Many prophecies have turned out to be spot on. 15th century seer Mother Shipton’s prediction that in the future there would be continuous lines of houses between ‘London and Highgate’ has clearly been borne out, and in 1964, science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke predicted that we’d have remote online working and 3D printers.
But over the centuries some insights into the future have been so wide of the mark, so foolish, and so wrong in hindsight, that they almost beggar belief.
From medieval predictions of the end of the world to shortsighted modern engineers, here are seven of history’s worst predictions.
1. The Biblical Apocrypha and Judgement Day – 999
In the Biblical Apocrypha (Biblical writings that are not canon) it was prophesied that the ‘Last Judgement’ (the end of the world) would occur 1,000 years from Christ’s birth. In the year 999, this was interpreted to mean that the world would end at the start of the new millennium.
It was reported in late 999 that ‘fanatics’ from all over Europe had travelled to Jerusalem in a hopeful effort to be taken up to heaven and saved at the coming apocalypse.
Church authorities tried to warn people not to make the journey, but it is said that thousands of men, women, and children of all social backgrounds made the hazardous pilgrimage, believing that their time on Earth was coming to a close. Many starved to death en route having abandoned all their possessions.
When the day came, as the old millennium drew to a close, a vast number of pilgrims climbed Mount Zion to wait for Jesus’s Second Coming. The flocks of believers were left bewildered and disappointed as nobody appeared, nothing happened, and the world did not end.
2. Spanish Royal Committee and Columbus - 1486
In May 1486, when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus asked the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to support his voyages of discovery, the royals asked a committee of scholars to investigate whether the missions were a good idea.
Even though the king and queen didn’t go back to Columbus with a resounding no, they kept him on in their service for fear he’d go to a rival power. The learned men who reported back to Isabella and Ferdinand clearly thought the exploratory voyage was a terrible idea and had no future.
They thought it was absurd to suggest that the Earth was round and that these lands Columbus wanted to find were presumably on the other side, home to ‘people who walk with their heels upward and their heads hanging down’, and where it ‘snows upward’. The committee rejected the idea, saying that, ‘Centuries after the creation, it is unlikely that anybody could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.’
3. Johannes Stoeffler and the flood – 1499
German mathematician, astrologer, and priest Johannes Stoeffler predicted that the world would end on 20th February 1524. He prophesised that on this day a great flood would engulf the Earth.
As the dreaded day of the deluge approached, people across Europe began to panic. Hundreds of people built wooden arks and the Rhine became overcrowded with those desperate to save themselves. Stoeffler’s divination was based on what was considered to be trustworthy reasoning – astrology. The published almanacs that reminded Europe of Stoeffler’s awful augury had an alarming effect. Emperor Charles V fled to high ground to avoid the expected catastrophe, as did other leaders such as Joachim, Elector of Brandenburg.
The world didn’t end, but Stoeffler was considered half-right, as a massive storm did bring floods and devastation. However, when he again conjectured that the end of the world would definitely occur in 1528, it didn’t cause much of a stir, and he saw the world remain intact for another few years before he died in 1531.
4. William Whiston and the comet – 1736
Born in rural Leicestershire in 1667, William Whiston liked comets – a lot! In a famous 1696 book Whiston, a renowned polymath, argued that Earth came from a comet and that many geological changes and disasters can be explained by comets.
In 1736, he predicted, publicly and confidently, that a comet was going to cause the world to end on 16th October that year. Whiston stated that on this day a comet would thunder past Earth and cause a huge global firestorm. The people of London, on hearing Will’s warning, became hysterical. The Archbishop of Canterbury had to reassure the panic-stricken populace that doom was not impending.
The day passed without incident, after which Whiston’s reputation took a bit of a hammering.
5. Cadwalader C. Washburn and Alaska – 1867
In 1867, the US federal government bought the territory of Alaska from Russia for $7.2m. Many in Congress had bitterly opposed the purchase, though. One of the critics was politician Cadwallader C. Washburn, who made his feelings known:
‘The possession of this Russian territory can give us neither honour, wealth nor power, but always be a source of weakness and expense, without any adequate return.’
Alaska is now, and has been for decades, one of the wealthiest states in the USA, rich in natural resources, as well as an important place for wildlife and tourism.
6. Ferdinand Foch and aerial warfare - 1911
Feted World War I commander Ferdinand Foch, who was in the French Army from 1868 to 1923, certainly knew a thing or two about military tactics on land. But Foch didn’t have much vision when it came to the future of war in the air.
Foch remarked in 1911 that, ‘Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.’ Ironically, in 1959, the French Navy named a new aircraft carrier after Foch.
It wasn’t just Foch who was sceptical of aerial warfare, though. In 1921, Newton Baker, US Secretary of War, stated that he thought planes were so useless in battle that he’d happily stand on the deck of any ship while it was being bombed by planes.
7. Computer experts and Y2K - 1999
Perhaps one of the most famous duff predictions from recent history is the Y2K debacle.
As the 1990s drew to a close, IT experts around the world thought that they’d stumbled upon a computing error that would lead to global catastrophe. Many important computer systems around the world, including those used by banks and airlines, recorded years in two digits, such as ‘98’ for 1998. At midnight on the last day of 1999, would all of these millions of computer clocks and records switch to ‘00’ and crash, thinking it represented 1900? This was the fear.
Panic started to set in as people believed that as the new millennium dawned planes would fall out of the sky, the stock markets would crash, traffic lights would go haywire, and everyone’s banking data would be lost.
Fortunately, all that happened at midnight on NYE 1999 was that people drunkenly sang Auld Lang Syne and watched fireworks.