The Futurists' Oops Hall of Fame

Any group of prognostications is going to have its share of clinkers. Here are a few ideas whose time never came

As he toasted the panelists on the closing day of the Forum for the Future conference in Paris on Nov. 28, Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) economist Wolfgang Michalski noted that while the group attempt to weigh the policy implications of social and economic trends (see BW Online, 12/13/01, "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be"), it shies away from making actual predictions. The reason, Michalski said, is that he has already burned his fingers too many times. He then released copies of a fun, new OECD booklet titled "Looking Back at Looking Forward." It's a compilation of some of the worst predictions made by a wide variety past futurists.

Here are some highlights:

• The head of the U.S. Patent Office at the end of the 19th century suggested to President McKinley that the office should be closed because everything that could be invented already had been. He was referring to telephony, photography, and illumination.

• After the October, 1929, stock-market crash, the chairman of Continental Illinois Bank of Chicago noted that "This crash is not going to have much effect on business." The Harvard Economic Society's Weekly Letter made the same prediction the following January -- and was bankrupt soon afterward.

• The International Monetary Fund predicted "world inflation is over" in 1959.

• In supporting most-favored-nation trading status for Japan in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dismissed the idea that cheap imports would ever flood the U.S. "The Japanese don't make anything the people in the U.S. would want." And as recently as 1979, BusinessWeek stated: "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market." • In 1936, John Langdon-Davies argued in his book A Short History of the Future that "by 1960, work will be limited to three hours a day."

• In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich declared: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."

• The world is so quickly exhausting natural resources, predicted the Club of Rome's 1972 study Limits to Growth, that it would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and gas by 1993.

• "A child born in the year 2000 has good prospects of not dying at all," Jacques Bergier wrote in his 1968 book Impossible Possibilities.

• The 1899 edition of Scientific American had this to say about the impact of the automobile: "The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motor car can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless, and odorless, with light rubber-tired vehicles moving swiftly and noislessly over their smooth expanse, would eliminate a greater part of their nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life."

• The magazine New Scientist noted in 1964 that "computers [are not] going to get much faster." In 1970, Desmond King-Hele of Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment said in his book The End of the 20th Century: "Most computers will probably still occupy a large room...because of the space needed for ancillary software, the tapes and cards to be fed in, the operating staff, and the huge piles of paper for printing out the results." Digital Equipment President Ken Olsen said in 1977 that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

By Pete Engardio in New York

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