Human beings have committed a number costly mistakes, some of which have literally altered the course of history. We list some of the biggest mistakes in world history.
If you can learn from the worst times of your life, you will then be ready to go into the best times of your life.
Can the flapping of a butterfly’s wings cause a storm? Most likely not. And yet, if you look back in time, you will find numerous examples of small and seemingly insignificant acts that have had inexplicable and sometimes even dire consequences.
In the following sections, we present some of the greatest mistakes made throughout human history. These have been presented not to highlight the extent of human folly, rather, they are meant to be viewed as lessons from which we all should learn, and try to ensure that mistakes such as these do not happen again in the future.
Most Famous Mistakes Made in History
The RMS Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of the time. It was deemed ‘unsinkable’, and so, even though it had the capacity to carry a total of 64 lifeboats, which together could have saved more than 3,547 people, it actually carried only 20. When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912, it sank along with 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers to the ocean floor.
Russia Sells Alaska to the US
In the 1860s, Alaska was a part of Russia. However, when the Crimean War broke out, Russia found it was unable to defend this region against the combined powers of Britain, France, and Turkey.
Back then, the importance of oil hadn’t been established, and the prospect of gold mining in Alaska too looked slim. With the possibility of Britain taking hold of Alaska and blocking Russia altogether seeming all too real, Russia decided to sell it off to America in the hopes that this would upset Britain’s plans. Russia sold off Alaska to the US at a mere 2 cents an acre. However, this turned out to be one of the greatest mistakes in Soviet history. In just 50 years, the USA was able to earn from Alaska more than 100 times what they had invested in its purchase.
NASA Loses the Mars Climate Orbiter
NASA lost its Mars Climate Orbiter worth $125 million, in one of its biggest design and development blunders. In 1999, engineers from Lockheed-Martin used the Imperial system of measurement in designing one part of the orbiter module, while the rest of the team from NASA used the standard metric system.
Because two different measurement systems were used, the spacecraft’s navigation system could not receive the correct coordinates, and as a result, it plunged into orbital insertion, and was lost forever.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The foundation for the Leaning Tower of Pisa was laid down in the year 1173, but due to wars and other political reasons, the construction took 199 years to be completed. Its iconic lean however, wasn’t what its builders had originally desired. The tower began leaning early on during its construction because it was erected on soft soil, and so, the foundation began giving way under its weight. Since then, many efforts have been made to stabilize the tower and prevent a collapse, and at the same time maintain the lean which has made it popular.
Atahualpa Agreed to Meet Fransisco Pizarro
Atahualpa ascended the throne of the powerful Inca Empire after executing his older brother in a civil war following their father’s death.
In 1532, Conquistador Fransisco Pizarro of Spain landed on the South American coast, and established a settlement in Peru. He set out to meet Atahualpa, with only a handful of men. Atahualpa, with his army of 80,000 didn’t consider Pizarro a threat, which turned out to be a fatal folly.
Pizarro set traps and was able to capture Atahualpa. He then ransomed Atahualpa’s life for gold, and later used him to bring down the entire Inca Empire. Pizarro subsequently even executed Atahualpa.
The Dutch Discover Australia, But Ignore It
Almost 100 years before British explorer Captain James Cook landed on its eastern coast, the Dutch had already discovered Australia, but ignored it thinking it was nothing more than a useless desert land.
It is believed that back in 1606, the Dutch vessel Duyfken captained by Willem Jansz explored nearly 200 miles of the western side of Cape York. Upon their first landing, they had to face attacks from the native aboriginals, which dissuaded them from exploring the land any further.
Noted as being the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind, the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl is believed to have resulted from gross negligence on the part of the authorities responsible.
On April 26, 1986, nuclear experts ran a test on one of the four reactors at Chernobyl in Ukrainian (then in Soviet Union). They turned off the backup cooling system, and made use of only eight boron-carbide rods to control the rate of atomic fission, instead of the 15 that were mandated by the standard testing procedure.
This led to an uncontrollable chain reaction, which destroyed the steel and concrete lid of the reactor, and emanated close to 100 times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. In the Chernobyl disaster, 4,300 people perished, and more than 70,000 became permanently disabled.
J.K. Rowling Rejected by 12 Publishers
J.K. Rowling, who was a client of the Christopher Little Literary Agency, was rejected 12 times in row for her first novel. Finally, when the eight-year old daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury expressed her desire to read the rest of the book, Bloomsbury decided to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, the editor believed that this novel would be a major flop, and even went to the extent of advising Rowling to look for a back-up day-time job.
What happened subsequently is history. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was released in 1997 (UK), and the following four novels in the series, became the fastest-selling books ever, with a total of 450 million copies sold worldwide. It is the bestselling book series in literary history.
Alexander Not Naming an Heir
Alexander the Great was the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. He sat on the throne at the age of 20, and by the time he was 30, he had established one of the largest empires of ancient times, which extended from Greece to Egypt, and far into northwest India.
However, Alexander died in 324 BC, at the young age of 32, due to the consumption of wine made from a poisonous plant. His death was sudden and unexpected, and he didn’t even have a legitimate heir at the time.
There were claims that Alexander had named his bodyguard Perdiccas as his heir, by passing his signet ring to him. But Perdiccas didn’t assume power, suggesting that Alexander’s unborn baby, if born a boy, should be the king. This arrangement was however not agreed to upon by the supporters of Alexander’s half brother Philip Arrhidaeus.
When Alexander IV was born, he and Philip III were named joint kings, but the dissension between the supporters of each persisted. Later, when Perdiccas was assassinated, the Macedonian unity collapsed, ultimately disintegrating the great empire.
China Adopts Isolationism
In the 14th century, thanks to their unrivaled nautical technology and numerous other inventions, the Chinese navy was one of the greatest in the world. They had already established trading links up to the Persian Gulf almost 50 years prior to the first European vessels rounding the continent of Africa.
The Chinese navy was all set to expand their influence beyond India and Africa, but the Chinese Emperors decided to adopt a policy of isolationism, and made all overseas trading illegal. They stopped investing in treasure fleets, and even declared sailing from the Chinese coast in a multi-masted ship a capital offense.
Had this mistake not been committed, it would arguably have been China, instead of the Portuguese, Spanish, British, or Dutch, who would have colonized most of the world.
Back in 1936, the dirigibles or zeppelins, which were large hydrogen-filled rigid airships, seemed to have a very promising future. The Hindenburg, which was one such German airship, successfully ferried a total of 1,002 people, completing 10 round trips between Germany and the US.
However, the US imposed export restrictions against Nazi Germany, which forced the operators of the Hindenburg to fill it up with highly explosive hydrogen gas, even though it was designed to be operated on helium gas.
On May 6, 1937, while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg caught fire, which completely consumed it. In this disaster, 36 of the 97 passengers were killed. This incident received a mammoth amount of negative media coverage, which finally marked the end of the era of rigid airships for commercial transportation.
Trojan Horse Destroys Troy
The walls of Troy could not be breached; not even by the massive Greek army that had amassed at its gates back in the 12th century BC. So, the Greeks decided to use a very different tactic. They pretended to have deserted the war and sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos. They left behind a huge wooden horse as a peace offering to the Gods. They also ‘abandoned’ Sinon, a Greek soldier, who was captured by the Trojan army.
Sinon managed to convince the Trojans that the Horse was an offering to the Goddess Athena, and that letting it in through the gates would ensure that Troy remains impregnable. Cassandra, the daughter of Priam (the king of Troy), as well as the seer priest Laocoön, tried to warn that this was a deceptive Greek tactic, but they weren’t listened to.
The horse was taken in through the gates, and on that very night, when Troy slept, Greek warriors emerged from this hollow horse, and opened up the gates of Troy, which allowed the Greek army to enter. This ultimately led to the fall of the once impenetrable city of Troy.
BP Oil Spill
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig owned by British Petroleum exploded on the 20th of April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. After the oil rig sank, a sea-floor oil gusher continued to flow for nearly 87 days, after which it was sealed off on the 15th of July 2010.
The initial explosion took place when high-pressure methane gas from the under-sea oil well expanded into the drilling riser, and rose up to the rig where it ignited and exploded. Of the 126 crew members, 11 are believed to have lost their lives in this explosion, while many others were rescued and treated for injuries. The oil leak that occurred subsequently took place at a rate of around 62,000 barrels per day.
It has been estimated that a total oil discharge equivalent to 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal) resulted from this accident, which affected an area of around 2,500 – 68,000 sq miles, destroying the natural habitat and ecosystem, and causing the deaths of numerous plants and animals.
Prior to the Gulf of Mexico Spill, in 2006, BP was also responsible for another oil spill in the Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. This spill was attributed to BP’s failure to properly inspect its oil pipelines for corrosion. In this spill, which continued for five days, 212,252 US gallons of oil was spilled over an area covering 1.9 acres, making it the largest Alaskan oil spill till date.
The Fatal Wrong Turn
On the morning of 20th June 1914, nineteen-year old assassin Gavrilo Princip planned to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. However, after his initial plan failed, he went to the Morizt Schiller’s café to have a sandwich.
Then, in an unexpected turn of events, Leopold Loyka, the driver of the Archduke’s car, made a wrong turn and drove right in front of an astonished Princip, who immediately seized the opportunity and shot dead the Archduke, his wife, and Loyka.
This event triggered the first World War, where 16 million people lost their lives, and the world was plunged into the Great Economic Depression. The economical crises coupled with the humiliating treaty of Versailles which Germany had to sign to end the war went on to give rise to the nationalist dictator Adolf Hitler, who again started a chain of events that led to the Second World War, where another 60 million people died, an unfathomable amount of money was lost, and the age of nuclear weapons began.
Uncontrolled Fire in the Cerro Grande
In 2000, what started out as a prescribed fire in Cerro Grande, New Mexico, owing to the winds and drought conditions, escalated into a conflagration, which incinerated nearly 48,000 acres of land, and left close to 400 families homeless.
B-2 Stealth Bomber Crash
In 2008, a B-2 Stealth Bomber was destroyed on takeoff when some faulty sensors in it messed up its air pressure readings, making it stall and crash. The B-2 was the most advanced American jet of the time. Its crash was one of the most expensive (1.4 billion) in USAF’s history.
Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island
The Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979 was one of the biggest nuclear disasters in American history. This accident occurred when a malfunctioning piece of equipment caused water meant for cooling the reactor to spill from its container, which due to their inadequate training, the plant operators were unable to comprehend and rectify. Though no life was lost in this catastrophe, nearly $1 billion had to be spent for repairs and cleanup.
Piper Bravo Oil Rig Explosion
In May 1994, during a routine check, inspectors at the Piper Bravo Oil Rig in the North Sea removed all the safety valves for inspection. However, while replacing them, they forgot to put back one safety valve. Unaware that a safety valve was missing, a worker pushed the start button, which caused gas to leak into the rig. This gas ignited and led to an explosion, in which 167 of the 226 men working on the rig lost their lives.
Exxon-Valdez Crash into Prince William Sound
In 1989, Captain Joe Hazelwood got drunk and crashed the Exxon Oil Tanker into the Prince William Sound, spilling around 760,000 barrels of crude oil into the water off the Alaskan coastline. The captain was found guilty, and later convicted of negligent discharge of oil.
Decca Records Reject the Beatles
On New Year’s Eve 1961, the Beatles auditioned at Decca Studios, where they dished out 15 tracks in a few hours. These songs were a mixture of both, mainstream as well as original numbers. However, their performance failed to impress Dick Rowe (A&R), who famously told Brian Epstein (manager) that ‘guitar groups were on their way out’. Decca didn’t sign the Beatles, but five months later, they signed up with George Martin at Parlophone―a part of EMI records―which as history has it, became one of the most successful artist-producer collaboration ever.
Austrian Army Attacks Itself
In the Battle of Karánsebes (1797 – 1791), about 100,000 Austrian troops camped at the village of Karansebes. They sent some scouts ahead to observe the advance of the enemy (Turks). However, instead of finding the enemy, the scouts bumped into a few gypsies, from whom they bought alcohol.
The scouts brought the alcohol back to the base camp, and started drinking. As they got more and more drunk, their small party started becoming louder. This attracted the attention of some of the other soldiers in the camp, who wanted to join in.
However, the scouts didn’t want to share their alcohol, and soon a fight broke out over it. In the midst of the drunken mayhem, someone shouted that the Turks had arrived. Some of the soldiers fled, while others assembled and started fighting, killing every man in sight.
When the dust finally settled on this madness, it was found that the Turks hadn’t actually attacked, and the drunk Austrian soldiers had slain around 10,000 of their own brothers in arms.