Alexander Fleming initially wanted to become a surgeon. However, while serving in a reserve regiment, he was recognized as a great marksman. To become a surgeon, he would have had to leave his medical school and move away – which would have meant leaving his unit. His commanding officer did not want to lose the promising reservist. So he introduced Fleming to a prominent researcher and immunologist, who convinced him to become a researcher instead.
During WWI, Fleming served in the Army Medical Corp, where he observed the deaths of many soldiers from uncontrollable infections. Antiseptics were used to fight infections, but they often did more harm than good. Fleming conducted research, which showed that using antiseptics was a mistake when it came to serious injuries: they did nothing to stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. His research was initially rejected, but Fleming plugged on.
One day in 1922, while battling a cold, Fleming transferred some of his snot to a Petri dish. A slob, he put it on his cluttered desk, then forgot it for a couple of weeks. When he finally remembered and examined it, the Petri dish was full of bacterial colonies. However, the microscope revealed that one area of snot was free of bacteria. Further examination revealed that it was due to the presence of an enzyme, which he called lysozyme, which had some antimicrobial properties. That laid the groundwork for his discovery of penicillin.
In 1928, Fleming, still a lab slob, left an uncovered Petri dish next to an open window, where it became contaminated with fungus spores. When he checked it under the microscope, Fleming discovered that the bacteria near the fungus were dying. He managed to isolate the fungus, and discovered that it was effective against numerous pathogens that caused diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, gonorrhea, and many more. Thus, penicillin was discovered. As Fleming put it: “I did not discover penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident“.
As seen above, not all mistakes result in disaster. When Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain in 1492, he was convinced that he was less than 3000 miles away from Japan. A little more sailing beyond that, and he would reach the Indies, with their rich spice trade. In reality, Japan is about 12,000 miles away from Spain, not 3000. The reason Columbus thought it was much closer was because he erred in calculating the size of the globe. In one of history’s most momentous mistakes, Columbus concluded that the Earth is far smaller than it actually is.
Contrary to myth, neither Columbus nor his crew feared that they might fall off the edge of the world. The Ancient Greeks knew the earth was a globe two millennia earlier, and educated people and sailors in Columbus’ day had no illusions about the earth being flat. The issue for Columbus was not the shape of the earth, but the size of the ocean he planned on crossing. In addition to screwing up the calculations, he did not know – or had reason to suspect – that an unknown continental landmass lay between Spain and Asia.
22. Few Mistakes Have Changed the World as Much as Columbus’ Math Mistake
Not many mistakes have had consequences as far reaching as Christopher Columbus’ math mistakes. He eventually reached the Caribbean, whose islands he believed were the western outskirts of Asia. So he named them the West Indies. In subsequent voyages, he explored the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. When not exploring, he was governor and viceroy of the Caribbean. In that capacity, he brutally treated, enslaved, and decimated the native population, whom he incorrectly labeled Indians.
To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached Asia. Ironically, the New World discovered by Columbus would not bear his name, but wound up being named after another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo mapped the eastern shore of South America down to Brazil, and demonstrated that what Columbus had reached was not Asia, but a hitherto unknown world. A German mapmaker labeled the New World “America” after Amerigo. His maps were quite popular during the 1500, so the name America spread and stuck.
During WWII, American air commanders planned a raid on the Ploesti oilfields and complex in Romania, which furnished the Nazis with a third of their fuel. The plan was for B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, without fighter escort, to take off for a 2000 mile trip north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti upon reaching the Greek coast. On August 1st, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields. The plan was good, but it was wrecked by cascading mishaps and mistakes.
Maintaining radio silence, the B-24s skimmed over the Mediterranean, flying at 50 feet or lower to avoid German radar, then flew at treetop level upon reaching land. However, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a series of misfortunes and mistakes. First, a navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position. Then, a lead navigator crashed, and the bombers following him arrived over the target staggered, instead of simultaneously.
A B-24 group leader finally broke radio silence, when he saw that all formation was hopelessly lost. To salvage something from what was shaping up to be a disaster, he ordered the scattered bombers to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. Unfortunately for the American airmen, the Liberators were met by alert defenders.
Hundreds of antiaircraft gun, heavy machineguns, and a specially designed train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter aircraft savaged them. The low flying B-24s also had to contend with industrial chimneys suddenly looming in their path amid the billowing smoke. Of 177 B-24s that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down, for the loss of 660 crewmen. Of the 109 Liberators that made it back, 58 were beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired, and within weeks, the oil complex’s production was higher than it had been before the raid.
19. Sailing Without Binoculars Turns Out to be a Huge Mistake
The supposedly “unsinkable” Titanic, history’s biggest passenger liner at the time, famously struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage. There was not one single mistake, but a series of mistakes, each reinforcing and amplifying the other mistakes, that made the Titanic’s sinking so deadly. However, of all those mistakes, there was one, that if had been avoided, might have averted the whole tragedy. It began just before the Titanic sailed from Southampton to New York on April 10th, 1912, when the Titanic’s second officer, David Blair, was replaced with the more experienced Charles Lightoller.
However, Blair never got around to giving, and Lightoller never got around to asking for, the keys to a locker that contained the ship’s binoculars. So the Titanic sailed with lookouts who lacked binoculars. During the days-long voyage before disaster struck, nobody figured that binoculars might be necessary for lookouts. If they did, then in an even more astonishing display of mistaken priorities, they did not deem the safety of the ship worth breaking the lock to get the binoculars.
Four days into the Titanic’s voyage, around 11:40PM on the night of April 14th, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg in the ship’s path, and alerted the bridge. The officer in charge ordered the engines stopped and the ship steered around the obstacle. Unfortunately, given the distance to the iceberg when the alarm was sounded, the Titanic’s speed at the time, and the ship’s mass, disaster was inevitable. Basic physics made it impossible for the mammoth ship to maneuver away in time to avoid a collision. The “unsinkable” Titanic struck the iceberg, and sank.
Of the 2224 passengers and crew aboard the ship, over 1500 lost their lives, making it one of modern history’s worst peacetime maritime disasters. In the subsequent investigation, lookout Frederick Fleet testified that he would have spotted the iceberg sooner, and the ship would thus have had more reaction time to steer away from the iceberg, if he’d only had binoculars.
17. The Controversy Surrounding the Atomic Bombing of Japan
After WWII, critics of the atomic bombing of Japan claimed that it was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. However, the war was not confined to Japan’s home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. At war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were subjected to a barbaric occupation.
Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, whom they treated brutally. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. So Japan’s enemies were justified in treating her as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.
The Allies were not mistaken in dealing with Japan as a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down. It led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt statement calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.
15. Mistake About Nuance Leads to the Deaths of Hundreds of Thousands
The terms of the Potsdam Declaration were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japan’s policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. It was a Japanese word which meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration.
Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language, in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning that translators gave to President Harry Truman. 10 days later, the B-29 Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671) was born Fritz Karl Watel in Switzerland. In his youth, he headed to France, where he apprenticed as a pastry cook, then went to work for Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s finance minister. Vatel became a celebrated master chef, often credited (inaccurately) for inventing Chantilly cream. He was not just a chef, however: Vatel rose within Fouquet’s household to become his majordomo – the highest ranking employee in an aristocrat’s household.
In 1661, Francois Vatel supervised the grandiloquent inauguration fete of Fouquet’s chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte – now a famous tourist site southeast of Paris. Vatel did an amazing job, and the fete was a splendid affair. It was a triumph for Vatel, but a catastrophe for his employer, Fouquet. The festivities turned to be too splendid, and that was a mistake: King Louis XIV grew jealous of his finance minister’s opulence. The king fired Fouquet and threw him in jail, charged with maladministration of state funds and lese majeste, and kept him locked up until his death in 1680.
Out of a job, Vatel did not remain unemployed for long – apparently, throwing a party so great as to arouse the Sun King’s jealousy and ruin one’s boss was a CV plus in the French aristocracy’s eyes. He was quickly snatched up by Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Conde, also known as the Grand Conde, who made Vatel his master chef and majordomo.
Francois Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people, scheduled at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25th, 1671, in honor of King Louis XIV. The banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only 15 days to prepare, got stressed out by a series of minor mishaps and mistakes.
During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of twenty six tables went without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner had gone great, and that the king was pleased, did not comfort Vatel, who kept obsessing about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended. That depressed Vatel even further.
The next day, things went from bad to worse for Vatel. Early on the morning of April 24th, one day before the banquet, the master chef encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish, and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks.
He had a nervous breakdown, and went into fits of histrionics, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!” Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet flopped, Vatel grabbed a sword and ran himself through. It did not take long before the mistake was clarified and the misunderstanding resolved itself: fish from other suppliers began arriving soon thereafter. It was too late for Vatel, however. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.
10. Major Mistake Dooms the Vietnam War’s Most Ambitious Raid
On the night of November 20th, 1970, a raiding force of 56 US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, assembled at an American base in Thailand. They made their final checks to make sure that all was good to go for their upcoming mission. The equipment passed muster, and the men were fired up and ready for one of the Vietnam War’s most ambitious raids.
The Green Berets then clambered aboard HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” and HH-53E “Super Jolly Green Giant” helicopters, that flew them from their Thai staging base to execute Operation Ivory, a daring rescue mission. Their goal: free an estimated 65 American prisoners of war, held at Son Tay prison camp, about 20 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The plan was great, and its execution was impeccable. However, as seen below, it turned to be all for nothing, because of a basic mistake.
The Son Tay Raid was an exceptionally hazardous operation, whose success depended upon speed and precise execution. There were about 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers within 5 miles of the camp, so it was vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and fly away before the enemy could react and bring overwhelming numbers to bear.
Three raider teams landed in Son Tay. The first intentionally crash landed its helicopter at 2:19 AM in the middle of the camp, to get into position as quickly as possible. A mistake caused a second helicopter to land 400 yards away, at the guards’ headquarters. Its Special Forces attacked the headquarters, and killed or wounded an estimated 100 guards. The third helicopter disembarked its attackers outside the camp complex, and they swiftly secured the perimeter, then helped secure the camp’s facility. So far, so good. Then they hit a snag: the prison held no prisoners.
8. Tactical Success Undone by Major Intelligence Mistake
Operation Ivory was a brilliant tactical success. It accomplished its objective of seizing control of the camp within minutes of touching down, with the attackers sustaining only two injuries: one shot in the leg, while another broke an ankle. The absence of prisoners to rescue, however, made that tactical success meaningless. As it turned out, the mission was based on outdated intelligence. Months earlier, the POWs had been moved from Son Tay, which was adjacent to a river that was prone to flooding, and relocated to another prison camp. Within 26 minutes of landing, the Green Berets were airborne again, headed back to base.
So notwithstanding that the assault had succeeded tactically, the mission was an abject failure. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the other entities involved in the gathering and dissemination of the information upon which the raid was planned. In Operation Ivory’s aftermath, criticism of the intelligence mistakes that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners from a prison camp that held no prisoners, led to an extensive overhaul and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.
7. Math Mistake Leads to Confusion About a Miracle Plant
Generations of children grew up on and were entertained by Popeye the Sailor Man. Thanks to him, many kids have dreamt at some point in their early years that they could gain super powers by overcoming their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was an extraordinarily beneficial food item.
Sadly, Spinach is nothing special – at least insofar as bestowing super powers upon those who eat it. Kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded by an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. However, there was a silver lining, as the kids learned one of life’s early lessons: don’t believe everything you see on TV. As it turns out, the perception of Spinach being a super was caused by a math mistake.
6. Decimal Point Placement Mistake Turns Spinach Into a Super Food
Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple mathematical mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was conducting research into the amount of iron in Spinach and other vegetables. He discovered that spinach had an iron content of 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving.
However, when Wolf wrote his findings, he misplaced a decimal point, putting down spinach’s iron content as ten times greater than what it actually was: 35 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving, instead of 3.5 milligrams. It was not until 1937 that somebody double checked Wolf’s math, and spotted the error. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.
Fortunately for mankind, Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII was helped by some major mistakes by Adolf Hitler. One such was the Fuhrer’s foolhardy investment of scarce German resources in so-called “Miracle” or “Vengeance Weapons”. While some of those weapons were marvels of technology for their day, they did not bring Germany any closer to winning the war. Instead, they took away resources from more reliable weapons that could have done more to stave off eventual German defeat.
The German V-2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was a prime example of Hitler’s misplaced priorities. It was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. It inflicted relatively little damage, and thus did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production. It detracted from more effective weapons programs or other uses that might have better served the German war effort.
Another factor highlighting Hitler’s mistake in putting so much faith in the V-2 rocket is its terrible cost effectiveness. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September, 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V-2 rockets were fired. Many did not reach their targets. However, even if they all had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been a total of 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months.
By contrast, during that same period, the Royal Air Force would routinely drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single bombing raid. Americans also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids. And the Allied explosive delivery tools, bombers, were reusable and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to once again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities. They repeated that process dozens of times.
3. A Weapon That Killed More of its Makers Than the Enemy
During its nine months of deployment, the V-2 rocket killed 2754 people. Most of them were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much.
By contrast, over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V-2. That gave the rocket the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V-2 literally produced little bang for the buck.
Another of Hitler’s mistakes stemming from his obsession with big weapons was the Panzer VIII Maus super heavy tank. It was the heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun. Its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. That was increased at Hitler’s insistence to a 150mm gun, because he thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus.
The huge size and heavy weight came at a correspondingly heavy price. The Maus was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to cross rivers either by wading through fords, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, getting the Maus moving was a problem in of itself. It was difficult to develop an engine and drive train powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed achieved during trials was 8 m.p.h. on a hard surface.
1. Hitler’s Mistakes With Super Weapons Helped Hasten His Defeat
The Maus was intended to spearhead German attacks by smashing through opposition and destroying all enemy armor it came across, while impervious to damage from enemy tanks. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, the Maus was immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies had complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield. The Maus did not have sufficient armor up top to protect it from armor piercing bombs or rockets from above.
Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. He was indifferent to, or unable to understand, the concept of relative cost effectiveness. He had trouble grasping other “normal” weapons could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Using such normal weapons instead of turning to super weapons would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort. Fortunately, Hitler persisted with his mistakes, which only helped to hasten his defeat.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading