Predictions are very difficult. Especially if they’re about the future.

Or so the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr supposedly said. And if these past predictions are anything to go by, he was right.

Next time you’re tempted to forecast the shape of things to come, spare a thought for some of these woefully off-target predictions.

1) Monkeying around the house

In 1967, American chemist and Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg suggested robots were passé.

“For housewives of the 21st century who prefer animate rather than mechanical domestic servants, there may be a choice other than the robot,” he wrote in an article in The Futurist titled Women and the Year 2000.

“By the year 2020 it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labor.”

Yes, that’s right – apes carrying out jobs around the house and garden. But that’s not all. Seaborg went on to suggest that “the use of well-trained apes as family chauffeurs might decrease the number of automobile accidents.”

2) Coffee, tea, Tesla and me

What’s the connection between the future of the motor car and asking whether someone prefers to start their day with tea or coffee? Nikola Tesla – after whom the electric vehicle brands was named.

Nikola Tesla circa 1890
Nikola Tesla
Image: Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons

His inventions paved the way for the generation and distribution of alternating current electricity. But his interests didn’t stop there.

I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue,” Tesla wrote in 1937. While smoking is a habit that’s waning, it’s still popular with around one billion people.

Don’t dismiss Tesla as a puritan just because he didn’t like tea and coffee, though.

“Alcohol,” he said, “will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.”

3) Food, glorious food

Have you eaten yet? If so, you’re bucking a trend that the inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicted just 15 years ago.

Kurzweil is involved in many tech developments, such as the ability for computers to recognize and read text, read to us, and understand our verbal commands. He is also an advocate of the transhumanist movement, which believes technology should be used to enhance the human mind and body where possible.

Perhaps that’s why in his 2005 book, The singularity is near: when humans transcend biology, Kurzweil wrote that by the end of the next decade, it will be possible to consume nanobots that will be capable of nourishing your body’s cells. That would mean we would no longer need to eat.

4) Duck and cover – you got mail

In 1959, the US Navy and Postal Service collaborated a mail delivery experiment, attaching 3,000 letters to a missile and shooting it into the sky.

The Regulus I missile, the type used in the mail experiment.
The experiment used a Regulus I missile - just like this one.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It fell to earth 160km away at the Mayport naval base in Florida and was judged to have been a success. But, according to the US National Postal Museum, “missiles would never carry enough mail to make their use worthwhile.”

Luckily for them, the invention of email means missile-mail probably doesn’t need to become a reality.

5) Nuclear power sucks

Perhaps you’re not feeling too sad that no one has tried contacting you via missile. Well, maybe a nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner is more to your taste.

Your vacuum-cleaner purchasing decisions probably cover a number of options and possibilities. Should it be bagless? With a mains-power cable or a rechargeable battery? It’s highly unlikely that many shoppers go looking for the nuclear-powered cleaner section of their nearest electrical store.

Yet that was the prediction of Alexander Lewyt, American inventor and entrepreneur: “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years,” he said in 1955. One of his creations was, in fact, a vacuum cleaner. Although the Lewyt machine was powered by electricity.