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?


"If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one."

--- W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, 1954


"Dewey defeats Truman"

-Chicago Tribune. November 3, 1948.


to Jim @ #3

You are right but... if it looks like an egg, smells like an egg and tastes like and egg...


Seems to be a decent list here, entitled "Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions"


"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

---New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work, 1921

(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.")


No new taxes?


Here's a rather recent one...

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


"My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time."

Neville Chamberlain


"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."

-The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall 1957


Mission accomplished...


"A rocket will never be able to leave the earth's atmosphere."

"The New York Times" 1936


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


"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

Filip G

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


"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

Jim again

"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

Dennis Rice

"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.


There is nothing more to be commented. All the comments that could possibly be made, have been made.


"There are few Indians in this area"

General George Custer.