When figuring out what to do about the overall energy situation, or predicting the future, I confess to having some degree of modesty.
Looking at all the bad predictions from smart people in the past, it’s easy to be less than confident when it comes to forecasting what’s going to happen 10 and 50 years from now with oil, solar batteries, wave power, ethanol, Chinese motoring, hybrid cars, nuclear power, energy wars, windmills, bicycle sales, wood chips, melting glaciers or switch grass.
Here, for example, are some of the more notable predictions from experts on things a lot less complicated than today’s energy issues.
Explained David Sarnoff, general manager of RCA, in 1955, “Television will never be a medium of entertainment.” Interestingly, that lack of vision sounded not unlike the advice Sarnoff received three decades earlier from his associates when he recommended investments in radio. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value,” they advised, regarding the potential for radio advertising. “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
In 1929, on the eve of the greatest stock market crash in American history, Irving Fisher, professor of economics at Yale University, predicted a long stretch of smooth sailing. “Stocks,” he advised, “have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
Two years earlier in Hollywood, as talkies were being introduced into America’s theaters, movie tycoon H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers showed he wasn’t much of a prophet. “Who the hell,” he asked, “wants to hear actors talk?”
In 1869, Charles Darwin envisaged an unruffled reception for his new book, The Origin of the Species: “I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone.”
In turning down the Beatles for a recording contract in 1962, the music whiz kids at Decca Recording Co. explained, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
In 1966, Business Week ventured a prediction regarding the impact of Japanese automobiles in the American marketplace: “The Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.”
In 1977, Ken Olson, founder and president of Digital Equipment Corp., issued a forecast about the future of the computer business: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Popular Mechanics, three decades earlier, couldn’t visualize how a future computer could even fit in a house, even if people wanted one: “Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.”
Even for Albert Einstein, forecasting was a tricky business. “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable,” he proclaimed in 1932. “It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
Getting it wrong three times in three short sentences, was British scientist William Thomson, knighted in 1866 for his scientific expertise and best known as the king of Victorian physics: “Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
In the 1950s, after the successful launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, the Soviet Union was widely viewed as the scientific and military powerhouse of the future.
In 1975, regarding global climate changes, Newsweek saw a day when polar bears would be snowboarding into Manhattan. “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” it warned. “The present temperature decline has taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.”
Satellite photos showed “a sudden, large increase in Northern Hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-72,” reported Newsweek, as well as drops in global temperatures and declines in the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the United States.
The predicted consequence was more ice and a “drastic decline” in food output. “Meteorologists,” warned Newsweek, are “almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.”
What’s clear from the aforementioned miscalculations is that it’s easy to introduce personal biases and fears into an analysis, and, more importantly, easy to underestimate the entrepreneurial and inventive spirit of human beings when it comes to problem solving.
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