Predictions are a difficult business. No matter how good your reputation and how smart you are, nobody can see the future with 100% clarity. Hindsight, however, is always 20/20.
Whatever our political inclinations and values, most of us can probably agree that The New York Times is a quality publication with capable journalists. However, even The Gray Lady has made countless blunders since being founded in 1851.
And today, we’re going to be merciless and look over some of the most misguided, terrible, and plain stupid forecasts that went straight down the drain, as collected by Sam Greenspan. From bagels to Picasso to Apple to computers to air and space travel, this all sounds like utter madness when reading it from the comfort of the future.
On Laptop Computers, 1985
"On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper… the real future of the laptop computer will remain in the specialized niche markets. Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing"
On Television, 1939
"The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it."
The iPhone In 2006
"Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’"
We, humans, all share an immeasurable love for being ahead of the future. Skeptics do it secretly, like scanning through the daily horoscope every 24 hours, rational people tend to be more into calculated economic forecasts, and others just plain love predictions. Sometimes it takes much less than statistical confidence, and we all fall into believing obscure statements.
Partly, it has to do with our inner urge to have control over our future. From weather forecasts to the post-Covid 19 future, it gives us a false sense of certainty. Nothing is more intimidating than a sudden change, and it’s only fair to get hold of anything that feeds us with the illusion of knowing everything.
On Whether Airplanes Were Feasible In 1903
"Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one with started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years — provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials."
About A Rocket, 1936
"A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere."
About The Dangers Of Driving Automobiles At High Speeds
In 1904, The New York Times reported on a debate in Paris between a brain specialist and a physician about the dangers of driving automobiles at high speeds—because the brain can’t keep up. “It remains to be proved how fast the brain is capable of traveling,” reads the article. “If it cannot acquire an eight-mile per hour speed, then an auto running at the rate of 80 miles per hour is running without the guidance of the brain, and the many disastrous results are not to be marveled at.”
The old-school New York Times’ predictions are definitely not the first and not the last ones that turned out to be completely wrong. Many of the more recent predictions have proven to be just as false.
For example, in 2009, it seemed like everyone was ready to start a decade of space tourism in the 2010s. “By 2020 you'll have seen private citizens circumnavigate the moon," Eric Anderson of Space Adventures announced in 2009. Meanwhile, Elon Musk stated that “I'm going to go out on a limb and say that by 2020 there will be serious plans to go to Mars with people."
But the reality now is very different. After seven people paid to travel to space in the first decade of the 21st century, space tourism flights were halted in 2009. The delays have left people who signed up for such travel waiting.
On Picasso And Cubism, 1911
"It is to be regretted that this unquestionably talented artist… should now make his debut with a series of childish, not to say imbecile, scribbles that are no interest either as independent works of art or as steps toward achieving the complete work. They have neither material beauty nor that ‘spiritual significance’… nor merit of any other sort"
On Twitter, 2007
"Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite ‘The Iliad.’ … Whether the service can be made into a sustainable business, [is] quite unknown. I’m skeptical"
On Apple In 1996
"Whether they stand alone or are acquired, Apple as we know it is cooked. It’s so classic. It’s so sad."
Rob Walker, a contributor to The New York Times, believes that when it comes to predictions, anything is possible, but he urges everyone to take “a closer look at how often definitive predictions about permanent change are simply extrapolations of recently observable trends taken to some maximum extreme.”
Even though speculation about what may happen is useful, Rob stresses that reality may unfold in “more complex and subtle ways than predicted. Because if you’re considering a time horizon of 12 years as opposed to 12 months, other things will happen—good and bad—that you cannot foresee but that will have some effect, however oblique, on whatever it is you are predicting.”
Therefore, reading anything that targets the future had better be done with a grain of salt, or two.
On Hitler, 1922
"Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semite propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep the aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes"
The Ipod In 2001
"It’s a nice feature for Macintosh users,’ said P. J. McNealy, a senior analyst for Gartner G2, an e-commerce research group. ‘But to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn’t make any difference."
On The Potential Of Aerosmith, 1973
"Aerosmith, the opening act, played loud, derivative rock, distinguished only by Steve Tyler’s fawning imitation of Mick Jagger"
On Wheel Of Fortune, 1986
"It is generally conceded that ‘Wheel,’ entering its fourth year in syndication, can’t go on as it has forever. But most industry observers maintain that while the show may be nearing its peak, its impact remains huge"
On Bagels, 1946
"Bagels, which are small, hard Jewish rolls with holes in the center, were sent to [the] Secretary of Agriculture… with notes warning that this is what a loaf of bread would look like if the government permitted bakers to make further reductions in size. ‘A bagel is a hole with a roll around it,’ [consumer advocate Dr. Helen] Harris informed the officials, “Another cut in the weight of bread and this bagel will go as a loaf at the present price of bread.’"
On Whether Space Travel Was Feasible In 1920
"That [rocket pioneer Robert] Goddard… does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
On The Future Of Cocaine, 1914
"The drug produces several other conditions that make the ‘fiend’ a peculiarly dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to shock, a resistance to the knock down effects of fatal wounds… seems to be produced in the cocaine-sniffing n***o. … Once the n***o has formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him from taking the drug is by imprisoning him. … For the thousands of n***oes who have not yet acquired the habit, but who will do so eventually if present conditions continue, the outlook is scarcely more hopeful."