Predictive text: Darwin’s computers

Charles Darwin’s IBM computers

There are lots of quotes around attributed to the great and the good throughout the years, but often these are anything but direct quotes and in some cases turn out to have far more intriguing origins.

For example, the quote often attributed to Thomas John Watson, Sr. (1874–1956) who was chairman and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) in 1943 had him as saying:

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


There are no recorded speeches nor documents that providence evidence for this as a quote from Watson. Indeed, the earliest mention of it was on the Usenet in 1986, although that may well have come from an article in the San Diego Evening Tribune by Neil Morgan, who wrote: “Forrest Shumway, chairman of The Signal Cos., doesn’t make predictions. His role model is Tom Watson, then IBM chairman, who said in 1958: ‘I think there is a world market for about five computers.’

It seems that Sir Charles Darwin (grandson of the naturalist) who was head of the UK’s computer research centre, the NPL (National Physical Laboratory) is probably the true father of the thought of this particular predictive text when he said in 1946:

“it is very possible that … one machine would suffice to solve all the problems that are demanded of it from the whole country”

But, The Yale Book of Quotations may have the truth about this particular misquote. Watson did indeed mention a market for only 5 computers, at IBM’s annual stockholders’ meeting in 1953, but he was referring specifically to the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine which had been touted to 20 potential clients but Watson reported that they only expected to get orders for five (they actually sold 18).

More on the myth on Wiki and on the Freakonomics site.