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?

Fred Shapiro

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following entry for the supposed patents quote:
"The advancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity, and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."
Henry L. Ellsworth, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1843). Ellsworth was U.S. commissioner of patents. This statement is the closest that has been found to a source of the popular story that a commissioner of patents in the late nineteenth century resigned or advocated closing the Patent Office because there was nothing left to be invented. According to the folkorist David P. Mikkelson in the New York Times, 15 Dec. 1995: "The origins of this quotations were researched by Dr. Eber Jeffery more than 50 years ago as part of a project conducted under the aegis of the District of Columbia Historical Records Survey. He found no evidence that any official of the United States Patent Office (including Charles H. Duell, to whom the quotation is most often attributed) had ever resigned his post or recommended that the office be closed because he thought there was nothing left to invent."


ONeill Dell

During the twenties at dinner one night my dad said that one day we would recieve electricity throught the air via light . I cocked my head and through squinted eyes , peered at whence that sound had come. Posted by OD

Ken Hirsch

The Times correction is real. The dates are wrong, however. I can't find it now in the online archives, but I was able to find it in 2004 and have a PDF of it. It follows this story by Wernher von Braun about "Pioneers of a New Age":

The same issue has an interview with Goddard's widow.

New York Times
July 17, 1969
p. 43
A Correction

On Jan. 13, 1920, "Topics of The Times," an editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could functin in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:

"That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against witch to react--to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.


This search of the archives:
will find several articles about Goddard, the notorious editorial
as well as a letter from an admiral correcting the Times and several people volunteering for a mission to Mars.
(Search links to free PDFS)


Johnny E

Nor, for that matter, were all those concerned certain that the bomb would work at all, on the ground or in the air. Of these doubters, the greatest was Admiral Leahy, who until the end remained unconvinced. "This is the biggest fool thing we have ever done," he told Truman after Vannevar Bush had explained to the President how the bomb worked. "The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives." [30]

[30] Truman, Year of Decisions, p. 11. Leahy in his memoirs frankly
admits this error.

The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb


OK then, might as well drudge up the famous pro-IBM example...

"I predict that the last. mainframe will be unplugged on March 15, 1996." - Stewart Alsop, March 1991


I think it's probably likely (and too bad) that many of these are apocryphal. The "30 failed Tech. Predictions" (#17 above) is suspect; for starters, HG Wells would have said "foundering", not "floundering"- I don't think "flounder" was a verb back then. So the whole list is suspect.

I do remember the Microsoft people telling us in 1985(when I worked for a PC maker) that 640K was more than enough, and that they wouldn't ever make a 32bit operating system. But that was his minions, not Bill himself.

My favorite hasn't been mentioned yet- something about closing the patent office because everything worth inventing has already been invented.

Fred Shapiro

Ian (#29) seems to be on to something here. When I search the digital archives of the New York Times on ProQuest, I do not find anything resembling this supposed errata.


"Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."

Irving Fisher
October 1929


"Omar would dispose of Marlo" - Flavor


On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are ... necessarily denied to us.... We shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition. ... I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us.

Auguste Comte, 1835


"I have seen the future, and it works!"

Lincoln Steffens


"Trees will tap dance, elephants will drive in the Indianapolis 500 and Orson Welles will skip breakfast, lunch and dinner before NC State figures out a way to beat Houston."
- Dave Kindred, *Washington Post*, shortly before the 1983 NCAA Basketball Championship game

Mark S

On this assignment, I cannot help.

On the assignment from last week, I cannot help enough, but maybe somewhat.

I had a summer position as a college student at IBM, working on the IBM PC the summer it was to be released. I was working at the Data Processing Division headquarters in White Plains.

Alas, I cannot remember the name of the fellow who said it, but I heard him say repeatedly over the course of the summer, "It has 10 times the memory of an Apple II", followed by some variation of "that's enough for anybody" or "who could need more than that" and so forth.

This was at a time when, if you had asked the 1% of the tech population that might have known, "who is Bill Gates", they would have answered "He's the kid from Harvard that wrote the tight BASIC intepreter. I think."

The level of people I was surrounded by were such that they were negotiating licenses for 3rd party software for the IBM PC. It is quite possible that Bill Gates said it to them. But, given that at the time he was a last-minute supplier of one of 3 operating systems for the same machine (and probably not considered of all that much importance), I would suspect that if he said it at all, he got it from IBM.



Dave was on the right track. Lord Kelvin, while quite brilliant, made many such quotes where he should have known 'never say never'.

X-rays will prove to be a hoax

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

We know that light is propagated like sound through pressure and motion

Radio has no future

Damien C

"God does not play dice"

David D

The Watson quote was pretty conclusively disproved in "The Maverick and His Machine" by Kevin Maney.

A quick google search on Maney turned up this related article on apocryphal quotes. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/kevinmaney/2005-07-05-famous-quotes_x.htm


In 1895 Lord Kelvin famously said that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" to be proved wrong only 8 years later.

G. Owen Schaefer

Maybe not quite a wrong prediction, but certainly a bad analysis:

"You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? Excuse me, I have no time to listen to such nonsense."

-Napoleon Bonaparte, to Robert Fulton on the steam ship.


"note that the day after Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, the New York Times printed a short boxed item on page 2. It read in full: "Errata: It has now been conclusively demonstrated that a rocket ship can travel through the vacuum of space. The Times sincerely regrets the error.""

Sounds apocryphal to me. We'd had rockets traveling through the vacuum of space for over a decade before that. Why would the Times only then publish a retraction?


"Groups with Guitars on their way out"

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