Thinking and predicting

While preparing my post at the end of last week on ‘anniversaries’, I came across the wikipedia entry for Thomas Watson of IBM.  With a certain poetry, wikipedia includes sections entitled ‘famous quote’ and also ‘famous misquote’, the famous quote being ‘think’ as alluded to in my post last week.  The ‘famous misquote’ is from 1943, suggesting that the world market for computers would run to a total of five.

Wikipedia conveniently links to IBM’s own archives, which suggest that this is indeed a misquote, and traces it to a remark from 1953 by Thomas Watson junior (son of the Thomas Watson who introduced the ‘think’ quote) that a particular pioneering product, for which he had expected sales of five, had secured 18 orders.  I’m cynical enough to suspect that Watson junior might have been very conservative in setting his sales targets, especially for a machine which was such a novelty, so as to increase his prospects of telling his employees and shareholders a good story.

Still, it’s a pity that the story does seem to be a myth.  Wikipedia approvingly quotes Gordon Bell who pointed out that for ten years after 1943 there weren’t many digital computers in the world.  In the late 1940s it would have been perfectly rational to predict that by the 21st century the only computers would still be large, expensive, industrial and commercial installations.  The real significance of the quote, or misquote, is that technology went on to develop in ways that were completely unexpected at the time, and on the whole that the IT industry (not just IBM) was able to adapt to those developments.

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