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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY A historic look through a cracked crystal ball



Published: Thu, January 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Tucked inside a coat pocket is my pink Gypsy Madame prediction card, wrinkled from years of casual crinkling. I got it eight years ago when visiting an oddity museum in Niagara Falls. It was retrieved from a dime machine, located somewhere near the two-headed taxidermied calf, I think.

Every once in a while, I put on that coat, my hand wanders into the pocket, and I remember that wonderful trip and that wonderfully odd museum. Who among us wouldn't want to know what the future will bring?

This time of year, especially, finds many peering into crystal balls. Unfortunately, much like the novelty card's fortuneteller, most purveyors of predictions miss the mark more often than they hit it. I did, in fact, do a little research in that regard. ...

Not to be: The first group of predictions might be classified as things that didn't come to pass. We could call these "Failed Predictions."

The 1900 Ladies Home Journal had a few. Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today, it stated. And, "There will be no streetcars in our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above the ground. ... These underground or overhead streets will teem with capacious automobile passenger coaches and freight wagons with cushioned wheels. ... Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises."

Streets in our millennium were predicted to be made of a substance called Nickelum -- an alloy "which will be stronger and more durable than Nickel," wrote the newspaper Pressburger Zeitung in 1922. It also said shopping would be via underground moving sidewalks or small cars in pneumatic tubes.

People will eat mostly synthetic products, they said. (Now, if you consider red dye #40, BHT, potassium sorbate, sodium propionate, sodium benzoate, sodium sulfite and artificial flavors -- all on the ingredient label of a box in my cupboard -- to be synthetic products, then I guess they were right.)

The New York Times ran the prediction in 1955 that nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners would hit the market in 10 years. In the 1960s, a Newsweek article claimed the home of the future would feature an automatic bed maker along with an ultrasonic shower that used sound waves instead of water.

Well, what do you know? The second set of predictions falls into the category of predicting things wouldn't happen when they actually did. We might call these "Sour Grapes" predictions.

Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, was the genius who, in 1895, predicted, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." I also think this is credited to Kelvin: "X-rays will prove to be a hoax."

Another cracked crystal ball was evidently used by Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of 20th Century-Fox Studios, in 1946 when he predicted TV "won't be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."

Prentice Hall's business book editor commented in 1957, "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." It did, in fact, outlast that editor.

Along those same lines, Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., said in 1977, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Yeah, right: Another brilliant remark, this time off an internal Western Union memo: "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."

Then there was this musical prediction from a Decca Recording Co. executive in 1962: "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." By the way, the sound he didn't like was that of the Beatles.

murphy@vindy.com




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