Our Daily Bleg: Did I.B.M. Really See a World Market “For About Five Computers”?

As has now become Thursday custom, we’ve posted below a bleg from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. This is easily my favorite so far. I hope you all can help him out. (As always, feel free to send us your own bleg requests here.)

Our Daily Bleg
by Fred R. Shapiro

Last week I blegged, seeking information for the next edition of The Yale Book of Quotations, about Bill Gates’s undoubtedly apocryphal quotation, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Today I continue with legendary computer sayings.

Thomas J. Watson Jr. of I.B.M. is said to have opined in 1943 that, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

The Yale Book of Quotations quotes an I.B.M. source that this “… is a misunderstanding of remarks made at I.B.M.’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. In referring specifically and only to the I.B.M. 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine … Thomas Watson, Jr., told stockholders that ‘I.B.M. had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. … As a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.’”

The earliest attested record of the alleged “world market” quote found by The Yale Book of Quotations was in a 1981 book, Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions. Can anyone point me to any pre-1981 versions?

Also, the Gates and Watson quotes both appear to be examples of famous wrong predictions that are in fact apocryphal later inventions put into the mouth of the supposed authors. Can anyone suggest examples of famous wrong predictions — from technology, politics, or any other field — that actually were said by the supposed authors?

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  1. JohnB says:

    Here’s a rather recent one…

    We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators…
    -Dick Cheney

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  2. Jim says:

    “Groups with Guitars on their way out”

    -Dick Rowe DECCA Records to Brian Epstein on why he passed signing up the BEATLES

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  3. Dennis Rice says:

    “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

    Here, “is” is the key. Given the size, expense, and unknown benefits of computers in 1943, that was likely an accurate assessment.

    If he had said, “I think there will only ever be a world market for about five computers”, then you would have a story.

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  4. Filip G says:

    The Tartars, its [Russia's] subjects or neighbours, will become its masters and ours, by a revolution which I regard as inevitable. Indeed,all the kings of Europe are working in concert to hasten its coming. Rousseau, The Social Contract

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  5. Jim says:

    “Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”

    -Dionysius Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London, and author of The Steam Engine Explained and Illustrated

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  6. Jim again says:

    “This “telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

    -Western Union Co. internal memo 1876

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  7. Arlen says:

    “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” -Richard Nixon, 1962

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  8. Jim says:

    “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

    -Albert Einstein

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