The hindsight of archives: “Popular Science” & incorrect technology predictions

Sci-fi and tech site IO9.com reports that Popular Science Magazine is now making its archives available online dating back to 1872.  The archives can be searched either at the magazine’s website or via Google Books.  In the archive, I was able to quickly find articles of historical interest, each showing a technological prediction that didn’t pan out.  Of course, for technology, such history can be shockingly recent.

Here’s a failed prediction of success.  1980s computer buffs may remember the venerable Amiga.  A 1985 article describes the $1295 machine in glowing terms.  Even with only 256 kilobytes of memory, the machine could run a Mac-like operating system, and with an emulator, also PC programs like Lotus 1-2-3 (a popular pre-Excel spreadsheet).  An Amiga representative predicted that Amiga would become “the new standard for home- and small-business computer needs.”  Needless to say, this prediction did not become reality, and the Amiga never became a widely used platform, instead outgunned and outnumbered by the less-powerful Macs and PCs of the era.

Here’s a failed prediction of failure, and a good reality check on how far we’ve come.  A 1995 article discusses the emerging use of the Internet:

Set aside for a moment the hype about what the Internet represents (“the assembly line of the electronic era”), what it could become (“the bedrock of the information superhighway”), or what it might turn us into (“a global community of data-seeking homebodies”).  Instead, let’s take stock of what it is.  This worldwide computer network you hear and read so much about is today little more than a high-tech candy dispenser for the eyes, ears, and mind.  It is fuzzy satellite weather maps, canned audio clips from the President, unfettered access to obscure college journals, and very likely, not one damn thing that will make a lasting difference in how you work, play, or live.

In fairness to the author, much of what he said was true in 1995.  He understandably bemoans the “impractical” nature of the web of its time, noting that “you can’t stop and make plane or hotel reservations” online.  But to be sure, the web very quickly made, and continues to make, a transforming difference in our lives.  But enough for now.  I have to pull up Expedia to get some plane tickets before getting back to the work I’m doing from home over Spring Break.  Later on, maybe I’ll order some coffee from Amazon, or watch some Hulu.  Or better yet, maybe I — a “data-seeking homebody” — should unplug and walk the dog, who could care less about computers and archives.

Sleepy sepia golden retriever

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