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Some Day, You’ll Have a Telephone with a Screen and Be Able To Dial a Book (quoteinvestigator.com)
197 points by everbody 65 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

Similar prediction of ebook readers by Stanisław Lem in 1961 book "Return from the stars". He called them "optons". He also predicted audiobooks and called them "lectons". And Amazon :)

> I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I have looked forward to them, after the micro films that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons - like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation. Only scientific publications having a very limited distribution were still printed, on a plastic imitation paper. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. My handful of crystal corn - my books. I selected a number of works on history and sociology, a few on statistics and demography, and what the girl from Adapt had recommended on psychology. A couple of the larger mathematical textbooks - larger, of course, in the sense of their content, not of their physical science. The robot that served me was itself an encyclopedia, in that - as it told me - it was linked directly, through electronic catalogs, to templates of every book on earth. As a rule, a bookstore had only single "copies" of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the contents of the work was recorded in a crystal.

> The originals - Crystomatrices - were not to be seen; they were kept behind pale blue enamel the steel plates. So a book was printed, as it were, every time someone needed it. The question of printings, of their quantity, of their running out, had ceased to exist. Actually, a great achievement, and yet I regretted the passing of books.


That’s incredible.

I have always thought science is inspired by fiction.

Cellphones are nothing less than a better communicator, Bluetooth badges are even available on thinkgeek!

Almost all things need to be conceived by a person before they are created. Its much easier to conceive something than build it. Thus most objects will be written about before they exist. More emergent properties are less likely to have been predicted by fiction authors. Say the decline of good news sources due to the capture of most classified revenue by Craigslist and all the knock-on effects of that.

A large portion of tech is conceivable way before it is possible. E.g. self-driving cars and sentient AI robots have been written about for a century already. Doesn't really mean research into those is inspired by the stories.

For something that was conceived in a very public way (e.g. a popular work of literature), I find it hard to believe that research wasn't inspired by the stories at least in part. Not the fundamental research in other fields that made it possible in the first place, perhaps, but the final engineering work.

Inspired by or surfing similar waves of thought. Science fiction can just go further ahead, not bounded by the realities of science and production limitations.

Sci-fi (and all fiction) are really just the author talking about the present. As such, all the sci-fi tech is just a neat description of an existing problem. Inevitably engineers will strive to solve those problems.

But a communicator is primarily a voice communication device. If I were to say a cellphone is like a star trek device, I'd say it's more like an undersized PADD

(and yeah, I maybe agree that the Apple engineers may have a lot of TNG. The 'too lazy to make actual buttons' set designers, I think, actually inspired apple; it really is a lot easier to design a muti-use interface if the "buttons" are all behind a glass touchscreen.)

Feature phones still exist. The Motorola StarTAC was very much like a communicator.

I think the iPhone was more inspired by existing products and their obvious drawbacks. The Newton was more like a PADD than the iPhone is.

The story I've heard about the TNG set design is "Gene Roddenberry thought it looked more futuristic". Calling it laziness is insulting.

I believe the Motorola StarTAC was directly inspired by the communicators from TOS.

Visually, it's pretty similar [0], and even the name recalls Star Trek.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Startac_130_Movistar.jpg

Nancy Bass Wyden, the daughter of the Fred Bass (who gave the prediction in question) is now the owner of her father’s bookstore. She is the wife of senator Wyden and an outspoken critic of the tax breaks given to big tech, particularly Amazon: https://cnn.com/2019/01/08/opinions/amazon-big-tech-threat-c...

At my university there are several ironic and funny posters with quotes about mispredictions on display at the walls of the big lecture hall of the mechanical engineering building.

My favorite one is from Gottlieb Daimler 1901:

"The global demand for automobiles will not exceed one million - at least because of a lack of available chauffeurs." [1]

He is the founder of the predecessor of todays Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz.

[1] losely translated from German: "Die weltweite Nachfrage nach Kraftfahrzeugen wird eine Million nicht überschreiten - allein schon aus Mangel an verfügbaren Chauffeuren."

"I believe in the horse. The automobile is a passing phenomenon." – Kaiser Wilhelm II.

"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, circa 1949

(as a genius, he realized that how things appear is not necessarily how they are)

> "The global demand for automobiles will not exceed one million - at least because of a lack of available chauffeurs."

Such quotes are helpful to ask what are possibilities if we subvert the imposed limitation. E.g. I got a thought what if we switch the subject to some other invention e.g. a medical equipment:

The global demand for gamma knifes will not exceed one million - at least because of a lack of available surgeons.

There is no evidence that Bill Gates said "640K ought to be enough for anyone."


Thanks. I've learned something new today. Edited my post.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

Not Thomas Watson, but A. S. Householder[1] in Nicholas Metropolis et al "A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century"[2]:


[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alston_Scott_Householder [2] https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=578384

There’s no evidence he ever said that though.

Think of data centers as huge mainframes and we will soon come close.

> Think of data centers as huge mainframes and we will soon come close.

I... kinda doubt it. All of the really big players have access to markets that are willing to pay huge margins.

there are a lot of smaller players that would be happy to sell you compute at 75% the price of amazon, and bandwidth at 1/10th the price of amazon. Yeah, the big customers are happy paying the premium, but there are plenty of small customers that will buy service from a smaller player if it means a big discount.

It's going to be increasingly difficult to compete with the big players' economies of scale though. There's a reason we don't buy cars from the neighbor's factory or generate our own electricity these days.

like... half the people I know who own a single family home generate a good portion of their own electricity.

Sometimes centralization helps efficiency, it's true, but sometimes the opposite, decentralization helps, too... it sure looks like for peak-load in sunny areas, decentralized power generation is cheaper.

I think that for commodity compute, the big players are not a lot more efficient than the big hardware manufacturers. Go to a supermicro, a foxcon, or other ODM server manufacturer, and you'd be surprised how cheap it is to buy actual hardware.

Small companies will scrap for margins that the big players, so far, at least, have laughed at, because so far, most of the market seems to be okay paying these large margins. (I used to be one of those small companies scrapping for those low margins; I am not happily and much more renumeratively employed by a big player, outside of their cloud department)

I personally think that long term, smaller players or in-house hosting will be the way to go for your 'base load' compute resource. I think that paying the margins of the big players makes a lot more sense for your 'peak load'

But, of course, we don't know yet; none of this will shake out until the next serious economic downturn. There isn't a lot of pressure to save money when the economy looks like this.

That might have been right at the time.

1889: “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison.

Edison made money off of selling DC infrastructure though.

2019: I have a 100% DC powered datacenter, but the power certainly gets to its location via AC.

Transmission could be done via DC too, and there are quite a few benefits to it. The only field left to conquer is generation of electricity, looks like that's going to be in AC.

It is, but rather difficult and expensive for short to medium distances. Submarine power cables are often HVDC.


Great article. The thing's grounding system is lustworthy:

The Sylmar grounding system is a line of 24 silicon-iron alloy electrodes submerged in the Pacific Ocean at Will Rogers State Beach[4] suspended in concrete enclosures about one meter above the ocean floor.

The grounding system at Celilo consists of 1,067 cast iron anodes buried in a two-foot trench of petroleum coke, which behaves as an electrode, arranged in a ring of 2.02 mi (3,250.87 m) circumference at Rice Flats (near Rice, Oregon), which is 6.6 mi (10.6 km) SSE of Celilo.

Incredible! I've always been fascinated when driving by the Sylmar station (many times in my life) and never knew that I was driving by connecting infrastructure when on PCH in that area.

And even more interesting is they are replacing/replaced it! https://www.circlingthenews.com/terminus-of-sylmar-ground-re...

Cool! Which led me further down the rabbit hole: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current

- HVDC uses voltages between 100 kV and 1,500 kV.

- HVDC can be cheaper for 500+ mile runs

- HVDC allows power transmission between unsynchronized AC transmission systems

- Recent advances make UHVDC feasible (800kV+)

Great excuse to get introduced to this wonderful engineering youtube channel (no affiliation) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFQG9kuXSxg

What benefits? The downsides are massive resistive losses.

That depends entirely on the voltage.

AC won because transformers are relatively simple and can change AC voltage, but we can now build stuff to change AC voltage too.

Arguably, it's now cheaper in raw material terms to up-step and down step DC with high frequency transformers and buck-boost. The problems are lower efficiency than a modern, high efficiency transformer, which leads to increased dissipation and lower life of the complex electronics involved, requiring active cooling. An AC transformer is a well understood technology that can operate for decades without any maintenance. DC-DC high power convertors are exotic beasts with large downtimes and expensive to repair and maintain.

We are a long way of seeing this setup used outside very special applications, AC might no longer have a natural advantage but the benefits of DC are too small to justify the massive investments and research required.

Though, it can certainly be argued that a single home-wide rectifier and smart DC wall sockets could improve efficiency and safety. You could have things like negotiated power up, ground insulation, cheaper and more efficient light bulbs and appliances etc.

People are already building 802.3af and 802.3ad based office LED lighting systems at 48VDC, since it's much cheaper to run cat5e around a big building.

Don't forget that three phase allows for three conductors to carry the power of three pairs of single phase conductors.

Three-phase AC also allows for very electromechanically simple generators and motors. Industrial electrical loads have traditionally been (and often still are) rotating machinery, putting three-phase at an advantage.

That's not entirely true. Any load imbalance on the phases is resolved through the null, connected to earth at both ends of the line. You can do the same with three single phase lines, although you wound need a massive earthing system with low resistance.

Or you could build a 2 wire (or 4, 6 ...) DC line with complementary polarity that would carry more power due to skin effects. If the negative and positive loads are balanced, the currents though the earthing wire cancel out.

Alternatively, skin effect limits the amount of AC current you can throw over a single conductor. With DC, you can make your conductors arbitrarily thick and you'll use the whole thing.

Several are given in this Quora thread [1]. The main ones are:

• No frequency matching issues between systems.

• DC systems appears as an open circuit to AC systems, limiting the spread of faults.

• Less expensive towers and wires.

• No reactive losses.

• No line length limits. Apparently AC has problems with lines longer than half a wavelength (2500 km or 1500 miles).

[1] https://www.quora.com/When-and-why-is-DC-used-instead-of-AC-...

"Brilliant" man, 1937 recipient of der Fuhrer's "The Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star", granted to 'honor foreign nationals who made themselves deserving of the German Reich.' for selling IBM tabulation machines, technology which enabled genocide.

Maybe he was just trying to misdirect the competitors, while himself building up capacity to sell a lot more cars.

By 1969, this was already a common meme. One example from 1967 was from the "Court Martial" episode of Star Trek:

KIRK: Yes. (Notices the piles of books everywhere) What is all this? COGLEY: I figure we'll be spending some time together, so I moved in. KIRK: I hope I'm not crowding you. COGLEY: What's the matter? Don't you like books? KIRK: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.


If this quote is from September 1969... The movie 2001 was released in late spring 1968. In it the astronauts are using a color tablet computer laying on a table, no thicker than a modern iPad, to watch video.


Those working in the industry often know what's coming. What they often get wrong is how it's economically deployed, when it arrives, or what effects it will have.

E.g. the first articles on capacitive touch screens dates to the 50's, and the "flat-panel" Aiken tube display dates to the early 50's as well:


Article on the Aiken tube from 1958 with pictures that predicts future models may be flat enough to "hang like picture frames":


Seing the potential of going from normal TVs to that, it's certainly not a big leap to assume they'll get even thinner and smaller.

That movie is very special. A lot of it’s predictions like flat LCD screens, personal IFE on airplanes, iPads, and kids messing around on FaceTime are so mundane now it’s easy to overlook them when watching the film with a 21st century set of eyes

Yet its central “prediction”: that human travel into space would progress forward at a comparable rate to what was accomplished in the early 60s, was wildly off.

As was pointed out in an earlier comment, 2001 really only got the economics of space travel wrong. It's possible that we could have done it, technologically speaking, but that it just would have been a huge waste of capital.

And also after the Mother of All Demos in December 1968.


I always have to mention Paul Otlet, when the topic of early predictions of technology comes up. Too bad he was all but forgotten.



You should add more context to your comment

And here's Isaac Asimov predicting a few things about the (best part of the) Internet of today in years when most people in the world had not even heard of it yet.


(the interview is from 1988, so it's now dated over 30 years)

I believe there are much older references to a worldwide library accessible by anyone from home in his writings, but I can't recall where. I admit having been a huge fan of his teaching about science (I was reading a book by him when the muted TV showed the news about his death) and I also loved his short stories, even those not related to scientific information or science fiction, but never liked his bigger novels, the Foundation that I quit after not even finishing one book etc. so my knowledge is very limited in that context.

In similar vein HG2G [0] has always reminded me of Internet + (proprietary) Wikipedia, and it's from 1978.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_...

Bell had a video telephone demo at the 1964 Worlds Fair in NY[0] some five years prior to this NYTimes story

I think a lot of public ideas of the future sprung out from that

I don't think the quote refers to a portable telephone but rather of the style that was demonstrated at the World Fair

[0] http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/history/long-before-facet...

The idea of a telephone with a screen wasn't really new in 1969, since Ma Bell had been promoting the idea for decades. The Jetsons made fun of it on TV in the early 60s.

It is fascinating what people did predict and what they didn't predict. Smartphones, smartwatches, e-books, face-time calls was all predicted. What people didn't predict: Clickbait, e-mail phishing, viral fake news and people preferring SMS to a voice or facetime call.

> What people didn't predict: Clickbait, e-mail phishing, viral fake news

Didn't need to predict those. Analog equivalents always existed.

> and people preferring SMS to a voice or facetime call.

Who wouldn't ;-) Thanks to the transition to asynchronous message based communication I can have more and more meaningful communication with a larger part of my family than I would if I had to FaceTime or call them.

In business it is even more useful as it provides a trail of who did what in addition to the other advantages.

Here’s something else that they didn’t predict: that sales of books printed on paper are at their all-time highest now.

Analog equivalents existed, but did anyone care to extrapolate from the analog to the digital?

Hmm I feel like Jetsons might have had a video telemarketer but most incarnations of the metaverse talk about commercial enterprise and it's ramifications.

> Clickbait,

Have you ever seen newspaper headlines from, say, the early 20th century?

> e-mail phishing,

The Nigerian prince scam started in regular postal mail ...

> viral fake news

Again, early 20th century newspapers... Remember the Maine!

> and people preferring SMS to a voice or facetime call.

Telegrams and voice calls overlapped in existence.

This is an odd quote to latch onto as an example of profound foresight.

Predicting a telephone with a screen in 1969 required no great skill at prophecy, since the AT&T picture phone debuted at the 1964 World's Fair. Really the idea of being able to remotely dial up information and services on some kind of telephone/computer console with a screen was all over the place by 1969. There were, after all, commercial time-sharing computer services.

I don't see any evidence that the quote refers to cell phones, since it doesn't mention portability. But even if it did, to predict that in 1969 was likewise not so impressive, since mobile radio-telephone service had existed since the 1940s, and the cellular concept for frequency re-use was conceived in the same era.

I must mention my favourite sci-fi short story, "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster[0]. It is from 1909 and is chillingly prescient.

Essentially, a machine provides all necessities of life in a persons' pod, so they need never leave. People spend their time making essentially YouTube videos about their opinions. Nobody cares about facts or knowledge anymore. Spoiler, it doesn't end well for them.

[0] http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

Thanks for sharing this -- I happened upon this HN thread at just after midnight, and decided to read the story before going to bed. It's amazing, giving when it was written, and finding it like this reminded me about how I used to find things on the internet (having just read through the Ask HN comments[1] on what t'internet used to be like :) )

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18897109

He perhaps had read the novelization of 2001, published a year earlier:

--begin quote--

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word "newspaper," of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the everchanging flow of information from the news satellites.

It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.

“The best way to predict the future is to to create it.”


What I find funny is that, even by the time we got to Star Trek TNG, people still couldn't fathom having a device with multiple books. Each reader on TNG and DS9 appears to be a single title that you have to loan/share with people instead of them just pulling the title from the cloud to their own device BUT they're like "oh yeah, we can totally replicate matter and teleport people"...

remimds me of francis ford coppola predicting youtube https://youtu.be/iSePbQVR284

One of the heuristics I use when evaluating whether to build a new product is to answer the question: “will people be solving this problem the way they currently are in 5 years?” If the answer is no, that means there may be an opportunity.

Bass was remarkable prescient, but also recognized the inevitable macro forces that would create change in his business.

In 2008, I submitted a talk titled, "What if you could ask a book a question?", where I planned to show how it's technically possible to create a query layer around (seemingly) unstructured content. The idea was chaffed as silly by organizers.

> Newspad evidence was subsequently ruled out by the judge

I'm curious about this. What was wrong with the Newspad evidence? Seems convincing and relevant enough to me.

The rest of the quote is admirably tenacious...

> What then? he was asked. “Then I go into the antiques business — books will be antiques,” Mr. Bass said.

And if you visit The Strand in NYC (on Broadway and 12th) the top floor is indeed an antique shop. First editions, rare books and the like. It’s a special place to hang out.

How long until AirPods(or its case) have eSIM?

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