Predicting the near future is a crazy, impossible game

Back in 1903, the Wright brothers flew for the first time, 20 feet above ground, for 12 seconds. Hardly anyone showed up. The event went vastly unnoticed. It was not reported in the press. The Wright brothers did not become famous until many years later. Yet, ten years later, in 1914, we had war planes used for reconnaissance and dropping (ineffective) bombs. It was not long before we had dogfighting above the battleground.

Lord Kelvin, one of the most reputed and respected scientist at the time, wrote in 1902 that “No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.”

If we could not see ten years in the future, back in 1903, what makes us think that we can see ten or twenty years in the future in 2015?

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Predicting the near future is a crazy, impossible game”

  1. Good post, though I’d quibble with the example.

    There was some future-war fiction that included aircraft, even pre-1900. Google Albert Robida, “War in the 20th Century” from 1887. Astonishing stuff. Shortly after the Wrights but still prior to WWI, he did even better with La Guerre Infernale.

    Octave Chanute was in touch with most serious experimenters including the Wrights, and publicly documenting the various efforts (see: Progress in Flying Machines). I’m not a hardcore historian, but I do know a bit about the history of fiction, and the publicity surrounding various efforts at powered flight was enough to start changing fictional flying machines from flying boats and flying cigar-shaped airships to flying machines with wings — just a little bit — in the 1890s.

    They didn’t get it exactly right… the point of your post, I know… but I don’t think it can be said we went from zero to warplanes between the Wrights and WWI. The quest for better flying machines had captured the public’s imagination to the extent that there was a body of popular fiction devoted in part to it. Frank Reade was using his flying machines in all sorts of combat situations throughout the 1890s, for example.

    It doesn’t invalidate your point of course, but your post reminds me of something I think of often (again, from the fictional perspective)… the world thought that airships might look like flying boats for the most part, and then, around the 1890s, a magic moment where everyone started to lock in on the shape of the future.

    Knowing the magic moment when you’re living through it is the real trick, I suppose.

  2. “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 — probably talking about Lord Kelvin

  3. I see your point and think that you have good reasons to think that way.

    It seems that there is a certain amount of difficulty for scientists to see much forward in their times. It was like this with Lord Kelvin, it is like this with us.

    But in the other side, we have the history on our side, that have teached us a lot in the past century. I think that we’re less skeptical today that we have been yesterday, because history taught us to become more carefull about skepticism.

    We have learned to accumulate data, and we’re trying hard to develop models to use that data in order to (try to) understand the future.

    Or maybe the problem is just this: too many models and less imagination, dreams…

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