We’ve all said and written things we regret. To err is human, I am boneheaded therefore I am.
This page is devoted to famous misstatement, misdirected arrogance, and misprediction. I genuinely wince for most of these people — I’m not a schadenfreude kind of guy. I take no pleasure in putting these people’s error on display. I simply find the category of comfortable insistence upon the spectacularly wrong fascinating. May the hubris humble us.
There are gradations. Some ironies hammer gently, and we understand the context and the times that produced the error. Others make us weep for our species. Always someone in power presumes too much.
An expert has been defined as a specialist who avoids all the small errors and sweeps on to the grand fallacy. To be sure, I savor this irony, being a generalist. But I know as well the enormous contributions of experts and specialists to our collective understanding. And I’m not even anti-hubris — I love the way humans strap on wings of wax and feathers and soar. I love the diligent builders of the Tower of Babel.
How do we know how much we do not know without hubris unmasked? This inventory is a celebration of hubris, an appreciation for the people with the greatness and confidence to bluster into spectacular error.
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” –Lord Kelvin, 1899
“You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bon-fire under her deck… I have no time for such nonsense.” –Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), commenting on Fulton’s steamship
“The [atomic] bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” –Admiral William Leahy
“If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” –Richard M. Nixon (April 6, 1977)
“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” –Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was also the chosen mentor of Emily Dickinson, who submitted dozens of poems to him, which he described as too offbeat for publication)
“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” —New York Times editorial, 1921, insisting upon the impossibility of rockets
“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” —Popular Mechanics, 1949
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” –Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” –Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” –David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” –Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” –A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith thereafter founded Federal Express Corp.)
“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” –Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.