The future isn’t what it used to be – Alison Healy on predictions

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Do you need cheering up as you take down the Christmas decorations and remember all those get togethers that never got together? Well, just be glad that you are not Susanne or Thomas Jeromin. The German couple didn't put up one Christmas tree in December. Or two. They managed to squeeze 444 trees into their home in Rinteln, near Hanover. Not to mention the 10,000 Christmas balls and 300 strings of fairy lights which accompanied the festive firs.

They beat a world record - set by themselves, of course – and are planning to repeat the feat next year. By the time they take down all those decorations and squeeze the 10,000 baubles into their attic, it will almost be time to start again.

When I boxed up the decorations last January, I did a very foolish thing. After a very quiet Covid Christmas I optimistically put a note into a box of decorations declaring that Covid would hopefully be a distant memory by the time we unboxed the baubles again. Spoiler alert – it was not. We unpacked the decorations at the end of November as Covid cases were on their relentless rise upwards again. The note I had hoped would perk us up merely served to plunge everyone into a quiet despair.

Not my finest prediction. But spectacularly wrong predictions have been made by far better people than this writer. Both the esteemed New York Times and the film mogul Darryl F Zanuck were wildly wrong when they expounded on the future of television. In 1939, a New York Times editorial patiently explained to readers that television would never be a serious competitor to radio because "people must sit and keep their eyes glued to a screen. The average American family hasn't time for that". Indeed.

And seven years later, Darryl F Zanuck, the founder of Twentieth Century Fox asserted with a great but misplaced confidence that “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”. Three years later, 100,000 televisions were being sold in the US every week and colour television was on the way.

Another confident man was equally wrong with his prediction in 1903. Michigan Savings Bank president George Peck advised Henry Ford's lawyer Horace Rackham against investing in Ford Motor Company. "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad," he decreed. Horace Rackham wisely ignored the banker's advice and invested $5,000 in the company. He sold his shares for $12.5 million 16 years later and spent his life dispensing his great wealth to worthy causes.

Speaking of shares, Irving Fisher will always be remembered as the economist who very publicly failed to see the Wall Street Crash coming. On October 15th, 1929, he told an audience that stock prices had reached what looked like "a permanently high plateau" and six days later, he predicted that prices would still go much higher. Three days later, the Wall Street Crash happened.

There are echoes there of Bertie Ahern, circa 2006, observing that the boom times were getting boomer – or boomier, as it was more catchily rephrased. Indeed, the boom times did get boomier for a while, but we all remember what happened then.

I, for one, am relieved that some predictions were wrong. Particularly the one by surgeon Richard Clement Lucas. Just over 100 years ago, he told the Royal College of Surgeons in England that our outer toes would gradually disappear from lack of use, leaving us with one freakishly large toe.

And 50 years later, writer Dorothy Roe declared that all women would be more than six feet tall by the year 2000 and would be wearing size 11 shoes. Imagine trying to find nice shoes in that size, while also accommodating your single and abnormally large toe?

By her reckoning, women should now have shoulders like a wrestler, muscles like a truck driver and short hair that doesn’t get in the way of our manly work. We should be wearing “slacks” with pockets for food capsules, because, by the year 2000, we had evolved from eating meat and potatoes.

Perhaps my hopeful prediction that Covid would be history by now wasn’t that outlandish when you think of the one-toed, pill-popping female giants who don’t have time for television and still use horses as their preferred mode of transport.

Nevertheless, as I begin packing up the decorations, I will not be adding a scribbled note this time. No, I will be more discreet with my optimism. I’ve held back a few newspapers with dire headlines about Covid and I’ll wrap the more fragile items in them. The Covid situation will definitely be better when we unwrap those Christmas decorations in December. Definitely? At least maybe?