Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.
The reason why people get their predictions wrong is that they are people. Few of us have the capacity to include all of the variables that might affect the future. Here are some predictions that missed the mark, but we shouldn't be too harsh on people who don't get it quite right (except maniacs such as Hitler, of course).
Too Many People, Not Enough Food?
Imagine, if you will, a store that kept a stock of 500 cans of stew. Every week, the store got 50 more to replenish its stocks as they generally sold about 50 cans a week. Then, other stores in town closed just as an article in The New York Times said that this particular brand of stew had enormous health benefits. Demand shot up, but the supplier could still only provide 50 cans a week.
The price of a can will go up, people will stock up, and there will be arguments in the aisles. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus described a similar situation in his "An Essay on the Principle of Population."
In this, he made the observation that the population grows geometrically and roughly doubles every 25 years. Meanwhile, the production of food could only grow arithmetically. If you want to grow more food, you need more land. But the amount of land available is finite.
Very soon, he thought, the population would outstrip available food and we would end up in a world of strife, hunger, and general misery for all.
The world population in Malthus' day was around one billion. Currently, it stands at close to 8 billion. Yet we have the capacity to feed all of us. (That some go hungry is a different matter.)
Malthus was wrong because he hadn't foreseen new efficiencies in agricultural production that massively increased crop yields. However, some experts believe that his prediction still holds true, he just got the timing wrong. Even with more productive techniques, we are fast reaching a tipping point where supply will not be able to meet demand.
Heaven's Gate and the Hale-Bopp Comet
Marshall Applewhite left us in Spring 1997, as the comet Hale-Bopp crossed our skies. This was no coincidence, as Applewhite was convinced that there was a spaceship tucked behind the comet.
In 1972, Applewhite decided that he had been appointed as a divine messenger and, along with his friend Bonnie Nettles, traveled around the United States spreading the message. The couple managed to convince just one person.
Having had to spend a short stretch behind bars because he'd forgotten to return a hire car, he and Nettles continued their mission on the more responsive West Coast. The prophet predicted that aliens were coming and would provide true believers with new bodies in exchange for their unwanted old ones.
When Nettles died of cancer in 1985, the sect had to rethink its position. It was clear that Nettles wouldn't be able to swap an old body for a new one; the body must be simply a container for the essence. The spaceship would be collecting souls, not bodies. But how could one liberate one's soul so that it could be gathered by the spaceship?
As Hale-Bopp neared earth, the answer became obvious. The group would have to commit suicide. Tragically, 39 people did.
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Sousa's Sour Note
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) is remembered these days as the composer of powerful military marches ("The Stars and Stripes Forever" is one of his many compositions). He certainly stirred people through his music, but wasn't averse to stirring people through his writings. He published an article in Appleton's Magazine in 1906 that began:
"Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul."
According to Sousa, the popularity of these new "devices" was affecting the sales of cheap lutes. If music could be heard "without the labor of study and close application," nobody would need music teachers and nobody would learn music.
He misjudged the fact that people like to play music. His prediction is analogous to someone saying that because people could watch sports on TV they would stop playing sports.
In fact, Sousa's essay was part of his wider campaign to defend copyright and he was being a bit overdramatic in support of his point.
War Is Over! Marconi Message Misfire
Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), a pioneer in radio technology, was one of the architects of the modern world. His groundbreaking work was deservedly recognized with a Nobel Prize. However, he had hopes for the era of instant communication that far overestimated human nature.
In 1912, Marconi stated:
"The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible because it will make war ridiculous."
Anyone born on the day that Marconi made his claim would have been a toddler at the end of the First World War, witnessed the rise of dictatorships, been old enough to fight in the Second World War, and seen wars of liberation and conquest all over the globe as he headed towards retirement. In fact, he was living through the bloodiest century in human history.
I suppose that Marconi believed that leaders would sort out their differences and resolve misunderstandings with a quiet long-distance chat. This was never going to happen because people are simply not like that.
Indeed, Marconi's work led to greater efficiency in war-making. He might have been right to call war ridiculous, but it became much easier to wage it.
Back in 1949, the idea that someone might have a computer in their home was laughable. After all, a computer was as big as a house. And the idea that someone would be able to carry a computer around in her pocket belonged to the wilder flights of fancy in science fiction.
This was the year that Popular Mechanics magazine made this daring prediction:
"Computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1.5 tons."
Taking your computer to Starbucks would involve a complicated logistic operation and, when you plugged it in, you would probably blow out the power grid for blocks around.
So what did Popular Mechanics get wrong? Quite simply, computers couldn't be much smaller if they used vacuum tubes. The magazine didn't foresee the coming of transistors, which led to miniaturization and to today's marvels.
When we view the future, some of us tend to base our predictions on the present. The future is a streamlined now and we discount the idea that a groundbreaking invention might change the game entirely.
Adolf Hitler's prediction about the Third Reich was that, if all went to plan, it would last for a thousand years. It managed 12.
The Germans had built up an extremely efficient war machine that quickly defeated the opposition in Western Europe and expanded German territory to the east. An alliance with the Soviet Union kept raw material flowing into German industry, but both Hitler and Stalin believed that a clash between the two powers was inevitable.
Britain was undefeated but could not defeat Germany by itself. However, once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the game was up. Germany simply didn't have the economic resources to fight a long war on Soviet territory.
With overstretched supply lines, poor infrastructure, and fearsome weather, Germany's adventure slowed, stopped, and went into retreat. Added to this was the entrance of the United States into the war. With a powerful production capacity and a rapidly improving military, Germany could not fight for long.
Just as well that Germany collapsed—its vision of the future was of a cruel, regimented, Aryan world with no room for difference or dissent.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.