Richard G. Petty, MD

Great Mistakes

It is often amazing to see how many confident predictions never turned out to be correct. This is particularly important as we are building up the evidence base to support Integrated Medicine. In Healing, Meaning and Purpose I discuss some observations that nobody could understand until new theoretical models had been created.

One example is the observation that the orbit of Mercury around the Sun appears to be irregular. Astronomers spent years trying to find a theoretical planet called Vulcan that was supposed to explain the observations. It doesn’t exist. But it was not until 1905 that Einstein explained the apparent irregularities: light was being bent by the gravitational field of the Sun.

Here are a few examples of the great and the wise pontificating about the future and getting it dead wrong. Worth remembering the next time somebody says that homeopathy or acupuncture are "impossible," so any research data should be rejected out of hand!

360 B.C.E. “The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls. You will give your disciples not truth but the semblance of truth: they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”
–Plato (Athenian Philosopher, 428-348 B.C.E.)

A.D. 79 “I am amazed, O Wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen, since you must bear the tedious stupidities of so many scrawlers.”
–Graffiti in Pompeii

A.D. 100 “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments.”
–Julius Sextus Frontinus (Roman Governor of Britain, Author of a work on the Aqueducts of Rome, A.D.35-A.D.103)

1486 “So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”
–Report of a Committee to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain concerning Columbus’ proposal

1530 “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain."
Martin Luther (German Priest and Scholar, 1483-1546)

1800 “What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (Corsican-born French Military Strategist, General and, from 1804-1814, Emperor of the French, 1769-1821) When told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat.

1807 “I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky.”
Thomas Jefferson (American Writer, Philosopher, Politician and, from 1801-1809, 3rd President of the United States, 1743-1826) On hearing an eyewitness report of falling meteorites.

1819 “Artificial lighting drives out fear of the dark, which keeps the weak from sinning.”
–Kölnische Zeitung

1825 “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”
–Quarterly Review

1830 “Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
–Dionysius Lardner (Irish Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London, 1793-1859)

1839 “The abolishment (sic) of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it… knife & pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of patients.”
–Alfred Velpeau (French Surgeon, 1795-1867)

1842 “I watched his countenance closely, to see if he was not deranged … and I was assured by other senators after he left the room that they had no confidence in it.”
–John Smith (American Politician and United States Senator for Indiana) After witnessing a demonstration of Samuel Morses’s telegraph.

1830 “Dear Mr. President: The canal system of this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation known as "railroads" … As you may well know, Mr. President, "railroad" carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by "engines" which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”
–Martin Van Buren (American Politician, Governor of New York and, from 1837-1841, 8th President of the United States, 1782-1862

1844 “There does not appear the slightest probability that, under any circumstances, Hong Kong will ever become a place of trade.”
–Robert Montgomery Martin (English Civil Servant and British Colonial Treasurer, 1800-1868)

1864 “No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.”
–King William I of Prussia (Prussian Aristocrat, Soldier and, from 1713 to 1740, King of Prussia, 1688-1740) On hearing of the invention of trains/

1865 “Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.”
–The Boston Post

1872 “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
–Pierre Pachet (French Professor of Physiology at Toulouse)   

1872 “It’s a great invention but who would want to use it anyway?”
–Rutherford B. Hayes (American Politician, and, from 1877-1881, 19th President of the United States) After a demonstration of Alexander Bell’s telepho

1873 “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”
–Sir John Eric Erichsen (Danish-born British Surgeon and Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, 1818-1896)

1876 This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
–Western Union Memo

1878 “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”
–Sir William Henry Preece (Welsh Electrical Engineer and Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, 1834-1913)

1878 “When the Paris Exhibition closes electric light will close with it & no more be heard of.”
–Erasmus Wilson (English Physician and Philanthropist, 1809-1884)

1880 Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress.”
–Sir William Siemens (German-born British Engineer and Inventor, 1823-1883), on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb.

1888 “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”
–Simon Newcomb (Canadian-born American Astronomer, 1835-1909)

1889 "Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”
–Thomas Alva Edison (American Inventor, 1847-1931)

1893 “Criminals will be prevented from propagating their kind. This will take the place of capital punishment. And after a few generations, this will do away with crime, since no criminals will be born.”
–Ella Wheeler Wilcox (American Poet and Journalist, 1850-1919)

1893 “All marriages will be happy in the 1990’s, because the law will put to death any man or woman who marries without the proper physical, mental and financial qualifications.”
–John Habberton (American Writer, 1842-1921)

1893 “By 1993 longevity will be so improved that 150 years will be no unusual age to reach.”
–Thomas De Witt Talmage (American Clergyman and Preacher, 1832-1902)

1894 “The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented by new discoveries is exceedingly remote. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals”
–Albert Michelson (German-born American Physicist and, in 1907, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1852-1931)

1895 “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
–Lord Kelvin (a.k.a. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, English Physicist and President of the Royal Society, 1824-1907)

1895 "It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the airplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.”
–Thomas Alva Edison (American Inventor, 1847-1931)

1899 "Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”
–Charles Duell American Commissioner of the United States Office of Patents (This one is almost certainly a myth: Duell’s report actually talks about the ever-increasing number of new inventions!)

1899 “The ordinary "horseless carriage" is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”
–Literary Digest

1900 “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
— Lord Kelvin (a.k.a. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, English Physicist and President of the Royal Society, 1824-1907) {The same gentleman who said that "heavier than air machines" were impossible. Perhaps he then gave up on making predictions….}

1906 "The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.”
–Simon Newcomb (Canadian-born American Astronomer, 1835-1909)

1921 “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 about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary work on rockets.

1927 "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
–H M Warner (American Founder of Warner Brothers, 1881-1958)   

1928 “There is no likelihood that man can ever tap the power of the atom. The glib supposition of utilizing atomic energy when our coal has run out is a completely unscientific Utopian dream, a childish bug-a-boo.”
–Robert Millikan (American Physicist, who, in 1923, Won the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1868-1953)

1929 “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
–Irving Fisher (American Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1867-1947)

1931 “In my lifetime, there will be no epidemics. There will be no incurable diseases.”
–Norman Bel Geddes (American Designer, 1893-1958)

1932 “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It wo
uld mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

— Albert Einstein (German-born American Physicist and, in 1921, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1879-1955

1933 “The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.”
— Ernest Rutherford, First Baron Rutherford of Nelson (New Zealand-born British Physicist and, in 1908, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1871-1937

1936 “The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]…presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.”
–Richard van der Riet Woolley, British Astronomer and Astronomer Royal, 1906-1986)

1937 "I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and the general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
–Alan Turing (English Mathematician, 1912-1954)

1939 "The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen: the average American family hasn’t time for it.”
–The New York Times

1939 "Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous."
Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

1943 "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
–Thomas J. Watson, Sr. (American Businessman and Founder of International Business Machines, 1874-1956)

1946 “[Television] won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
–Darryl F. Zanuck (American Writer and Director, 1902-1979)   

1949 "Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.”
–Popular Mechanics Magazine

1949 “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years.”
–John von Neumann (Hungarian-born American Mathematician who contributed to Quantum Mechanics and Game Theory, 1903-1957

1953 “If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright (American Architect, 1867-1959)

1954 “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.”
— W.C. Heuper (American Scientist and Director of the National Cancer Institute)

1959 “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
–Arthur Summerfield (American Politician and, from 1953-1961, United States Postmaster General)

1962 “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
–Decca Recording Company in a letter rejecting the Beatles
“What the hell is [a microprocessor] good for?”
–Robert Lloyd of IBM’s Advanced Computing Systems Division

1970 “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.”
–Marvin Minsky (American Scientist and Philosopher in the Field of Artificial Intelligence, 1927-)

1970 “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.”
–Spencer Silver (American Chemist and Inventor, 1941-) Speaking about the work that led to the adhesives for 3M "Post-It" Notepads.

1977 “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
–Ken Olsen (American Engineer and President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1926-)

1981 “640K of memory ought to be enough for anybody.”
–Bill Gates (American Computer Genius, Businessman and Co-founder of Microsoft, 1955-)

1983 “No one knows what to do with seven windows at one time.”
–PC Week Magazine

1984 “The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a mouse. There is no evidence that people want to use these things.”
–John Dvorak (American Columnist on Technology and Computing)

1995 “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
–Robert Metcalfe (American Technology Pioneer, 1946-)

1995 “To see tomorrow’s PC, look at today’s Macintosh.”
–BYTE Magazine

As a cheer leader for all things Apple, I just had to put in that last one!

Which leaves me with one more quotation:
"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
–Arthur C. Clarke (English-born Writer, 1917-) First Law of Science.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


4 Responses to “Great Mistakes”
  1. Reg Adkins says:

    Great bit, I love quotes.I’m sending this over to the “tips” section of Lifehacker. If they’ve any taste for value they’ll pick it up.

  2. Dear Reg,

    Thank you so much for commenting.

    I share your love of quotations: I have almost 35,000 of them!

    They can teach us so much, and perhaps help us avoid all the same mistakes!

    Kind regards,


  3. Jason Sadler says:

    I recently finished a book by Guy Kawasaki called “Rules for Revolutionaries” and he had a few of these quotes. It’s pretty funny to see some of predictions people made.

  4. Dear Jason,

    I haven’t seen Guy’s book yet: thank you for the tip!

    It truly is amazing how many of the predictions were so far off. As you will have seen, I decided to stick with the predictions of the great and the good. If they can be so far off, what about the rest of the pundits?!

    Kind regards,


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