With this in mind, we take a look at some of the worst R&D and tech predictions in history: From creative innovators who made bold predictions only to fall flat on their face, to dour naysayers piping up to poo-poo the next great invention. So with a cheer for people who take a chance, and a boo for the doubters, here are ten proclamations on research and development that got it wrong, big time:
1. “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years”
Alex Lewt, President, Lewt Vacuum Cleaner Company, 1955
How different the Cold War could have been with a household appliance nuclear arms race.
2. “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”
Albert Einstein, Letter to Max Born (a pioneering quantum physicist), 1926
A blot in Albert Einstein’s copy-book? This quote relates to his rejection of the uncertainty and randomness behind the then emerging field of quantum physics. Quantum physics is here folks, and it’s weird!
3. “Within five years, I predict the tablet will be the most popular form of PC sold in America”
Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, 2002
This is way before iPads and Galaxies. In a time when the tablet market had been and remained a barren wasteland. Bill Gates’ bank account tells us he got plenty of other stuff right so we won’t feel too sorry for him. And tablets did eventually take off!
4. “I think there is a World market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, President of IBM, 1943
There is an important caveat to this one. The computers he was talking about were as big as a room. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
5. “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”
President of Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford’s lawyer NOT to invest in the Ford Motor Company.
That is one piece of advice Horace Rackham will be glad he didn’t take. He cashed out his $5,000 investment when it reached $12.5 million and devoted his life to philanthropy. While we are on the subject of stocks:
6. “Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public… has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company…”
US District Attorney suing Lee Deforest, an American inventor, 1926.
Whoa! Slightly scary legal intervention. DeForest was acquitted but the court case nearly bankrupted him. Many of the greatest innovations have arisen from what some may call ‘absurd’ ideas. We say long live ‘absurd’ ideas!
7. “What is the internet, anyway?”
Today Show, 1994
Yes, there was a time when the Internet was a new thing and people didn’t get it!
8. “The Americans have need of the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”
William Preece, British Post Office, 1876
Messenger boys…definitely the way forward William!
9. “[Segway] may be bigger than the Internet”
Supposedly said by John Doerr, Venture Capitalist behind Netscape and Amazon (and… Segway), c. 2000
There were so many wildly optimistic claims about the Segway that it is hard to know which one to go for. Suffice to say that leading luminaries were utterly convinced that the Segway was the future.
10. “The acquisition of Friends Reunited is also a key step in the delivery of our strategy to drive new revenue streams for the company”
Jeff Henry, Director of ITV Consumer, 2005
Talk about betting on the wrong horse. ITV ended up spending £175 million on what was then Britain’s 8th most popular website, only to sell it for £25 million a few years later. This early form of social media was blown away by the emergence of Facebook.
There is no shame in being unsuccessful when it comes to R&D. And even from an R&D tax credit perspective it really is the trying that counts. A successful result is not one of HMRC’s criteria for paying out an R&D tax credit. It is the uncertainty of outcome and a genuine attempt to create something new or improved that is what’s important. So keep innovating and don’t fear failure or, as Oscar Wilde put it:
“Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light.”