The Americas Were Discovered Because of a Math Mistake
When Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain in 1492, he was convinced that he was less than 3000 miles away from Japan. All he had to do was sail a little more beyond that, and he would reach the Indies, with their rich spice trade. As it turned out, Japan is about 12,000 miles away from Spain, not 3000. The reason Columbus thought it was much closer was because he made a mistake when he calculated the size of the globe, and concluded it was far smaller than it actually is.
That was probably the most momentous math mistake – or just plain mistake, period – in history. Contrary to myth, neither Columbus nor his crew feared that they might fall off the edge of the world. The Ancient Greeks already knew that the earth was a globe two millennia earlier, and educated people and sailors in Columbus’s 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 that he planned to cross.
To His Dying Day, Columbus Insisted That He Had Actually Reached Asia
In addition to his math mistake, Columbus was unaware that an unknown continental landmass lay between Spain and Asia. Ultimately, he reached the Caribbean, whose islands he believed were the western outskirts of Asia. So he named them the West Indies. In subsequent voyages, Columbus 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 final breath, 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 conclusively 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 in the 1500, so the name America spread and stuck.
For most of the commercial air travel era, Boeing has been the dominant player in passenger planes. However, there was a time in the early 1950s when reasonable people could have predicted that the future of passenger planes belonged to British aircraft manufacturer de Havilland, with Boeing a distant second. The reason was the de Havilland Comet – history’s first commercial jet liner. Its prototype first flew in 1949, and it hit the market in 1952. Fast and sleek, with a pressurized cabin that was comfortable, relatively quiet, and featured large square windows, the Comet cut six hours of travel time between London and New York. It was the world’s most promising passenger plane when it made its debut.
The Comet’s designers chose large, square windows, because of aesthetic reasons: they looked better than round “porthole” style windows. Unfortunately for de Havilland, and for dozens of Comet passengers who died in a series of crashes, designers in those days had not yet grasped the notion of metal fatigue. Stresses piled up at the corners of the Comet’s square windows, and caused catastrophic fuselage breaches midflight. The result was a series of fatal crashes. Since the Comets often broke apart high altitudes and above water, it took time to figure out the problem. Once the culprit was identified, the entire Comet fleet was pulled out of service. De Havilland never recovered: while the Comet was being redesigned with round windows and thicker fuselages, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 hit the market, and became hits with airliners.
As seen further down this list, farts have had an oversized impact on history. Some farts have produced weird and disproportionate consequences, such as the triggering of widespread mayhem, death, and destruction. They have also wrecked political careers and destroyed social standings. A prime example of the latter can be seen in the social faux pas, or more like fart pas, of Elizabethan aristocrat Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Reportedly, as he made a deep bow to show his respect and obeisance to Queen Elizabeth I, this Earl of Oxford exploded in a huge fart.
The unfortunate aristocrat of Oxford felt so embarrassed and ashamed that he left the country for seven years. When he finally came back home, the Virgin Queen’s first words upon his return to court were: “My lord, I had forgot the fart!” As the Earl of Oxford’s unfortunate bout of flatulence illustrates, breaking wind in public was cause for embarrassment in the court of Elizabeth I. However, as seen below, such embarrassment pales in comparison to the social consequences of a public fart in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Groom Who Discovered that Eating Too Much at His Wedding Feast Was a Mistake
In the medieval era, a wealthy Yemeni merchant named Abu Hassan married one of the region’s most beautiful women, and threw a lavish wedding feast to which he invited notables from near and far. The bridegroom ate and drank heartily at the feast – too heartily. When he rose from his seat to go to his bride’s chamber, he let out a thunderous fart. Mortified, Abu Hassan turned away from the bridal chamber, headed to the courtyard, saddled his horse, and rode off into the night, weeping bitterly.
It was the start of a weird and long journey and exile, that would put that of the Earl of Oxford to shame. After he fled his wedding, mortified at the humiliation of his huge fart, Abu Hassan ended up on the coast, where he caught a ship headed for India. He landed on the Malabar Coast, eventually joined the service of a local king, and rose in his service. After a decade abroad, however, Abu Hassan pined for his homeland. Finally, he snuck away and returned to Yemen. Unsure of his reception, however, he donned the disguise of an impoverished dervish, and headed back to his hometown.
Abu Hassan endured many weird and wacky adventures en route back to his native land. Among other things, he survived encounters with lions, endured snake bites, and was forced to hide from bloodthirsty bandits. Eventually, he reached is hometown, and his eyes brimmed with tears when he looked down upon it from nearby hills. However, he was wary of the reception he might encounter, and told himself: “They might recognize me, so I will wander about the outskirts and listen to what people are saying. May Allah grant that they do not remember what happened“. Allah did not grant him his wish.
Disguised as a dervish, Abu Hassan wandered around his hometown for a week, and eavesdropped on people in hopes that he might hear any mention of his name. Finally one day, as he sat near a hut’s door, he overheard a young girl ask her mother: “When was I born? One of my friends needs the date so she can cast my fortune“. The mother replied: “Dear, you were born on the night Abu Hassan farted“. A disappointed Abu Hassan immediately rose, and once more fled his hometown, this time for good. As he put it: “My fart has become a date – it will be remembered forever“. He eventually made his way back to India, where he remained in self-exile for the rest of his life.
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 screwups, each of which reinforced and amplified the other mistakes, that made the Titanic’s sinking so deadly. However, of all those screwups, there was one mistake, that if it 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.
On that day, the Titanic’s second officer, David Blair, was replaced with the more experienced Charles Lightoller. However, Blair never gave, and Lightoller never asked 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.
The Lost Key That Led to History’s Most Infamous Maritime Disaster
At around 11:40PM on the night of April 14th, 1912, four days into the Titanic’s voyage, 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.
Coca-Cola’s Refusal to Buy Pepsi When it Had the Chance Turned Out to Have Been a Huge Mistake
For decades after it was created in 1893, Pepsi was a niche drink with a tiny market. It was nowhere close to getting noticed by Coca-Cola, and seemingly stood no chance of challenging the soft drink giant. Then in the 1920s Charles Guth, president of candy manufacturer Loft Inc., asked Coca-Cola for a discount on its syrup, which was used in some of his retail stores’ soda fountains. Coca-Cola refused, so when Pepsi entered bankruptcy in 1923, Guth bought it for $10,500 (roughly $175,000 today), and had chemists rework its formula to come as close to Coke as possible. Over the following decade, Pepsi-Cola was offered to the Coca-Cola Company for purchase on various occasions, but the soda giant declined the offer each time.
In hindsight, that turned out to be a huge mistake on Coca-Cola’s part. Less than two years after he bought it, Charles Guth turned Pepsi around, and made it a profitable enterprise. By 1936, Pepsi was selling half a billion bottles a year – the second largest soda company, behind only Coca-Cola. It was right around then that Loft Inc. sued Guth, accused him of breach of fiduciary duty, and took Pepsi from him in 1939. Loft then concentrated on Pepsi, and spun off its non-soda businesses in 1941. The brand grew, and eventually merged with Frito Lay in 1965, to become PepsiCo. That new company went on to finally eclipse Coke in sales in the 1980s. In 2005, PepsiCo surpassed the Coca-Cola Company in market value.
Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) was an unprepossessing Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and microbiologist. Until 1928, there had been little in his decades-long career to indicate that he would revolutionize medicine and save millions of lives worldwide. Until that year, his greatest career accomplishment had to do with research on enzymes. Then Fleming discovered penicillin, the antibiotic that revolutionized medical care and saved millions of lives from fatal bacterial infections. It happened by accident, because of sloppiness and a basic mistake.
Lucky breaks followed Fleming his whole life. Born in Scotland, he moved to London, where he graduated high school before he got a job in a shipping office. That might have become his career, but an uncle died four years later, and left Fleming an inheritance that allowed him to go to medical school. He initially wanted to become a surgeon, but 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.
Alexander Fleming served in the Army Medical Corp in World War I, and 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 the use of antiseptics was a mistake when it came to serious injuries: they did not stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. His research was initially rejected, but Fleming plugged on. One day in 1922, while he battled 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“.
The Typographical Mistake That Created the Spinach Super Food Myth
Many kids who watched Popeye the Sailor Man have dreamt that they might gain super powers if they could only overcome their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was extraordinarily beneficial. Sadly, kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded with an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. There was an upside, though, as the kids learned a vital life lesson: don’t believe everything you see on TV.
Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple math mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was conducting research into the amount of iron in Spinach and other vegetables, and discovered that spinach had an iron content of 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving. However, when Wolf wrote up his findings, he made a mistake and misplaced a decimal point. As a result, he put 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 mistake. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.
Mooning This Particular Crowd Might Have Been a Mistake
Just as a jet engine turns fuel into a loud roar, we create farts by converting undigested food in our lower colon into intestinal gas. We then blow that gas through a narrow opening, the butthole, which is surrounded by fatty flaps and folds. As the gas exits, those flaps and folds vibrate, creating a fleshy clamor – the fart. Oddly, over 99% of our farts does not smell. On average, a fart is 59% nitrogen, 21% hydrogen, 9% carbon dioxide, 7% methane, and 4% oxygen – all of which are odorless. However, a minute fraction of less than 1% is made up of other stuff such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and skatole (from the Greek skatos, meaning… the less appropriate word for poop) that seriously stinks.
Stinks so bad, in fact, that people can smell fart particles even when they comprise only 1 part per 100 million parts of air. Not all farts are the same, and some are way worse than others. Take history’s deadliest, which was let go around the time of Passover in 44 AD, in Jerusalem, not long after the death of King Herod Agrippa. As thousands of Jews gathered to partake in the Passover feast and festivities, a Roman soldier stationed above the temple turned around, bared his butt, mooned the crowd, and cut a fart. As seen below, that turned out to be a mistake.
Understandably, the religious crowd below did not take kindly to the blasphemous insult in the temple. The Jews erupted into riots, and the Romans rushed in soldiers to quell the disturbances. Things escalated, and by the time the dust settled, about 10,000 people lay dead – all because of a chain of events that started with a fart. As seen below, First century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus left posterity an account of the lethal flatulence. As he described how the disturbance began:
“The Jews’ ruin came on, for when the multitudes were come together to Jerusalem, to the feast of unleavened bread, and a Roman cohort stood over the cloisters of the temple (for they always were armed and kept guard at the festivals, to prevent any innovation which the multitude thus gathered together might take), one of the soldiers pulled back his garment, and cowering down after an indecent manner, turned his breech [bum] to the Jews, and spoke such words as you might expect at such a posture. At this the whole multitude had indignation, and made a clamor to Cumanus [the provincial Roman procurator], that he would punish the soldier; while the rasher part of the youth, and such as were naturally the most tumultuous, fell to fighting, and caught up stones, and threw them at the soldiers“. Things got worse.
Because one Roman soldier thought it would be funny to troll a crowd, thousands died. The poor taste of that one anonymous legionary was the start of a bout of widespread violence and a weird chain of events the led to mass deaths. Things escalated quickly, as the Romans, never known for a light touch when dealing with disturbances in their provinces, came down hard on the Jews. As Josephus continued his account, when the Roman procurator heard of the rioting in Jerusalem:
“Cumanus was afraid lest all the people should make an assault upon him, and sent to call for more men, who, when they came in great numbers into the cloisters, the Jews were in a very great consternation. Being beaten out of the temple, they ran into the city; and the violence with which they crowded to get out was so great, that they trod upon each other, and squeezed one another, till ten thousand of them were killed, insomuch that this feast became the cause for mourning to the whole nation, and every family lamented“. It was thus history’s deadliest fart.
The Berlin Wall stood for decades as both a literal dividing line, and the Cold War’s ultimate symbolic separator, marking off a dour communist east from a vibrant capitalist west. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan’s admonition in speech delivered during a 1987 visit to West Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” resonated so well back then. At the time, few could have predicted that, little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall would come down with such suddenness so as to catch politicians and pundits alike off guard. And it came down because a bureaucrat made a mistake.
In the late 1980s, communism began to crumble in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and East Germany’s communist leaders began to grudgingly ease their citizens’ travel restrictions. On November 9th, 1989, East Berlin’s communist party boss Gunter Schabowski held a press conference to explain some minor revisions to the travel code. However, he flubbed it, and mistakenly implied that travel restrictions were being completely removed. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, Schabowski shrugged and replied: “immediately, right away“. That hit the news, and when East Germans heard it, they swarmed the border, demanding the promised free passage. The border guards had received no such instructions, but rather than deal with a riot, they stepped aside, and the wall came down in a rapturous celebration – Berlin’s greatest citywide party, ever.
After World War II, a myth grew that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was on her last legs, and about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have worked if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, both for the Japanese and for hundreds of millions of conquered subjects in Japanese occupied territory, that was not the case. At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure 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, and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, it was not a mistake for America and her allies to treat Japan as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and who would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped. As far as the Allies were concerned, Japan was a menace that had to he put down ASAP. However, a simple translation mistake might have determined when and how the US put Japan down, and led to the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender. Also known as the Potsdam Declaration, it 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 that warned Japan to surrender immediately. Otherwise, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“. The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government.
Eventually, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese 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 – sometimes too subtle – in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Truman. Ten days later, the Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Bad doctors and medical screw-ups are all too common. Indeed, thanks to negligent or outright incompetent medical professionals, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not as big as it is today in the US. If not, medical malpractice lawyers would have had a field day suing him for that one time he managed to kill three people during a single surgery – two of whom were not even his patients.
Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before the use of anesthetics had become as widespread as today, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessening the odds of patients going into shock, as well as reducing the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection.
Dr. Liston was famous for his ability to complete operations in a matter of seconds, and to amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. Unsurprisingly, chances for a mistake were pretty high. Dr. Liston played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, and observers watched what was going on from galleries that surrounded operating rooms. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston would often shout to the audience “time me, gentlemen!” It became his catchphrase.
During one surgery to amputate a leg, Dr. Liston accidently severed the fingers off the hand of an assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. Thinking that he had been wounded, the elderly spectator panicked, had a heart attack, and died.
French master chef Francois Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2,000 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 fifteen days to prepare, got stressed out by a series of minor mishaps. 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. That minor mistake mortified Vatel, and he 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 continued to obsess about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which depressed Vatel even further.
Early the following morning, April 24th, one day before the banquet, Vatel 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 broke down, 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 turned into a flop, Vatel took a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, it did not take long before the misunderstanding resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began to arrive soon thereafter. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.
In everyday life for most of us, a failure to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences. Things along the lines of showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. However, a failure to correctly set the time when there is fighting to do, can lead to disaster. Such was the case in the spring of 1961, as American-trained Cuban exiles readied themselves to overthrow Fidel Castro.
The Cuban exiles were convinced – or more accurately, they convinced themselves – that when they landed in Cuba, they would be supported by the US Air Force, with the US Marines right behind them. The aerial cover actually promised the Cuban exiles by the CIA was support from 16 WWII era B-26 medium bombers, flying out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new president, JFK, insisted that the operation be kept minimal.
Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs on April 17th, 1961, but the 8 B-26s turned out to be woefully inadequate support. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance to advance into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but on the following day, JFK made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any followup strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.