Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired

Khalid Elhassan - March 29, 2023

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
The Oregon beached whale. YouTube

What to Do With a Dead Whale Washed Up on a Beach?

In November, 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division had a problem on its hands. A stinking 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 carcass to decompose. However, Florence’s residents did not want to endure to stench of a rotting whale for the few years it would take for it to decompose. Nor did they want to swim in waters that reeked of 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. 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 whale was cut up before burial, but nobody wanted to chop up the stinking carcass. Then somebody came up with a bright idea: why not blow it up? As seen below, that backfired badly.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A reporter covering the beached whale. KVAL

Blowing Up a Dead Whale With Dynamite

In a decision that backfired badly, the authorities turned to dynamite: 20 cases, or half a ton of it. A military veteran with explosives training was in the area, and he warned that 20 cases of dynamite was way too much. His advice that 20 sticks of dynamite would be enough was ignored by the authorities. They hoped that the blast would disintegrate the whale, with the resulting small pieces getting consumed by scavengers. As an Oregon Highway Division official told news reporters about the plan to get 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.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
The exploding whale. Fresher Brine

As Any Rational Person Could Have Predicted, This Literally Explosive Plan Backfired

The spectators’ cheers quickly turned into shrieks of panic when it became clear that the explosive plan had backfired. 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 was showered with rotting 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.

When the dust settled and rotting whale stopped falling from the sky, dismayed officials discovered that while the blast had been spectacular, their idea to dispose of the whale was a dud. Most of the carcass had not even budged. As darkness fell, Highway Division crews were back on the scene to bulldoze and bury the remains, as they probably should have done in the first place. If a whale ever washes up near Florence again, the authorities will probably not only remember what to do, but also what not to do.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Maurice Duplessis and Quebec Catholic Church clergy. La Nouvelliste

When the Church Held Too Much Sway in Quebec

The Catholic Church held significant, and sometimes pernicious sway over Quebec until the mid-twentieth century. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became Quebec’s premier. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces.

The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. That backfired when the unscrupulous Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Duplessis orphans. Spectacular Optical

This Plan to Help Orphans Tragically Backfired

The Canadian federal government’s subsidy program backfired because it was vulnerable to exploitation. Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. They set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately Quebec’s Catholic Church – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.

It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once misdiagnosed as mentally deficient, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the children were often subjected by nuns and lay monitors to physical and mental abuse.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A glacier melting and breaking up. Physics World

The Oil Company that Bragged About Melting the Arctic Glaciers

Poring through advertisements from decades and generations past, we often come across ads that were innocuous and non-controversial for their era, but that have aged like garbage. Due to social, political, or technological advances and changes, what seemed perfectly good and acceptable in one era, can be seen today as silly, ridiculous, or outright offensive. For example, take this advertisement run in 1962 by Humble Oil & Refining Company – which eventually rebranded as Exxon – for its Ecno brand gasoline.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A polar bear on melting Arctic ice. The Mirror

The company – contra its name – bragged about its size and technical efficiency by boasting that it could melt millions of tons of glaciers every single day of the year. As the ad put it: “EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER! This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has supplied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company“.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Humble Oil’s glacier melting ad. Bill Moyers

This Ad Aged Badly, and Its Aim to Burnish the Oil Company’s Reputation Backfired

The Humble Oil ad went on to add that: “Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation, and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Enco Extra gasoline, and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!” Needless to say, Humble Oil’s non humble boast that it produced enough energy to melt seven million tons of glaciers every day did not age well.

Years passed, and eventually scientists began to sound the alarm about the dangers of global warming – a growing menace caused in large part by fossil fuels such as those produced by Humble Oil. Back in 1962, the ad’s copywriters thought they had come up with a clever idea. It backfired, because they were blissfully unaware of that what the future would bring. They certainly had not anticipated that melting glaciers would become a major symbol of the risks of global warming.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

When Argentina Announced a Revolutionary Breakthrough in Energy Technology

For a moment in the mid-twentieth century – a brief moment as it turned out – Argentina was about to become the world’s greatest energy giant. Or at least, that was what many people were led to believe. In the spring of 1951, newspapers around the world carried sensational news: the discovery of practical fusion power in Argentina. On March 24th of that year, Argentina’s president Juan Peron announced that his country had mastered “the controlled liberation of atomic energy“, not from uranium, but from hydrogen. Peron added that the discovery would prove “transcendental for the future life” of Argentina, and would bring it “a greatness which today we cannot imagine“.

The Argentinian president went on to promise a future in which energy would be sold in half-liter bottles like milk. However, thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that neither the US nor USSR had mastered at the time. So the idea that Argentina, then a rural of country of fewer than 16 million people, had achieved what neither global superpower baffled many. How had Argentina pulled off such a feat? The answer was: it had not. Juan Peron had trusted a crank named Ronald Richter, and predictably, the placement of trust in a crank backfired.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Ronald Richter at work on Project Huemul. El Cordillerano

Predictably, Giving Money to a Crank Backfired

As things turned out, Juan Peron had been conned by a German World War II aircraft designer named Ronald Richter, who had wildly misrepresented his credentials in a successful bid to get funding for a fusion reactor. Argentine scientists knew Richter’s claims were bunk, but Peron wanted to believe in the Nazi scientist’s idea, so he did. As a result, a significant chunk of Argentina’s budget was diverted to what came to be known as Project Huemul, to build a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Remnants of the main reactor building on Huemul Island. Mapio

It backfired, and in a humiliation for all involved, Richter’s claims were debunked almost immediately after they were announced by Peron. Richter was eventually jailed for having “misled” the Argentine president. The embarrassed government razed most of the lab to the ground, and tried to pretend that the whole thing had never happened. After Richter was released from prison, he settled down to become a chicken farmer. He insisted to his dying days that his idea had been practical, and that he had mastered nuclear fusion.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
A king cobra. ABC 13

This Plan to Get Rid of Poisonous Snakes Backfired

In the days of the British Raj, India’s colonial rulers grew concerned by large numbers of venomous cobra snakes that increasingly infested the city of Delhi. So they 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 were thronging to the drop off points, whose store rooms soon bulged with cobra skins. However, 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.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Young cobras. GGN

Officials eventually figured out why: the incentive plan had backfired, because it led many locals to raise cobras. Since the bounty on snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop. When the authorities finally realized what was going on, and how their incentive scheme had been gamed, they cancelled the plan, and stopped paying bounties for cobra skins. As seen below, that, too, backfired, and made things even worse.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Colonial Hanoi. Atlas Obscura

French Colonial Authorities Came Up With an Incentive Plan to Eradicate Pests… It Backfired

The British colonial authorities’ cancellation of the snake eradication incentive plan turned out to be their second bad decision, and it, too, backfired. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than before the authorities launched their ill-advised plan.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Hanoi rats. Everything Everywhere

In 1902, French colonial authorities had a similar experience in Hanoi, Vietnam, when they sought to enlist civilians in controlling a rat infestation. Like the British, the French authorities offered bounties for rats, to be paid out upon delivery of their tails. However, colonial officials soon began to notice rats scurrying around the city with no tails. Unlike the Indians of Delhi, the enterprising Vietnamese of Hanoi did not raise rats. Instead, rat catchers simply severed their tales. They then released them back into the city so they could procreate and produce more rats, and thus maintain the rat catchers’ stream of revenue.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Baby in a window cage, 1936. Fox Photos

When Kids Were Kept in Window Cages – For Their Own Good

The nineteenth century saw the growth of modern health fads. One of them eventually led to dangling babies in cages outside apartment windows. It began in 1884 when Dr. Luther Emmet Holt published The Care and Feeding of Children. In it, he advocated that babies should be “aired”. As he put it: “Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food … The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen“.

Fresh air and exposure to cold temperatures, both from the outdoors and from cold baths, would supposedly toughen the babies, and increase their immunity against illnesses ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. Dr. Holt and other physicians advocated that parents simply place a baby’s basket near an open window. Things backfired when some parents went further. They included Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She had a cage built outside her apartment window, in which she stuck her daughter Anna. As seen below, it began in 1906 when Eleanor Roosevelt, then 21 and a new mother, was told by her doctor that her newborn daughter, Anna, needed lots of fresh air.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1908 with their first two children. Franklin D. Roosevelt Public Library

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Decision to Follow Her Doctor’s Advice Backfired

Eleanor Roosevelt had a brainstorm: she had a chicken wire cage, with a wooden basket in it, attached to a window. As she described it in her autobiography, it was: “a kind of box with wire on the sides and top” out of a back window, in which Anna was placed while her mother napped. Anna was understandably terrified, and made her feelings known. However, Mrs. Roosevelt’s doctor had also told her to ignore babies’ screams, so she ignored Anna’s shrieks. It backfired, because the neighbors were alarmed by the caged baby’s continuous cries, and threatened to call The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Children. Mrs. Roosevelt, by her own admission, “knew absolutely nothing about handling or feeding a baby“. She had thought that she was being a good modern mother, following the best childcare recommendations.

Eleanor Roosevelt was thus shocked by the neighbors’ negative reaction. She was ahead of her times: a few years after she was criticized for sticking her baby in a window cage, the practice became widespread. In 1922, Emma Read of Spokane, Washington, filed the first commercial patent for a “portable baby cage”. It was supposed to be suspended from a window’s external edge, with a baby inside. The cages were intended mainly for infants in city apartment buildings, who lacked backyards or easy access to gardens, so they could get fresh air. As a contemporary newspaper put it: “Flats have notable advantages for residential purposes, but life in them involves undeniable hardships for babies and very young children, who have little opportunity to play out of doors and to get their proper allowance of fresh air“.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Child in a window cage. Rare Historical Photos

It Took World War II to Stop People From Keeping Their Babies in Window Cages

The materials used in window baby cages differed, but the general concept was the same. A mesh cage allowed sunlight and air to pass through to the baby within, while keeping it from falling to the street below. Some of the fancier baby cages had a roof, to keep rain, snow, or debris dropped from above from reaching and harming the infant. Things had changed since Eleanor Roosevelt had stuck Ana in a cage. In the 1920s, window baby cages became popular in America and abroad. They hit peak popularity in 1930s London. They were handed out by neighborhood communities, such as the Chelsea Baby Club, to all members who lacked a backyard. Even The Royal Institute of Architects pushed for the increased use of baby cages. In 1935, it all but called for making baby cages mandatory.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Baby in a window cage, 1934. Fox Photos

The organization warmly praised the Chelsea Baby Club’s practice of giving the contraptions to members. It wrote that fixtures for the cages were essential features that should be standard in all middle class housing’s windows. WWII and the years of German bombers, rockets, and missiles, ended the use of window baby cages in London. They made a comeback after the war, but were not as popular as before, and sales gradually declined. The world, and attitudes towards safety, had changed. Awareness grew of the immediate risks that a cage could fail, and send a baby plummeting to its doom on the street below. There were also long-term health concerns. Increased automobile traffic led to an increase in exhaust fumes and other pollutants, which made city air anything but “fresh”. Since getting fresh air was why window baby cages were invented in the first place, the contraptions lost their chief purpose.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Feral rabbits in the Australian Outback. Rabbit Free Australia

The Decision to Ship Rabbits to Australia

Few ideas have been as harebrained or backfired as badly as the introduction of rabbits to Australia by the British. Except, perhaps, for the plan to deliberately release those rabbits into the wild to breed like… well… rabbits. Knowing what we know today about the harms caused by tampering with ecologies, it seems incredible that the British thought that releasing breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback was a good idea. Just as incredible is the train of logic that got them there. First came the idea to breed rabbits in Australia as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable. Then came the idea to release them into the wild as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.

The British initially viewed Australia as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that outlet was closed after America’s independence. Understandably, the new republic did not want to accept shiploads of British jailbirds. So the British began to transport their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Convicts need to be fed, however. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, the idea being that they would serve as a rapidly breeding food source. Then some folk decided to combine sports with sustenance – a decision that, as seen below, backfired spectacularly.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
Shooting rabbits for sport in Victoria, Australia, in the 1860s. Wikimedia

To Say That This Plan Backfired Would be an Understatement

Eventually, some rich British settlers in Australia had what seemed at the time to be a great idea: release rabbits and hares into the wild for sport hunting. It backfired spectacularly. Rabbits, which are not native to Australia, did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as they had in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home.

The consequences were catastrophic. As early as the 1820s, settlers began to complain of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons that allowed for year-round breeding, and natural selection that produced hardier breeds of wild rabbits, their population exploded. By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Australia. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, because of all the inhabited continents, Australia has the most vulnerable soil and is the one most susceptible to erosion.

Historic Plans That Catastrophically Backfired
An 1884 cartoon predicting the uselessness of rabbit-proof fences. Queensland State Library

The Introduction of Yet Another Pest Species to Australia Backfired as Badly as the Introduction of Rabbits

For over a century, Australia has lived with the consequences of the harebrained scheme to release rabbits into the wild. Ever since, the country has struggled to control its rabbit population. Australians shot, poisoned, and infected the pests with epidemic diseases, to little avail. They also erected fences all over the place, ranging from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences stretching for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it. As early as the 1820s, it had become clear to all and sundry the release of rabbits into the Outback had backfired, and backfired badly. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place that releasing non-native species into new environments might backfire was not enough to prevent a repeat with another species.

As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were deliberately released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting. Within two decades of their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were outcompeted by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other creatures.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

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

Bill Moyers – ExxonMobil: More Than 50 Proud Years of Melting Glaciers!!

Canada’s Human Rights History – Duplessis Orphans

Curtin, Philip D. – The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bartolome de Las Casas

French Colonial History, Vol. 4 (2003) – Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History

History Collection – 18 Successes and Disasters Created to Battle the Great Depression

Indian Country Today, June 30th, 2021 – 182 Unmarked Graves Found at Third Former Residential School

Indigenous Foundations – The Residential School System

Iter Newsline 196, October 26th, 2011 – “Proyecto Hueumul”: The Prank That Started it All

LIFE Magazine, February 2nd, 1962 – Humble Oil Advertisement

Live Science – Remains of More Than 1000 Indigenous Children Found at Former Residential Schools in Canada

National Geographic – How European Rabbits Took Over Australia

New Scientist, February 3rd, 1983 – When the Argentines Tamed Fusion

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

Oregon Encyclopedia – Florence Whale Explosion

Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective – Bartolome de las Casas and 500 Years of Racial Injustice

Post Star, The, July 31st, 1923 – A Fresh Air Cage for the Baby

Psychology Today, October 8th, 2016 – The Cobra Effect: Good Intentions, Perverse Outcomes

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Rare Historical Photos – The Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

Smithsonian Magazine, August 26th, 2022 – How Two Dozen Rabbits Started an Ecological Invasion in Australia

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

Vox – The Bold and Beautiful Baby Cage

Washington Post, November 30th, 2020 – 50 Years Ago, Oregon Exploded a Whale in a Burst that ‘Blasted Blubber Beyond All Believable Bounds’

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