It is here that I like to look back to our past to learn about the human messiness of how we’ve considered the future of innovations. A practice I learned as a young university student in the late 1990’s trying to make sense of the human condition in a rapidly changing technological world. One of my Professors asked my peers and me to explore what was and what became of the military, the commercial and personal value of the telephone, the airplane, and the personal computer.
What we discovered was that all these innovations had some historical link in use for military purposes and/or government funding; all were also developed by people who stood years ahead of others, in how they saw “what could be” in human terms. However, like drone delivery today, they too each had their “nay-sayers”.
In an internal memo shared at Western Union in 1876, it reads “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” This claim has long been disputed and more so today than ever before, as people rely on their iPhone or Samsung Galaxy not just for its communication value, or as a fashion accessory but as an extension of themselves.
In 1895, Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society made the claim that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Once they had taken flight, it was Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy at Ecole Superieure de Guerre, who declared that “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
We just need to revisit the devastation of WW2 and many conflicts to counter his claim. In more recent times we can also learn of the thousands of refugees who enter one of the many international airports across the world, seeking asylum from war or the planes that continue to deliver aid to those who cannot leave.
As WW2 neared its end, so continued the development of computing technology. A time in 1943 when the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson claimed “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” or Ken Olsen, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., who in 1977 stated, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Or this claim, one of my favorites said just 4 years after Ken Olsen by Bill Gates, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Today, I have decks of keynote slides that far exceed 640k and a memory chip that holds thousands of holiday and family photos or for my students, their collections of music.