Our Daily Bleg: Did Olsen Really See “No Reason” to Own a P.C.?

Here’s the latest bleg request from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. You can find his past blegs here and you can send blegs of your own here.

The past few weeks I have been blegging for information about famous computer quotations to help with future editions of the recently published Yale Book of Quotations.

Another questionable quote is, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” This is attributed to Kenneth Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation. Mr. Olsen is frequently quoted as having said it in a speech to the Convention of the World Future Society in 1977, but I have been unable to find contemporaneous documentation of the utterance.

The earliest version I have found was printed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 30, 1984. Can anyone point me to evidence of earlier usage than that?

Also, some of the apocryphal or true “bad prediction” quotes are prognostications about business or the economy, not having to do with technology.

Irving Fisher saying, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” in October 1929 (posted in a comment here last week) is an example. Can anyone suggest other celebrated business or economic bad predictions?


Barb

"Victory" as stated by George W Bush in 2004 in regards to the Iraq War....

Jim N

"I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers."--Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM 1943

"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 internal memo 1876

wintermute

"Everything that can be invented has been invented"
-Charles Duell, official at US Patent office, 1899

Nope. See here: http://www.myoutbox.net/posass.htm

I don't know if this one is true, but I like to think it is:
In 1876, Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office concluded: "The Americans have need of the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

Andy

The Bill Gates 640K quote also appears to have no evidence to support it.

Jan Christiansen

"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility." - Lee de Forest 1926

DJH

Quite aside from the question of whether Olson said this, or what he intended to say vs. what it's claimed he said ...

I wonder how valid it is even to berate him, now, for something he said about computers before technological advances really hit (in the 80s and 90s). It's true that in 1977 there were small computers that people could have in homes, e.g. the Altair, the Apple, etc., but these cost thousands of dollars then (which would be MUCH more than that, in current dollars). And price-drops were not on the horizon at that time. Hobbyists had home computers, but few others could even handle them, let alone find any use for them. Uses for microcomputers took YEARS to develop, even after the advent of the IBM PC.

So really, how far wrong could it have been, in 1977, for someone like Olson to have said, essentially, "There's no reason for someone to have a multi-thousand-dollar appliance, requiring advanced technical know-how to use, with little everyday usefulness, in their home"? Who REALLY thinks this could have been such a stupid thing to say?

It is simply not reasonable or rational to assume that every advance (culturally, technological, whatever) could have -- or should have -- been foreseen by EVERYONE. It just isn't.

Condemning or ridiculing such a statement, now, is simply an anachronistic determination and therefore has no validity. Laughing at people for failing to envision what they could not reasonably have been expected to envision, merits a certain kind of derision, itself, though of a different sort.

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Donny

"Everything that can be invented has been invented"
-Charles Duell, official at US Patent office, 1899

"In all liklihood, world inflation is over."
-Per Jacobssen, IMF chief, 1959

"With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself."
-Business Week, 1968

Ruin

There's this very famous Bill Gates quote from the early 80s: (talking about "RAM" memory): "640K ought to be enough for everyone."

Gordon Haff

Snopes has a pretty detailed discussion of this: http://www.snopes.com/quotes/kenolsen.asp. The basic gist is that he was supposedly referring to centralized home automation computers. That said, Olsen is being a bit disingenuous when he suggests that OF COURSE he was well aware of the potential for PCs. Neither Olsen nor any number of his fellow minicomputer executives really took the PC very seriously (certainly as a business tool) until it was far too late. I don't know when the quote first appeared; a cursory search of the Time Magazine archives doesn't turn it up. But Olsen doesn't appear to actually deny it, but rather the context in which it was made.

H White

In the early eighties, I was employed by Control Data Corp.(CDC) selling similar mini-computer H/W to DEC Mini-computers. I purchased a Apple MacIntosh in 1983. After CDC, I worked for a software co. that used IBM Hardware. In the early eighties, all the big players were against the PC. That was apple's baby and they said the PC would not last. By the late eighties, the big corporations had joined the PC band-wagon. Therefore, in the early eighties it was common in big computer hardware corporations to hear this type of comment. But, there were rebels who continued to develop the capabilities of the PC( thanks to Apple and other PC vendors). So, look to the executives comments of vendors of Main-frame and Mini-computer hardware from 1979 thru 1985, to find their negative predictions for the future of the PC. IBM was a big voice in the anti-PC comments, because it was not their market yet.
In the late eighties, they changed their tune and developed a PC. #9 comment above by IBM was still true in the late 70' and early eighties. They fought hard against the PC because they did not believe in them at first and therefore did not have a product. CDC believed PC's were best used in education and training. The CDC PC used the CPM operating system, which did not last after IBM got into the PC market with DOS.

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David Spencer

Possibly the worst stock market prediction of all time:

Business Week, cover story, 13 August 1979, "The Death of Equities".

Mike

"Dow 36,000" - Glassman & Hasslett

Jen

This American Life quoted a Surgeon General in the 1960s (1967 or 1969) as having said, "We can close the book on infectious diseases"; I find another source that adds "caused by bacteria" to the end of that statement. Anybody know whether that one actually happened?

Amy

This is interesting. I just did the "7 habits" training at work. Both the Gates and Olsen quotations were in one of the videos. Perhaps you should ask Stephen Covey for verification?

Tony

How about every real estate agent who has said "we are finally at the bottom of the housing market" over the past two years?