Sometimes when we look back at the past, it’s remarkable to see how quickly opinions that were once considered to be unquestionable, were thoroughly discredited. The reasons for this are complex, but often, it has to do with new developments in technology previously thought impossible, the maintenance of outdated conceptions, or the expansion of our knowledge of the world through science.
Although, this hasn’t stopped in modern times either. Predictions are still being made that end up looking ridiculous within a few years. Think of those people who, in the 1990s, dismissed the internet as something only for a privileged minority. Here are 12 predictions made at various times over the years, which proved to be hopelessly incorrect.
12. The Threat Of The Railway To Human Health
Prior to the development of trains in the early 19th century, the fastest pace of human travel on land had been on a horse-drawn carriage. This led several observers to raise concerns about the consequences to the human body of travelling at speed. One of the most famous warnings was made by Dr. Dionysius Lardner, a professor at University College London, who declared that passengers would be unable to breathe at such high speeds and “would die of asphyxia.” Railways did not only go on to revolutionize transport, but all areas of social life. Journey times between cities were slashed, and trade massively expanded.
11. Electric Lighting Has No Future
In 1878, France organised one of the largest world exhibitions to that point in history. Aimed at illustrating the country’s recovery following its defeat to Prussia in the war of 1870-1871, it showcased art, new machinery and architecture from a range of countries. Another innovative feature of the exhibition was its extensive use of electric lighting, prompting one observer, Professor Erasmus Wilson to comment, “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric lighting will close with it and nothing more will be heard of it.” He was certainly way off with that statement.
10. Women Don’t Want The Vote
In 1905, US President Stephen Grover Cleveland declared that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Facts were to prove him wrong sooner than he thought. At the time, most countries did not permit women to vote in elections, nor the entire male population. But in Britain in particular, a mass movement of women and their supporters was developing, calling for female suffrage. Demonstrations took place in London involving hundreds of thousands, and when the political leaders did not respond, the movement took direct action by destroying property. A little over a decade after Cleveland’s remarks, women over 30 were given the vote in Britain, and the right was given to women in other countries in the years that followed.
9. The War Will Be Over By Christmas
When soldiers went off to fight the First World War in the summer of 1914, their leaders told them that the war would be over in just a few months. Part of the reason for the belief in a short war was the failure to realize the consequences of modern technology on warfare. Rather than the fast-moving conflicts of previous centuries, where horsemen and infantry fought battles on open fields, the war quickly became bogged down in trenches. The Great War extended over four years, claiming the lives of an estimated 16 million soldiers.
8. Film Will Never Take Off
Although it’s very hard to imagine it now, it wasn’t always so obvious that the most popular art form of the past century would get going at all. Even someone like Charlie Chaplin, who became one of the biggest early stars on the screen, could say in 1916, “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” After the great success of silent movies, it was little more than a decade later by the time talking pictures were introduced, and from there, cinema never looked back, and the rest is history.
7. The Stock Market Is Stable
While most of the predictions here took at least a few years to be proved outrageous, this one fell apart within days. In late 1929, Yale economist Irving Fisher claimed that the stock market would remain stable forever, stating, “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanent plateau.” He was speaking after a period in which the Dow Jones stock exchange had quadrupled in five years, and an ever greater percentage of money was being used to purchase stocks. On the 29th of October, the market collapsed, leading to the Great Depression of the 1930s. A total of $25 billion in investments, $319 billion in today’s money, was wiped out in the crash.
6. The Nazis Will Hold Power For A Thousand Years
Hitler and his followers were not only convinced of the superiority of the Aryan race, they also believed that the Third Reich, which began when he took power in 1933, would last for a thousand years. By expanding German influence into Eastern Europe, the main idea was that Germany would be established as one of the dominant world powers. As things turned out, the dictator’s rule lasted just over 12 years before defeat by the allied forces in World War II.
5. The Atomic Bomb Won’t Explode
As the United States prepared to drop two atomic bombs over Japan to end World War II in 1945, not everyone was convinced of the mission’s success. Speaking to President Harry Truman, Admiral William Leahy asserted, “This is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” Unfortunately, his lack of confidence in the capabilities of the nuclear weapon was misplaced. Both bombs dropped by US warplanes exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, resulting in the deaths of between 200,000 and 350,000 people.
4. Who Needs A Portable Computer?
Nowadays, it’s easy to feel left out if you’re sitting on a train or in a cafe without an iPad or laptop to use. But less than thirty years ago, such widespread use of electronic devices was unthinkable. A December 1985 article published by the New York Times dismissed the value of personal computers (the abbreviation PC had yet to come into common use) and asserted that “for the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few.” The reason for this was that “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.”
3. The End Of The World
Over recent years, we have been told on several occasions that according to one or another historical prediction, we are approaching the end of the World. Many of these failed predictions were based on the 16th century French astrologist, Michel de Nostredame, or Nostradamus as he is better known. On three separate occasions, claims that the world would end were attributed to him. While it might be tempting to abandon this prediction given its poor record, maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty. Nostradamus did say his predictions would continue to be valid until the year 3797, so by my reckoning, he still has a little over 1,700 years to prove us all wrong.
2. The Millennium Bug
As the year 2000 approached, the world was gripped by mounting fear about the consequences of the new millennium. Our electronic society would not be able to cope with the beginning of the 21st century, was claimed. The Millennium Bug, as it became popularly known, would stop many machines and computer systems from working properly when we left the year 1999 behind us. The risk was seen as serious enough for insurance companies to offer policies to businesses, covering them against failure because of its impact. A few minor problems did occur with some online systems, but this was nowhere near the scale of disruption that had been feared in the lead-up to the event.
1. Weapons Of Mass Destruction In Iraq
As the US and Britain prepared for war in Iraq in 2003, the claim was widely circulated that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which posed an immediate threat to western countries. Reports were presented to the United Nations and the International media stating that missiles could be launched and would reach their targets within 45 minutes. This was one of the main justifications for troops to invade the country in March 2003. Despite extensive searching of storage sites across Iraq after the dictator was overthrown, no evidence of such weapons was ever found. To date, there remains nothing to suggest that they ever existed.