a man who has such foresight and vision that an amazing 86% of his predictions have been fully realized – you might think I am talking about Nostradamus or some other well-known predictor of the future, but no… I am referring to Ray Kurzweil, American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist and director of engineering at Google.

Here are some of the predictions for the early 21st Century he published in his books in the 1990s:

  • Most books will be read on screens rather than paper.
  • People use personal computers the size of rings, pins, credit cards and books
  • Cables are disappearing. Computer peripheries use wireless communication.
  • Computers can recognize their owner’s face from a picture or video.
  • The classroom is dominated by computers. Intelligent courseware that can tailor itself to each student by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. Media technology allows students to manipulate and interact with virtual depictions of the systems and personalities they are studying.
  • Computers become smaller and increasingly integrated into everyday life.
  • High-quality broadband Internet access will become available almost everywhere.

Ray Kurzweil

More Bad Long-Term Predictions

And here are a few more erroneous predictions – many of which can be excused as being ‘short-term’ predictions that proved correct at the time:

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

This statement was made by Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office in 1876. When you consider the population of Great Britain at that time was around 24 million, compared with today’s figure of more than 60 million, William Preece would have needed a lot of vision to see this situation any differently!

“Television 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.”

Stated Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox in 1946. Had the appearance of the television not progressed, he would probably have been quite correct. In those days the difference between watching a TV at home and going to the cinema was vast, and Zanuck couldn’t foresee the advance in screen size and quality of picture on a television set.

“Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.'”

I don’t think there is any excuse for this most misguided prediction from David Pogue in the New York Times in 2006, as the first iPhone was introduced in 2007!

“Two years from now, spam will be solved.”

Was an observation by Bill Gates of Microsoft in 2004. He doesn’t predict how spam will be stamped out, but he was way off the mark as spam currently accounts for over 90% of all emails sent!


Predicting the future is no easy task, and publishing your predictions is a brave move indeed. We know that predicting forthcoming trends in web design and development is common among bloggers, but I don’t think any of them would like to say what the internet will look like 100 years from now! When predicting so far ahead, to even get close is the sign of a true visionary. It is just so difficult to imagine what the upcoming techies will dream up and put into action – and that is the wonder of living in the ‘digital era’.

Do you have any predictions for the near or distant future of technology? Have you predicted something in the past that is now in use? Please share your opinions and experiences with us in the section below.

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