An internet search of the phrase "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" will produce dozens of websites claiming those were the words of IBM Chairman Thomas Watson.
The quote is often listed as one of the biggest epic fail statements of all times. We searched the net trying to find the source of the quote, and the verification that the statement was made by IBM Chairman Thomas Watson.
Many websites often have the date 1943 attached to the quote, as was the case of a slide we found on the Microsoft website, and as it is presented on a page for the PBS television show Nova. For all the dozens of websites that list the quote attributed to IBM Chairman Thomas Watson, none of the websites have any information on the source or circumstances of the quote.
Searching IBM websites and online IBM documents turned up an IBM history document that attributes the quote to a misunderstood statement made at a stockholders meeting in 1953.
From a question on the history of IBM on their website, "Did Thomas Watson say in the 1950s that he foresaw a market potential for only five electronic computers?" IBM offers the following explanation:
We believe the statement that you attribute to Thomas Watson is a misunderstanding of remarks made at IBM’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. In referring specifically and only to the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine -- which had been introduced the year before as the company’s first production computer designed for scientific calculations -- Thomas Watson, Jr., told stockholders that “IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”
Could the phrase, "we expected to get orders for five machines" from the 1953 stock holders meeting morph into the now infamous phrase, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
There is so much on the internet based on myths and legends. Some people question how much of the internet is a place that documents history, and how much of the internet is a place that writes and recreates history. When "famous quotes" such as "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" get repeated over and over, it becomes accepted as fact, even if no one can cite the original source. After all, if you can find the quote attributed to IBM Chairman Thomas Watson on the Microsoft and PBS website, it must be true!
Thomas Watson was one of the richest men of his time, a leading self-made businessmen and often called one of the world's greatest salesmen. If there was a time and place where Watson made the statement, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," it would be logical to assume there would be some record of it. Without a credible source of when the alleged quote was made we can only conclude it is an urban legend, not a factual statement.
Perhaps those who still believe IBM Chairman Thomas Watson made the statement in 1943 will point to some vast conspiracy or cover up.