Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong

Khalid Elhassan - December 13, 2023

Misguided attempts to do good that backfire instead are all too common throughout history. Take that time when Philadelphia decided to boost morale with a massive parade that stretched for miles. The idea was not bad in of itself, but the authorities could have chosen a better time. The parade was held amidst a global pandemic, the virus spread through the packed crowds like wildfire, and within days, thousands had died in the City of the Brotherly Love. Below are twenty five things about that and other misguided attempts to do right that went awry.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Philadelphia’s 1918 parade amidst the Spanish Flu pandemic. Full Fact

Boosting Morale With a Parade – in the Middle of a Deadly Pandemic

At summer’s end, 1918, most of the world could have used a bit of cheer. By then, World War I had raged for four years, millions had perished in the battlefields, and millions more had been wounded. Many more around the world, even those far away from the guns, suffered from the disruptions and hardships caused by history’s greatest war to date. By then, America had joined the war, and Doughboy deaths and injuries had steadily increased from a trickle to a torrent. It was against that grim backdrop that the authorities in Philadelphia decided that the city’s residents could do with a morale boost.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
John Philip Sousa leading a march. Historic America

A massive parade was organized to raise spirits, and simultaneously support the troops by selling Liberty Loans – government-issued bonds that paid for the war. The parade would feature women’s groups, Boy Scouts, uniformed soldiers, and numerous marching bands. All would be capped by a concert headlined by the “March King” himself, composer and conductor John Philip Sousa. There was a hiccup, however, that the authorities overlooked, or more accurately, ignored: the Spanish Flu, the modern era’s deadliest pandemic.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Philadelphia’s 1918 parade, in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic. National Archives

A Parade That Killed Thousands

The first reported Spanish Flu case occurred in a US Army training camp in Kansas in the spring of 1918. Within days, the virus raced across the country to reach New York City, and within a month, it was a pandemic that raged across the world. It was lethal, but compared to what followed, the initial outbreak was relatively mild. A second and far deadlier wave hit in the summer of 1918, and mortality rates skyrocketed. Philadelphia’s public health director, Wilmer Kursen, protested that it was a bad time for a parade, but was ignored. On September 28th, 1918, 200,000 spectators jammed Broad Street to watch a miles-long procession. They cheered as bands blared brassy tunes and floats passed by, showcasing the latest additions to America’s arsenal, such as airplanes built in the City of Brotherly Love.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Police wearing masks in 1918. National Archives

The spectators were jammed together like sardines in a can, and the Spanish Flu’s virus could not have asked for a more hospitable environment in which to spread. Within two days, cheers turned to trepidation, as Kursen announced that the pandemic had taken a firm hold on Philadelphia. The city was unprepared for the deluge of death that descended upon it. 72 hours after the parade, every single bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled, as the Spanish Flu raged. Too late, the authorities tried to curb the pandemic, and shut down all public spaces. That shut the barn door after the horses had already escaped. Within a week of the parade, 2600 Philadelphians had died of the flu, and within two weeks, that figure had spiked to 4500. It was the City of Brotherly Love’s deadliest, and most misguided parade, ever.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Cobras infested nineteenth century Delhi. Odd Feed

A Misguided Program to Fight Snake Infestations

Back in the days of the British Raj, India’s colonial rulers were faced with a massive infestation of poisonous cobra snakes in the city of Delhi. To fight it, they came up with turned out in hindsight to have been a misguided scheme. The authorities offered a bounty for every dead cobra, payable upon delivery of its skin to designated officials. The plan seemed to work great, and before long, natives thronged to the drop off points whose store rooms soon bulged cobra skins. Unfortunately, the incentive scheme did not seem have a noticeable effect on the city’s cobra population.

No matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities, Delhi seemed to be just as infested with the deadly snakes. City officials eventually figured out why: many locals had become cobra breeders. Since the bounty on the snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop. So the British canceled the reward plan, and ceased to pay out bounties for cobra skins. As seen below, that made things even worse.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Colonial Hanoi was infested with rats. IFL Science

A Misguided Effort to Fight a Pest Infestation

The British authorities’ cancellation of the program to pay cash for cobra skins turned out to be as misguided as the program’s initiation. Without the bounties, captive cobras bred for their skins were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra breeders did what was economically sensible from their perspective, and released the snakes back into the wild. The “wild” in this case was the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many more cobras than it had before the authorities launched their misguided plan.

French colonial authorities had a similar, albeit less disastrous, experience in Hanoi, Vietnam. There, the colonial authorities sought to enlist civilians to control a city-wide rat infestation. Like the British, the French authorities offered bounties, in this case payable upon delivery of rat tails. However, colonial officials soon began to notice many tail-less rats scurrying around the city. Unlike the Indians of Delhi, the enterprising Vietnamese of Hanoi did not breed the targeted pets. Instead, rat catchers simply severed their tails. They then released them back into the city to procreate and produce more rats, and thus maintain the rat catchers’ stream of revenue.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Sticky Bomb assembly. Wikimedia

The Sticky Bomb

During the Second World War, one of the more ill-fated weapon concepts emerged from the British arsenal: the Sticky Bomb. Conceived in the aftermath of the Battle of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, the Sticky Bomb, officially known as the Grenade, Hand, Anti-Tank No. 74, aimed to fill the void left by the loss of anti-tank weapons. Resembling a maraca, this peculiar device featured an outer metal shell concealing an adhesive-coated bomb. The idea was for soldiers to remove the outer layer, stick the bomb to a tank, activate a five-second fuse, and then retreat to a safe distance. However, the practicality of this weapon was compromised by its adhesive, which struggled to cling to the dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces typically found on tanks.

Moreover, the Sticky Bomb presented a more comical yet perilous problem: its adhesive had a penchant for sticking not just to tanks but also to its wielder. The adhesive would often leak, resulting in the bomb adhering to the user’s hand or uniform, leading to tragically amusing scenarios. As if in a cartoon, users found themselves desperately shaking their hands to dislodge the bomb, reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote grappling with TNT glued to his paw. Anecdotes from the time recount instances of Sticky Bomb users unintentionally affixing the explosive to themselves, with one Home Guard member recalling a fellow soldier’s quick thinking to dispose of a bomb stuck to a comrade’s trouser leg, resulting in a messy but fortunately non-lethal aftermath.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
The start of the Maccabean Revolt. Pinterest

Eleazar Avaran in the Maccabean Revolt

Eleazar Avaran (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. He became famous – or infamous – for a brave but ultimately misguided battlefield exploit that got him killed. The revolt in which Eleazar fought was caused by decrees from the Seleucid King Antiochus IV that banned Jewish religious practices and ordered the worship of Zeus instead. The father of Eleazar and Judas sparked the rebellion by killing a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols. He then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and began a guerrilla campaign.

After his death, his son Judah took over the revolt, and in 164 BC, he successfully entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship in its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukkah. Eleazar’s misguided heroics that led to his death occurred at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother Judas Maccabeus had defeated Judea’s Seleucid overlords and entered Jerusalem. The city’s liberation was incomplete, however, because a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city, in front of the Temple Mount. That stage for Eleazar’s historic exploit.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Eleazar’s demise. Flickr

A Brave But Misguided Exploit

Judas Maccabeus besieged the Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. So Judas lifted the siege, and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to intercept the Seleucids. In a misguided bit of bravado, he ditched the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well so far. Instead, Judas formed his men to meet the Seleucids in formal battle. It was a mistake, as the Jewish forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants.

The Seleucid elephants especially unnerved the defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms. Eleazar Avaran sought to encourage his comrades with a demonstration of the elephants’ vulnerability. So he charged at the biggest elephant he could find, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. That killed the beast, but Eleazar did not get to savor his success for long. The dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar, and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the courageous demonstration did not suffice to keep the Jewish army from breaking soon thereafter.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
A Humble Oil gas station. Portal to Texas History

A Misguided Advertising Boast

Decades and generations past have left us with advertisements that, at the time, seemed innocuous and uncontroversial but have since aged poorly. The 1962 ad campaign by Humble Oil & Refining Company, later rebranded as Exxon, for its Ecno brand gasoline exemplifies this dynamic. The advertisement proudly boasted about the company’s size and technical efficiency, claiming it could melt millions of tons of glaciers every single day, a claim that, in hindsight, appears misguided and shortsighted.

During an era when the concept of global warming was not widely understood or acknowledged, Humble Oil’s ad seemed like a clever boast, blissfully unaware of the future environmental challenges associated with fossil fuels. Today, with melting polar ice caps posing a significant threat to low-lying coastal areas and billions of lives around the world, the once seemingly harmless advertisement takes on a different and more ominous connotation. The shift in perspective over the years underscores how societal, political, and technological advances can reframe our understanding of seemingly harmless messages from the past, revealing the unintended consequences and the need for a more environmentally conscious approach.


Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
An X-ray shoe fitting machine in action. Reddit

Using X-Rays in Shoe Stores

In the period spanning the 1920s to the 1970s, the act of trying on shoes underwent an unusual and potentially perilous evolution in many US and European shoe stores. During these five decades, a misguided attempt to infuse scientific innovation into the straightforward process of fitting shoes led to the widespread adoption of radiation machines known as Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscopes. Originating from Dr. Jacob Lowe’s demonstrations of a modified medical device at shoe retailer conventions, these metal constructions, standing approximately four feet high, were marketed under various names like X-Ray Shoe Fitters, Pedoscopes, and Foot-O-Scopes. Customers, seeking to assess the fit of potential footwear, would insert their feet into the device while standing and peer through a porthole to view an X-ray image of their feet adorned with the selected shoes. However, the well-intentioned notion of providing a visual assessment of fit was overshadowed by the lack of understanding and disregard for the potential dangers associated with unshielded X-rays, especially when directed towards sensitive areas.

The misguided use of X-Ray Shoe Fitters became apparent as shields were routinely removed to improve image quality or reduce the device’s weight, resulting in harmful X-rays scattering in all directions. While customers were unwittingly exposed to radiation equivalent to half a chest CT-scan during the brief viewing sessions, the cumulative effects of trying on multiple pairs of shoes heightened the health risks. Negligent machine maintenance practices, coupled with some devices emitting radiation levels up to 300 times the established safe limit, exacerbated the situation. Those most adversely affected were the shoe salespeople, subjected to repeated exposure to stray radiation, emphasizing the serious health consequences stemming from this ill-conceived attempt to enhance the shoe-fitting experience.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Milan. Wikimedia

A Misguided Warning That Triggered a Panic

Seventeenth century Europeans greatly feared that nefarious people planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sorcery, witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”. Such fears were exacerbated in the city of Milan, Italy, after its governor received an alarming message in 1629 from King Philip IV of Spain. It warned him to beware of four French escapees from a Spanish prison, who might be headed to Milan to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“. For months afterwards, tensions mounted in Milan as the alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters, and people grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city sat thus on a powder keg for months, before it finally erupted in what came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan“.

It started on the night of May 17th, when some citizens reported that they saw mysterious people place what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. Health officials went to the cathedral, but found no signs of poisoning. The next day, the Milanese woke to find that all doors on the main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub. Health officials inspected the daubs, but there was nothing harmful in them. They concluded it was a prank by mischievous actors with a sick sense of humor, who got their kicks out of the citizens’ fears. Official reassurances did not calm the public, however. The Milanese took the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, descended into a citywide mass hysteria, and began to accuse random people of acts of poisoning.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Hysteria gripped Milan amidst a poisoning scare. Message to Eagle

The Great Milan Poisoning Scare

Accused poisoners included passesrby on the streets, nobles, France’s Cardinal Richelieu, and General Wallenstein, commander of the Holy Roman Empire’s armies in the Thirty Years War. Early victims included an elderly man who wiped a church bench before he sat down. Crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They dragged him to the magistrates, but continued to beat him so severely on the way that he died en route. More tragic was the case of a pharmacist who was accused of being in cahoots with Satan when he was found with unknown potions, and stretched on the rack. After prolonged torture, he changed his protestations of innocence to an admission of guilt, and repeated whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to stop the pain.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
The execution of suspected poisoners and plague spreaders in Milan. Pinterest

The pharmacist confessed that he was in league with the Devil, that he conspired with foreigners to poison Milan, and named other accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their agonies, they named yet more innocents. Wash, rinse, repeat. They were tried, convicted based on confessions extracted under torture, and executed. As the mass hysteria mounted and insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, many Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. People went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to spectacular supernatural deeds, and described meetings with Satan, sorcerers, witches, and sundry black magic practitioners, in which they plotted to poison the city. As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
The infamous beached whale of Florence, Oregon. KATU

A Whale of a Problem

In November, 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division had a whale of a problem. What to do with a 45 foot, 8 ton sperm whale, whose rotting carcass had washed up on a beach near the small coastal town of Florence, in Lane County, Oregon? One option was to let nature take its course, and allow the whale’s carcass to decompose. However, decomposition would take years, and the good people of nearby Florence did not want to endure the stench of a rotting whale for that long. Nor were they eager to swim or wade in waters that reeked of rotten whale runoff.

It had been so long since a dead whale had washed up in the region, that nobody could remember how to get rid of one. Then somebody came up with what turned out to be a misguided brainstorm: blow up the dead sea giant. Without a frame of reference, Oregon’s Highway Division concluded that to drag the behemoth off and bury it was not a good idea, because decomposition gasses would destabilize the grave and uncover it. The risk would be reduced if the dead whale was cut up first, before burial. However, nobody was eager to volunteer to chop up the rotten carcass.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
A reporter covers Florence’s beached whale. KVAL

A Dynamite Idea

To get rid of the whale carcass, the authorities eventually turned to dynamite: twenty cases, or half a ton of it. A military veteran with explosives training happened to be in the area, and he warned that twenty cases of dynamite was way too much. His advice that a mere twenty sticks of dynamite would be enough was ignored by the authorities. They had the misguided notion that a massive blast would disintegrate the whale, and result in small pieces that would then be consumed by scavengers. As an Oregon Highway Division official told news reporters about the authorities’ idea for getting rid of the dead whale:

Well, I’m confident that it’ll work. The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing, so the scavengers, seagulls, and crabs and whatnot can clean it up“. Dynamite was buried beneath the whale, primarily on the landward side so most of the carcass would get blown into the ocean. Scores of bystanders gathered to watch the spectacle, and were moved back about a quarter of a mile away as a safety precaution. The onlookers cheered when the dynamite was detonated at 3:45 PM, on November 12th, 1970.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Exploding the beached whale of Florence, Oregon. Oregon Historical Society

An Epic Misguided Solution to a Problem

The spectators’ cheers turned into shrieks of panic when it became clear that the authorities had greatly underestimated both the blast zone, and what constituted a safe distance. A quarter mile turned out to be way too close to the explosion. Everybody and everything within half a mile of the blast got showered with rotten whale detritus. A huge piece of blubber flattened a parked car over a quarter of a mile away, while people and other vehicles were pelted by bits of stinky whale carcass. Miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt by the tons of whale flesh hurled into the air.

Eventually, the dust settled and bits of rotten whale ceased to rain from the sky. That was when everybody found out just how misguided the explosive disposal plan had been. Dismayed officials discovered that while the blast had been spectacular, the idea to get rid of the dead whale with half a ton of dynamite had turned out to be a dud. Most of the carcass had not even budged. As darkness fell, Highway Division crews returned to the scene to bulldoze and bury the remains, as they probably should have done in the first place. Hopefully, there was a lesson learned, and if a dead whale ever washes up near Florence again, the authorities will not only remember what to do, but also what not to do.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Statue of Al Mutanabbi in Baghdad. Arab Weekly

The Arab World’s Greatest Poet

Abu al Tayib Ahmad ibn Hussayn, AKA Al Mutanabbi (915 – 965) is the most influential and prominent Arab poet, and his verse is widespread and proverbial throughout the Arab world. Most of his work was odes to patrons, but he was an egomaniac who managed to turn a significant portion of his panegyrics into odes to himself, his talent, and his courage. However, he crafted it with such consummate skill and artistry that he is commonly deemed to have attained a pinnacle unequaled in the Arabic language before or since.

He exhibited a precocious talent for verse that won him a free education. In his childhood, the Qarmatians, a heretical cult that combined Zoroastrianism and Islam, began to pillage the Middle East, and in his teens, the budding poet joined them. He claimed to be a Nabi, or prophet, and at age seventeen, he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria. The rebellion was suppressed and its teenage leader was captured and imprisoned until he recanted two years later. The Nabi claim earned him the derisory nickname Al Mutanabbi, or “would-be prophet”, by which he is known to history.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Al Mutanabbi. Inside Arabia

Misguided Bravado Cost This Poet His Life

After his release in 935, Al Mutanabbi became a wandering poet. He traveled around the region’s courts, and composed poems in praise of rulers in exchange for patronage. Poems that praise patrons in exchange for patronage have a long history that cuts across cultures. From ancient Sumer through ancient Greece and Persia, and among the Anglo Saxons, Arabs, Vikings and others, bards and poets sang and recited for supper. But when they sought richer fare, the surest ticket was to compose something that flattered a wealthy and powerful figure. Al Mutanabbi did that, and was often handsomely rewarded with gifts of cash. However, his greatest hope was to get appointed a governor of some province. He impressed as an unsurpassed poet, but did not impress as a potential governor.

Al Mutanabbi’s personality was prickly, and he was excessively proud. Such traits, combined with the dramatics that frequently accompany creative genius, gave his patrons pause, and his ambitions to govern a province were never fulfilled. The flip side of Al Mutanabbi’s praise was his propensity to compose devastating verse to insult those who rubbed him wrong. His targets were typically rival courtiers who competed for a patron’s attention, but sometimes included patrons who failed to reward Al Mutanabbi as richly as he thought he deserved. One particularly misguided poetic diss got him killed in 965, when the victim of his verse ambushed him near Baghdad. Outnumbered, he sought to flee. So the pursuers derisively shouted some of Al Mutanabbi’s bold lines, in which he boasted of his courage. Stung, he turned around in a misguided attempt to live up to his verse, and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Propaganda poster for steel production during the Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

The Great Leap Forward

In the late 1950s, China was in desperate need of rapid and massive industrialization. Other countries had industrialized gradually, after they accumulated enough capital to pay for heavy machinery. However, China had neither the time nor the money. Its population was rapidly outstripping the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for the massive industrialization necessary. So Mao Zedong and his communist acolytes hit upon the idea of industrializing China by mobilizing the country’s vast population. They would use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery and industrial plant, of which China had little.

Thus was born the Great Leap Forward in 1958, a revolutionary campaign to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into an industrial giant. Unfortunately for the Chinese, Chairman Mao’s understanding of economics turned out to be faulty, and his expectations turned out to be wildly unrealistic. Mao wanted to increase steel production – a key benchmark of industrialization. However, he and his acolytes did not want to wait for the development of infrastructure such as steel plants, or for the time it would take to train a skilled workforce. Instead, they came up with a seriously misguided plan to get China’s masses into DIY steel manufacture.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Backyard blast furnaces. Picryl

DIY Steel Manufacture

Mao Zedong’s regime came up with the misguided idea to get people to set up blast furnaces behind their communes – literal backyard furnaces. The Chinese used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. When they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find to produce steel girders. As it turned out, steel manufacture was more complicated than Chairman Mao had imagined. The girders produced were of low quality, and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron. It had to first get its carbon removed, before it could get turned into steel.

In some regions, where there was little metalworking tradition or knowledge of metallurgy, even the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel. Mao’s backyard furnace plan was a fiasco, but it was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese dictator and his followers hatched another misguided idea to revolutionize China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. The communist regime prohibited private farms, and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization – the combination of private individual plots into big fields, that would then belong to the entire community.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Chinese peasants toil on collectivized farms during the Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

A Misguided Modernization Plan That Killed Tens of Millions

The idea behind collectivization of agriculture revolved around economies of scale. In theory, big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. In practice, however, poor planning wrecked the project, and the big fields produced less than the small private plots that had been combined into collective farms. Things were made worse because the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence. Collectivization was led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. The result was mismanagement, as actions were taken based on wishful thinking rather than reality.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
Hungry Chinese clamor for food during the Great Leap Forward’s famine. ThoughtCo

Things were not helped by a series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961, that exacerbated matters even more. The result was history’s greatest manmade disaster. By 1960, it was obvious that the Great Leap Forward had been a massively misguided idea, but by then it was too late. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, about twenty million Chinese starved to death, and some estimate that the casualties might have been as high as fifty million.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
The Great Panjandrum. YouTube

The Great Panjandrum

As they prepared for D-Day, the Allies in WWII needed to figure out how to deal with enemy obstacles on Normandy’s beaches. One misguided scheme to clear the obstacles was the British Great Panjandrum. It consisted of a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives, and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels. The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets affixed to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly. That would launch the contraption at targets and obstacles on shore, to blow them up and clear the way for follow on troops.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
How the Great Panjandrum was supposed to work. Look and Learn

The device was supposed to be developed in secrecy. However, tests were conducted on a beach popular with vacationers, so the trials were witnessed by huge crowds. The design’s flaws emerged at the first trial run in 1943, when the rockets were ignited and the device was launched. It made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, and the Great Panjandrum careened wildly off course. The problem persisted with additional trials: it proved impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously, or continue to fire simultaneously. After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time with a third wheel to increase stability. That test was an even bigger embarrassment.

Attempts to Save the World That Went Disastrously Wrong
The Great Panjandrum veering out of Control. Benedante

A Misguided Brainstorm

In its second major test, the Great Panjandrum hurtled toward the beach, only to veer away and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some rockets detached from the device’s wheels to launch themselves at observers on the beach, to whistle over their heads or explode underwater nearby. So designers returned to the drawing board, to work out the bugs. When they figured that they finally had it under control, they conducted a final demonstration in front of assembled admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free:

Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed. Unsurprisingly, the misguided project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.



Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:


Amusing Planet – The Shoe Fitting Machines That Blasted You With Radiation

Arab America – Al Mutanabbi: The Greatest Arab Poet

Bill Moyers – Exxon-Mobil: More Than 50 Proud Years of Melting Glaciers!

Cracked – 5 Attempts to Save the World that Went Disastrously Wrong

D-Day Overlord – No. 74 Sticky Bomb

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Mutanabbi

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Roberts – Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior: Milan Poisoning Scare (2009)

French Colonial History, Volume 4, 2003 – Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

Hein Online – Self Defeating Regulation

History Collection – Historic Military Blunders That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes

Jewish Encyclopedia – Eleazar

Imperial War Museum – Grenade, Anti-Tank, No. 74 Mk I (‘Sticky Bomb’)

Lapham’s Quarterly, April 16th, 2020 – ‘A Simulated Plague’: Watching Panic Spread in Italy in 1630

Oregon Encyclopedia – Florence Whale Explosion

Oregon Public Broadcasting – Why Oregon Blew Up a Whale in 1970

Pennsylvania Gazette, November 1st, 1998 – The Flu of 1918

Scullard, Howard Hayes – The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974)

Smithsonian Magazine, September 21st, 2018 – Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu

Snopes – Did a 1960s Oil Company Ad Boast How Much Glacier It Could Melt?

Thaxton, Ralph – Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine (2008)

Times, The, June 5th, 2009 – Replica of the Great Panjandrum, 1944 Super Weapon, to be Tested

Wired – Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet

Wired – Well, That Didn’t Work: The Rolling Rocket Bomb Designed to Kill Nazis Almost Killed a Dog Instead