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The eccentric engineer: the perils of forecasting

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This edition of Eccentric Engineer tells many stories of the thankless job of predicting the engineered future. Unfortunately, everyone gets it wrong from time to time.

Part of being an engineer is the ability to predict the future – not in a mystical, crystal ball sort of way, but gauging what might be needed, what solutions to current problems might look like and, to a degree, critiquing those developments as they appear.

Predicting the future is, however, an unpredictable art and many an engineer who was scoffed at in their lifetime has gone on to be proved right.

Laughing at those people who have stuck their necks out and tried to predict the unpredictable is a popular activity, though we probably ought to ask how many of us could do better. What’s more, many famously erroneous predictions turn out never to have been predicted in the first place – they’re just good stories. Yet every engineer gets it wrong from time to time.

Take the light bulb. It’s not something that would seem too contentious today, but when it was first posited, the president of the illustrious Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, Henry Morton, boldly declared: “Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognise it as a conspicuous failure.” Before those British engineers among us get any ideas that we treated this subject any better, the Parliamentary Committee briefed with investigating Edison’s light bulb in 1878 reported back that it was “...good enough for our transatlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men”. In truth, there was a tendency to sneer at Americans in general. Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the Post Office and a former pupil of Faraday, noted that “the Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Within a decade, we had plenty of telephones and the messenger boys were out of work.

Even our own IET forerunners somehow managed to miss the significance. Telegraphy pioneer Sir William Siemens, the first president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, remarked of the invention of the light bulb “such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress”.

If there’s an invention that has had a greater effect on the last 100 years of engineering, it’s probably the computer – something that many electrical engineers failed to see coming. Even those who worked in the field, such as Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), saw no reason “for any individual to have a computer in their home”. That was in 1977. Fortunately, the young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t take any notice of him, although Bill did muse: “640k ought to be enough for anybody.” Of course the computers that Olsen was dealing with in 1977 weren’t like PCs in either size or function, so he was arguably right as far as his product was concerned, though he might have foreseen the change in size coming if he had read Practical Mechanics magazine in 1949: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1½ tons.” To be fair to him, others shared his doubts. In 1953, IBM chairman Thomas Watson thought that “...there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Even the model he was thinking of – one of his own – sold 18 units.

In truth, we are remarkably bad at predicting what kind of engineering will play a major role in our lives. Film producer Darryl Zanuck perhaps wishfully dismissed TV in 1946, saying “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”. Nor do we just dismiss the probable; we also boldly predict the unlikely. In 1955, the president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corporation claimed in the New York Times that within 10 years, everyone would have a nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner!

The problem is that in the present, we seem to survive perfectly well without ‘new stuff’ so it’s easy to dismiss anything new as unnecessary or, leaping to the other extreme, we expect the future to be filled with the outlandish and unlikely.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on the futurists, though. Even Albert Einstein thought “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”, while the great Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, declared that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” and also that “radio has no future”.

Before you despair at engineers’ lack of belief in future trends, remember it’s not just us. H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers Studios might have been one of the first to see films coming, but he’s also the man who proclaimed: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

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