Then, after a succession of athletes had threatened a mark once thought impregnable, 25-year-old English medical student Roger Bannister clocked three minutes 59.4 seconds on the evening of May 6 1954.
Asked in the same year what he thought the ultimate mark would be, Bannister predicted three minutes 30 seconds.
In an interview before Thursday's 50th anniversary of his epic run, Bannister saw no reason to revise his prediction, referring to the present mark of 3:43.13 set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj four years ago.
"I think the 3-1/2-minute mile is going to be difficult," Bannister said. "That's what I thought 50 years ago but we've got halfway towards it."
Bannister said his run on a cinder track was probably equivalent to 3:56 on a modern surface.
"If you call it 3:56, which is a sensible comparison, then what's happened is that you have actually got 13 seconds off in 50 years, which is a third of a second a year.
"If we went on like that we would get another 13 seconds off in 50 years and then, when none of us are around, we will be doing the 3-1/2-minute mile."
Thirteen men since Bannister have held the world record. Three have made a particular impression on the Englishman.
The first is Herb Elliott, the tough Australian who set a world record in the final of the 1960 Rome Olympics 1,500 metres.
"El Guerrouj now has held the record for four years, he has got that kind of margin. He is extremely good, he is built beautifully for it. He of course comes from north Africa where they have those special gifts.
American Jim Ryun, who held the record twice, is the third runner singled out by Bannister.
"He ran 3:52 on the old tracks so you must really say that that is really worth 3:48. It brings you not very far from 3:43 or 3:44."
In the space of a few months, Bannister qualified as a doctor, broke the four-minute mile and won the Vancouver Empire Games mile and the Berne European championships 1,500.
The Empire Games victory over Australian John Landy, who had reduced Bannister's record to 3:58:0, was one of the great middle-distance races.
Landy, conscious of Bannister's superior finishing speed, ran from the front in an effort to shrug off his rival.
"The interesting part of the race is that he nearly got away from me," Bannister said. "I thought he was going too fast and would have to slow down.
"It was one of the most extraordinary events. He wanted to see in the back straight (of the final lap) if he had cracked me and he couldn't resist the temptation to see.
"He looked over his left shoulder, because with the curve of the track he could see the runners. It only takes a tenth of a second to look and I was gone."