Throughout history, prognosticators—from politicians such as Winston Churchill to economists including Irving Fisher—have tried to predict events that would rock the world. But even the most intellectually gifted did not foresee key forces that would cause paradigm shifts in society.
Instead, disturbing doomsday scenarios have regularly surfaced. The buzz made great headlines. But thankfully, many of these predictions proved spectacularly wrong. Remember concerns over the Y2K millennium bug, and all the hype over Dec. 21, 2012, which many interpreted as the end date for the Mayan calendar? Both predictions rattled the public psyche, and many people actually feared the end of days.
Read on to get a glimpse at 14 spectacularly wrong predictions that doused society with fear and offered misguided advice.
—By Daniel Bukszpan, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 19 May 2011
Updated 24 Dec. 2013
Irving Fisher was a noted 20th-century economist. No less an authority than Milton Friedman called him "the greatest economist the United States has ever produced." Many of his contributions, such as the Fisher equation, the Fisher hypothesis and the Fisher separation theorem, are cited by economists to this day.
Yet one statement he made in 1929 destroyed his credibility for the rest of his life.
Three days before the Wall Street Crash of that year, he claimed that "stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." When he was disproved 72 hours later, he tried to get out from under the statement, but months of putting a positive spin on developments only further eroded his reputation.
He died in 1947, but a renewed interest in neoclassical economics in the 1950s caused a re-evaluation of his work and a rehabilitation of his name.
When it comes to global catastrophes that weren’t, Y2K is one of the all-time greats. As the year 2000 approached, computer experts realized that a potential problem existed. Most software was written with the last two digits representing the year as opposed to all four digits, so “1998” was written simply as “98.”
When the new millennium rang in, they feared, computers the world over would behave as if the year had changed from 1999 to 1900—and there was no way to predict the possible consequences.
While this situation was a particular problem for the financial industry, paranoia took hold in every sector. Some people believed that all of their personal data would be compromised, that database snafus would cause food shortages and that nuclear missiles would launch themselves. Edmund X. DeJesus, editor of BYTE magazine, joined in the fray, stating that “Y2K is a crisis without precedent in human history.”
Fortunately, Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without major incident.
In 1998, Russian political writer Igor Panarin claimed that the U.S. was on the verge of civil war, which would result in wealthier states withholding tax revenue from the federal government and seceding from the union. After the resulting collapse of the nation , predicted for 2010, it would be split into six parts and divided up by the newly dominant world powers.
In a 2008 article in The Wall Street Journal, Panarin explained that under the restructuring, the West Coast would be controlled by China and Hawaii by Japan. The Southeast would become part of Mexico, the northern Midwest would go to Canada, the Northeast would join the European Union and Russia would get Alaska.
"There's a 55 to 45 percent chance right now that disintegration will occur," he said.
"Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market" is a book by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett. Published in 1999, it is an unmistakable product of a time when a bursting dot-com bubble was unimaginable and irrational exuberance was contagious.
The book's premise was that the boom times would cause the Dow Jones Industrial Average to rise to 36,000 within just a few years, and it offered advice on how best to cash in on this eventuality.
The introduction states, "If you are worried about missing the market's big move upward, you will discover that it is not too late. Stocks are now in the midst of a one-time-only rise to much higher ground–to the neighborhood of 36,000 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average."
Sadly, it didn't exactly work out that way. At press time, the Dow was hovering at 16,336, and a used paperback copy of the now out-of-print book can be purchased on Amazon for as little as one cent.
In 1966, Time magazine ran a bold prediction: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop—because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.”
While it is true that in 2011, many people still like to leave their homes and see products first-hand, this prediction was way off the mark and becomes more so every year. Consider the ever-increasing popularity of the annual Cyber Monday after Thanksgiving.
The most damning statistic was cited in Minnesota’s Herald Journal, which quoted a study by the independent research company Forrester Forecast. The 2010 study projected that a total of about $173 billion would be spent that year in online sales in the U.S.
A 2010 study by the A.C. Nielsen found that the average American watches almost five hours of television a day. Many households have more than one set, so that families aren't besieged with conflict as their members attempt compromise on whether to watch "24" or the Justin Bieber concert.
In 1946, however, studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck couldn't imagine TV getting much traction.
"Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months," he predicted. "People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
Zanuck wasn't the only person to get it wrong. The New York Times ran an article in 1939 that said, "The problem of TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn't have time for it."
Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is perhaps best known for a prediction he made in 1959.
"Before man reaches the moon," he said, "your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." For anyone waiting for that special package from Amazon, this must sound like a tantalizing proposition—and it was briefly under development.
In the same year Summerfield made his bold statement, the U.S. Post Office tested "Missile Mail" for the first and last time. A rocket was launched from the submarine Barbero off the coast of Florida to a naval base in Mayport. The entire trip lasted 22 minutes, and the two mail containers it carried were delivered successfully. Sadly, the program was never implemented.
Ursula Southeil was a 16th-century English clairvoyant and mystic who went by the name Mother Shipton. She died in 1561, and 80 years later, a book of her prophecies was published. She predicted many events, all in a style so vague that they could mean just about anything.
One couplet, however, was very specific, reading, "The end of the world will surely come, in eighteen hundred and eighty one."
That year came and went, but her wildly inaccurate prediction failed to discredit her. From the time her prophecies were first published until the 19th century, she was credited with predicting various calamities, and fortune-tellers would put her statue outside their place of business, thereby lending themselves soothsaying credibility.
A pub in her native town of Knaresborough and another in Portsmouth feature life-size statues of her as well.
Winston Churchill was the British prime minister during World War II, and his unwavering example provided the nation with leadership through a harrowing time. Today he is considered one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his name was frequently invoked in describing the leadership of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Whatever his leadership capabilities may have been, however, they didn’t do much for his knowledge of atomic energy. In 1939, as the technology was being tested for use in future weaponry, Churchill remained unimpressed with its capabilities in combat.
“Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives,” he said, “but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous.”
Six years later, the first atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing Japan's unconditional surrender one week later.
Robert Metcalfe is the founder of the 3Com digital electronics company and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is the co-inventor of Ethernet, and holds a Grace Murray Hopper Award for developing it. Today he is a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners, a firm specializing in early investments in technology companies.
Despite his impressive résumé, Metcalfe is known for at least one inaccurate prediction that he is unlikely to live down. In a 1995 issue of InfoWorld, he famously said that the Internet would "soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."
He promised to eat his words if proved wrong. He was. So during his keynote speech at the WWW International Conference in 1997, he produced the magazine page containing the quote, put it in a blender and ingested it before a live audience.
Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. He was responsible for relaxing some of the more draconian elements of Stalinist domestic policy and was also an early supporter of the Soviet space program.
But what most people remember is his pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations in 1960. This outburst was typical of his flamboyant behavior whenever a microphone was in front of him.
One such outburst occurred in 1956, when Khrushchev was addressing Western ambassadors at the Polish embassy in Moscow. He was as combative as ever, telling his audience that that Communism's defeat of capitalism was inevitable.
"History is on our side," he said. "We will bury you." Thirty-three years later, Communism collapsed, and two years after that the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Nearly 100 years after its sinking, the luxury passenger ship Titanic remains a classic example of human arrogance. Many people made many regrettable statements before its doomed maiden voyage—all of them spectacularly, fatally wrong.
Among them was the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, who said, "I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."
Not to be outdone was Phillip Franklin, vice president of the White Star Line, which had produced the ship. Prior to the voyage, he said, "There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers."
After the accident, a penitent Franklin walked back his remarks. "I thought her unsinkable, and I based my opinion on the best expert advice."
Almost 50 years on, it's hard to believe there was a time when not everyone liked The Beatles. In fact, quite a few people hated them and found their music as appealing as nails on chalkboard.
For example, in 1964, National Review founder William F. Buckley described them as "so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music."
When Decca Records rejected them after their 1962 audition, The Beatles famously said, "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
The most profoundly erroneous verdict came from Ray Bloch, musical director for "The Ed Sullivan Show," who said, "The only thing different is the hair, as far as I can see. I give them a year."
Prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, Japan had been conquering land in Asia for almost a decade. The next target on its list was the Philippines, but the U.S. had troops stationed there, so Japan could not attack it without provoking a military response.
The Japanese decided to pre-emptively attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the likely origin of an American military response. After it was destroyed, the Japanese believed they could conquer the Philippines without any interference.
While the notion of an attack against the U.S. Naval fleet was unthinkable to most Americans, U.S. intelligence had information suggesting that the Japanese might be up to something, but it was not known where or when.
However, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox made a statement on Dec. 4, 1941, to assure everyone that the situation was well in hand. "Whatever happens," he said, "the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping." The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred three days later.