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

There are quotes – like “Let them eat cake” and an awful lot of things supposedly said by Mark Twain – which are indestructibly associated with the wrong person, or the completely wrong context. This post on the the blog Engage the Fox is an interesting reflection on some reasons why quotes are misattributed. However, the post is focused on why wise or witty sayings are misattributed to celebrities, or better known figures in general (something like this happened with the Mary Schmich column that became the Baz Luhrmann Sunscreen Song which was falsely reported to be a speech by Kurt Vonnegut)

There is another species of misattributed quote – the one that, rather than reflecting the supposed wisdom of the person falsely cited, makes them look foolish or hopelessly out of touch.  And one specific subspecies is the False Prediction – the boldly confident claim that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks totally absurd.

Seven supposed predictions from the world of technology are collected here in a PC World article. My confidence in this article, as will become clear, is pretty low. However it is a useful example of the kind of “prediction” that gets mocked in later years. We allow ourselves a little rather self-congratulatory chuckle at the fools of the past with their nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners and failure to see why anyone would want to own a home computer. Of course, our turn will come.

The very first “Foolish Tech Prediction” highlighted in the PC world article is this:

 

Foolish Tech Prediction 1

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

At the dawn of the computer industry, nobody really knew where this new technology would take us. But the explosion of desktop computing that put a PC in nearly every American home within 50 years seems to have eluded the imagination of most mid-century futurists.
After all, when IBM’s Thomas Watson said “computer,” he meant “vacuum-tube-powered adding machine that’s as big as a house.” It’s fair to say that few people ever wanted one of those, regardless of the size of their desk.

(IBM did stay in the business, of course.)

This, of course, does acknowledge that predicting that devices as big as house would ever have a popular appeal would not have seemed reasonable when Watson made his statement.

Except, Watson said no such thing. From Wikipedia:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” is often attributed to Thomas Watson; Senior in 1943 and Junior at several dates in the 1950s. This misquote is from the 1953 IBM annual stockholders’ meeting. Thomas Watson, Jr. was describing the market acceptance of the IBM 701 computer. Before production began, Watson visited with 20 companies that were potential customers. This is what he said at the stockholders’ meeting, “as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”[7]

Aviation Week for 11 May 1953 says the 701 rental charge was about $12,000 a month; American Aviation 9 Nov 1953 says “$15,000 a month per 40-hour shift. A second 40-hour shift ups the rental to $20,000 a month.”

So there you go – something quite different and in context entirely reasonable thing was conflated with various other speculative comments by others (there is more on the Wikipedia page on Thomas Watson) One wonders how many of the rest of PC World’s “foolish tech predictions” were quite so foolish after all