Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the <i>Yale Book of Quotations</i>.
Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

View full image

In a society that demands constant progress, and measures it mostly by financial and technological improvement, it is not surprising that those we consider history’s greatest buffoons are the experts who completely failed to foresee important advances (or retreats). Thanks to their mistakes, a special category of celebrated quotations has emerged: the Spectacularly Wrong Prediction (SWP).

SWP lore occurs in many fields; the recording executive who rejected the Beatles in 1962, allegedly because guitar music was on its way out, is infamous. But misforecasts in technology and economics are among the most often lampooned. For example, Irving Fisher, Class of 1888, ’91PhD, was an eminent Yale economist and is still highly respected in academia. The public, however, remembers him today for declaring in October 1929, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Spectacularly Wrong Predictions are usually apocryphal, inspired by our desire to feel smarter than the authorities who supposedly delivered them. IBM chair Thomas J. Watson is widely believed to have opined, early in the computing era, that “there is a world market for about five computers.” But he was talking about one particular model, marketed in 1953 to large businesses. (It sold 18.)

Perhaps even more famous than Watson’s SWP is an assertion about computer memory that Bill Gates supposedly uttered in 1981: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” But the earliest evidence I can find is in the magazine InfoWorld, which quoted the statement in 1985 and 1988. And Gates has denied ever saying such a thing.

An earlier techno-goof SWP is the popular story that a commissioner of patents in the late nineteenth century resigned—or advocated closing the Patent Office—because “everything that can be invented has been invented.” In 1995, a folklorist writing in the New York Times challenged this story. More than 50 years before, David P. Mikkelson wrote, an academic working in the District of Columbia Historical Records Survey “found no evidence that any official of the United States Patent Office (including Charles H. Duell, to whom the quotation is most often attributed)” made the statement.

Does the Duell quote fit the mold of the apocryphal misforecast, fabricated long after the fact? Not so much. Dennis Crouch, associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, has a popular patent law blog called Patently-O. In January, Crouch blogged that he had found an item about “The Coming Century” in Punch’s Almanack for 1899, consisting of dialogue between a Genius entering a publisher’s office and a Boy working there. The Genius asks the Boy, “Isn’t there a clerk who can examine patents?” The latter replies, “Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Crouch suspects this 1899 joke was the origin of the expression; 1899 is frequently given as the comment’s birth date. However, in following up on his discovery, I came across an intriguing 1898 statement about the first U.S. world’s fair. That 1876 event, the writer argued, “largely stimulate[d] invention”—even though the inventions on exhibit seemed so advanced at the time that some had expected the fair “to convince inventors that nothing more remained to be done, that the field of invention was exhausted.”

This passage appeared in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1897, which was delivered to Congress when Charles H. Duell had just become head of the U.S. Patent Office. Perhaps this was the very quotation that became, in twisted form, an SWP legend.  

The comment period has expired.