Humankind has an amazing story full of innovation, success, and progress. It’s easy to look at the whole of our history and feel proud of how far we’ve come as a species and how much good we’re capable of.
But that’s not what we’re doing in this article. Instead, we want to look at the lowlights of human history, of which there are plenty. Some blunders are so bad or recent that we’re still dealing with the fallout.
The history buffs over at Reddit sounded off on the worst of these historical errors in every category from politics, to business, to pop culture. Take a look at them here, and try to imagine what things would be like if any of these events had played out differently.
35. The British Have Priority Issues
It’s not like Britain surrendered (during the American Revolution). If Britain had used their whole military it would have been a different story. Don’t forget at that time we were also fighting wars in India. It was just dumb of Britain to think that India was of more importance than America.
34. Try Not To Talk Badly About Your Own Company
Gerald Ratner, CEO of Ratner’s Jewellers (by far the UK’s largest jewelry business at the time) called his products “total garbage” in an interview. His company lost 500 million pounds almost overnight and nearly collapsed the whole enterprise until they had to change their name to save face. Ratner’s already had a reputation for being “tacky” and everybody knew it, but nobody wanted to be reaffirmed that they were buying cheap garbage.
33. War On The Birds
The Great Emu War. Basically, in 1932 the Australian army went out to try to curb the growing emu population. Turns out emus are pretty hard to take down even when you have a giant weapon mounted on the back of a truck. The army ended up taking out around 1,000 emus but they spent a very large amount of energy doing it. After two unsuccessful attempts to do serious damage to the emu population, the army decided to cut its losses and went back home.
32. One Cursed Treaty
The Treaty of Versailles. Sure, it was supposed to be harsh on Germany, but the Allies made it way too harsh on the Germans. They knew the Germans would not have the capability to pay the reparations but they still went ahead with it. Well, it led to WWII, the Cold War, and basically, everything bad about the world today. All because of one piece of paper signed in a palace.
31. Twist And Shout
The Beatles’ Decca audition. On January 1, 1962, before they reached international stardom, the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records at Decca Studios in West Hampstead, North London. In what is considered one of the biggest mistakes in music industry history, Decca decided to reject the band, selecting instead Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.
30. Still Stuck With This Dumb Mistake
When Columbus “found” America, he thought he found India. He didn’t, obviously, but that didn’t stop us from calling Indigenous people Indians. We still call them Indians, THEY call themselves Indians. Game, set, and match if you can conquer and subject an entire population to identify themselves incorrectly because it’s inconvenient not to.
29. Apple Co-Founder Loses Billions
From a financial perspective, it would have to be Ron Wayne. Ever heard of him? Probably not. He was one of the three co-founders of Apple Computers. In 1976, he sold his shares in the company for $800. Today they would have been worth $35 billion dollars.
28. Hannibal Gave Up His Campaign Only To Have His Home Destroyed
Hannibal failing to take Rome. He ravaged the Italian countryside for seven years but never could take Rome. He then went back to Carthage. The Romans were so angry they attacked Carthage, burned it to the ground, took out everybody (I mean EVERYBODY), and salted the earth so nothing could ever be grown there again. Carthage was erased from existence. Sure, the elephants over the Alps was cool, but not finishing the job cost Carthaginians their whole world.
27. Constantinople Was Sacked Thanks To Welching
A cousin of the Byzantine emperor deposed said emperor and told the crusader mercenaries the emperor had employed to take the throne in the first place to get out when they asked him to pay them. The crusaders then decided to get their money by sacking Constantinople from the inside and deposing the Imperial government. It was so brutal, the city never recovered and countless artifacts were hauled off and sold to Venice and never seen again.
26. From Solving Famine To Genocide
Fritz Haber was a Polish-born chemist who in 1909 developed the first nitrogen fertilizers, meaning that the massively-expanding populations could now be fed. It practically banished the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Afterwards, during WWI, he helped create chlorine gas, believing it would shorten the war. Later, during WWII, his research was furthered and led to the creation of Zyklon gas, used by the Nazis in their concentration camps.
The worst part?
He was Jewish.
25. A Tragedy Overshadowed
The Sultana. Worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. The captain of a steam boat was paid by the head to transport Union soldiers back north after the Civil War had ended. He crammed 2,427 people on his boat that normally carried a crew of 85. One of the boilers exploded cracking the boat in twain. About 1,800 men perished. Didn’t get much attention in the papers though. They were running some political story about an actor against the president or some such nonsense.
24. The Ancient Spirits Are Jerks
In the middle 1800s, a South African Xhosa woman, Nongqawuse, prophesied that her tribe would receive divine powers if they obeyed the spirits of her ancestors by getting rid of all of their cattle and destroying their crops. After realizing that they had destroyed their food source, around 78,000 Xhosa tribe members starved due to the resulting famine.
23. Pretty Expensive Toy, If You Ask Us
Outside of political moves, probably the time Western Union told Alexander Graham Bell to leave with his “toy,” the telephone. They offered the patent to Western Union for $100,000 (about $2,000,000 today), and two years later Western Union’s president regretted it saying if he could buy it for $25,000,000 (about $550,000,000 today) it would be a bargain. Bell went on to start what would become American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T).
22. Harsh Consequences Of Racism
The execution of Genghis Khan’s envoy by the Shah of Khwarezm (Persia or modern-day Iran, more or less).
Genghis Khan legitimately wanted to trade with them in order to fund his war with China. Instead, the Shah decides to insult him and take out his representative. This, of course, infuriated the Great Khan, leading to the Mongol invasion of first Khwarezm and then the rest of the Middle East, resulting in the complete destruction of his kingdom and devastation of the entire region: millions of lives lost and the eventual burning of Baghdad, one of the world’s greatest cities and great repositories of knowledge.
This legitimately could have changed the course of world history: at the time, the Islamic world was the richest and best-educated region of the world. They had the largest cities, the best scientists and artists, and were generally tolerant of other cultures (especially in comparison to Europe at the time). All of that was burnt to the ground because one ruler was a jerk who didn’t want to treat with a Mongol.
21. Sea No Evil
The Children’s Crusade was pretty bad. In traditional accounts, a child starts preaching and gathering kids to take back the holy land. A large group of kids get to the sea and are immediately sold into slavery. The historical account is a kid says the sea will part allowing them to march to Jerusalem. He leads his group across the alps where half of them perish. Then gets to the sea and nothing happens. He then marches with the few who still are following him to the Vatican which tells him to go home.
20. Quit Stalin
Stalin ignoring all intel that said the Nazis were planning an invasion. The Soviets knew everything about Operation Barbarossa; they knew the exact date and time, troop numbers and positions, etc. Stalin himself had no less than 84 different sources tell him that Hitler was planning an invasion, and he ignored them all as a plot by Churchill to get him to turn on Hitler. His paranoia cost millions of lives.
19. Sorry To Cut You Off
One of the biggest ones has to be the legendary operation with a 300% mortality by Robert Liston (born 1794):
“Amputated the leg in under 2 1⁄2 minutes (the patient passed away afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene; they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated, in addition, the fingers of his young assistant (who passed away afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). He also slashed through the coattails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he dropped dead from fright. That was the only operation in history with a 300 percent mortality.”
18. Captain Planet Isn’t Pleased
Big shout out to Thomas Midgley. He figured out putting lead into gasoline stopped the engine from making a knocking noise. The emissions from lead have done untold damage to the environment.
Not done there, he later figured out how to synthesize Freon (or CFCs). This made fridges and air conditioners less likely to hurt people if the gas leaked but also kinda destroyed the ozone layer.
It might be possible that Thomas Midgley was the biggest mess up in history. From his Wikipedia page: J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, opines that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
17. Always Drinking About You
While not the biggest, it was still a pretty bad mess up. The Prohibition failed completely to stop people from drinking, and caused tons of injuries because people would drink anything including paint thinner. It also gave rise to massive organized crime and the most famous mobster ever, Al Capone.
16. A Heads Up Would Have Been Nice
The Japanese failed to deliver their declaration of war before the attack on Pearl Harbor. They had hoped the sudden loss of all the Pacific Fleet’s battleships would have been enough of a blow to force a negotiated peace, but the feeling of betrayal instead galvanized Americans like nothing before and saw high school students walking out of class and factory workers walking off the line to go enlist. The U.S. was so incensed the chances of a negotiated peace were gone instantly.
15. History Set Ablaze
In my view, the destruction of both the Library in Alexandria by multiple people and the Library in Baghdad by Genghis Khan, which destroyed invaluable books and manuscripts (before they could be duplicated). Many satyr plays, Sophocles’ works, possibly the recipe for Greek Fire, and more, are now permanently gone because empires are greedy for resources.
14. Say What? Kill Everyone?
It is said that a horrible event which occurred after the coup of Napoleon the 3rd was caused by a cold. Napoleon said, “Ma sacré toux!“—”My wretched cough”—which was misinterpreted by a zealous officer who made the event happen. There were some 1,200 prisoners of war incarcerated by the state, and they were taken out due to the misunderstanding.
13. Confederate Victory Goes Up In Smoke
I would argue for the loss of Special Order 191. That was a general movement order from Robert E. Lee which detailed the planned Maryland Campaign invasion route in 1862. Some schmo Johnny Reb lost it and it was discovered in a bad state by a Union infantryman. Up the chain it goes, and General McClellan races to head off the Confederate invasion of the North at the Battle of Antietam, the messiest battle in American history. This turned back Lee’s invasion of the North, and ended one of the South’s best chances to win the war early, before the North’s industry and manpower advantages could really be brought to bear and before they could straighten out their leadership problems.
12. The Great Divide
As a European (from France) I would say one of our biggest mess-ups was when we divided the Byzantine Empire after our victory in World War I. England and France divided territories to create Iraq, Lybia, Jordan, gave Palestine to England (we know what happened), and Syria.
We often see these places as really unstable, but I think a huge part of this instability was created on this arbitrary separation, and we still suffer the consequences too.
11. Louisiana Saturday Night
The Louisiana Purchase. For 15 million dollars, the united states bought France out of the new world. American politicians thought Thomas Jefferson was crazy for spending that much money on land, but we know today that it was a very worthwhile purchase. France, you messed up on that one.
10. Betcha Can’t Eat Just One
The world being duped by Ancel Benjamin Keys with a doctored study into rejecting healthy fats in trade for trans fats and carbohydrates. The world still struggles with the idea that no study since has ever supported this and most of the world still recommends diets that will actually cause more harm than good.
An honorable mention goes to soda. Pure poison.
9. An Intoxicated Exchange
In 1963, Danish politician Per Hækkerup gave away the majority of the North Sea oil to Norway. He was inebriated during a meeting in Oslo and signed some papers, which gave Norway several trillion dollars. Of course, he was a Socialdemokrat (almost Communist at that time).
8. Turn Back Time
I can’t believe no one has mentioned the Bay of Pigs invasion yet.
During JFK’s presidency, the CIA decided to train Cuban exiles to invade their homeland and overthrow Fidel Castro and establish a Democratic/not-Communist government. Two airstrikes were organized, and in the first, a lot of the people ended up missing their targets, leaving most of Castro’s air force totally unscathed, and so they had to cancel the second air strike, out of failure/humiliation.
When the U.S. did invade at the Bay of Pigs, they didn’t have enough equipment because a lot of it got wet, so poor embarrassed JFK sent some fighter planes to help out.
But instead of the fighter planes and the B-26’s they were supposed to help out meeting up, the B-26s ended up showing up an hour late to the party and ended up being taken down by the Cubans.
The mistake has been attributed to them being confused by the time change between Nicaragua and Cuba.
7. One Fell Swoop
I’m going to say the biggest mistake in history was the Battle of Cannae in the Second Punic War. How big are we talking? This battle is STILL taught in officer schools because it remains the single most effective military maneuver between equally equipped forces of all time.
The Romans decided to engage Hannibal at Cannae with an army of 86,000 troops. Hannibal had 50,000 men with him, and they were in rough shape having been chased down by the entirety of Italy. As a last stand maneuver, Hannibal had his forces meet the Romans in a line formation, but intentionally had the center of that line slowly fall back over the course of the battle.
This resulted in the Romans pushing forward, until they made a “U” shape out of Hannibal’s forces, and then Hannibal’s calvary rushed in and turned that U into an O, trapping the Roman army in its entirety in the center of what turned into a pit of despair.
Hannibal’s forces got rid of almost ALL of the Roman army in that ONE battle all because one Roman general underestimated a man well known to be a military genius while that guy was working on his glorious last stand. This cost Rome SEVERAL city-states, and one-fifth the entire population of Rome’s men at the time.
6. Don’t Go Near The Water
The Salton Sea. In 1900, developers began an irrigation project to divert water from the Colorado River to the Salton Basin. Seemed to work for a while, and the land became very fertile, then in 1905 the Colorado flooded, busted a few dikes, and an immense amount of water flowed into what is now the Salton Sea. It took them two years to finally divert the water back fully into the Colorado.
The flood submerged the town of Salton, and a Southern Pacific rail line, and instantly, California’s largest lake was created.
Now all of the water is quickly evaporating, creating a toxic area and an ecological disaster.
Interestingly enough, a similar thing happened in the USSR to the Aral Sea. The difference there is the rivers feeding what at the time was the 4th largest lake in the world were diverted for irrigation. This wasn’t due to an accident, however, just a decision to irrigate the land in the area for economic development, such as cotton crops. The Aral Sea is now nearly all gone, and the area around it is a wasteland.
5. Take Me Out
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade missed their turn. Because of this mistake, a hundred million people passed away. 100,000,000 people.
When they realized they took the wrong turn, his driver was backing up and got a flat tire. What was unfortunate was that the flat tire happened right outside of a sandwich shop where a group of criminals that had originally failed an assassination attempt on the archduke earlier that day were having lunch. So this guy pops out of the shop, sees the archduke and his wife sitting in the car. Throws something, injuring some folks. Then he gets rid of the archduke. If only they had taken the correct turn, the archduke would have lived, and no WWI.
4. Return Of The Mack
Battle of Ulm. If you don’t know this battle, it’s where Napoleon was fighting General Mack of the Austrian army and the Coalition. Before the armies of the Austrians and Russia teamed up with Britain to stop Napoleon.
The Austrians and French meet near the city of Ulm which is a fortified town that has repealed invaders many times before. The Austrians held Ulm and fortified their positions while Napoleon flanked the army and cut the army off. Mack waited for reinforcements from the Russians, but they were still days away. Why? Because the Russians were using a different calendar than the Europeans, and it put them days behind. No one in the Coalition noticed this error and Mack had to surrender.
3. Elon Musk Of The Second Century BCE
During the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the Greek mathematician Archimedes was taken out by a random Roman soldier after Rome successfully captured the city of Syracuse. It had been a two-year-long siege. There are differing accounts, but it’s something along the lines of the soldier did not know who he was or Archimedes refused an order and the soldier disposed of him.
Archimedes was literally thousands of years ahead of his time. We have only (somewhat) recently learned that Archimedes possessed the ability to solve equations that require the understanding of Calculus. (See Archimedes Palimpsest). While this is only speculative, imagine what kind of technology and understanding we would have if modern mathematics/physics was widely known in the second century BCE. The advanced tech we might have today. The cultural changes. Who knows.
Another mess-up that’s directly related to this – the Archimedes Palimpsest was wiped and written over by 13th-century monks so that they could write a Christian religious text on the paper. Evidently paper was in short supply.
2. Season Of The Witch
One of them arguably was the Spanish Inquisition and the surrounding “witch” hunts.
Before Western Europe was Christian, there was an ancient culture there with a wealth of knowledge of medicinal and mind-altering plants, and of nature in general. Most of this knowledge was kept by women, who were deemed as a threat to the church and burned them as witches. Along with them, centuries of knowledge of plants and medicines were lost, along with a unique cultural perspective.
1. Blunder Of Gettysburg
Longstreet getting lost on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He was supposed to make his way to the far right and press from the right at the same time a coordinated effort was being made against the other flank so that coordinated fire and reinforcements could not be brought.
He had a strong force being pushed against a weak position held by Dan Sickles Brigade in the Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, and Devils Den. He could have rolled them up had he arrived on time, and turned the flank.
This may have caused a rolling collapse in the line, as Union Reinforcements were still moving their way in and a coordinated attack would have prevented them from properly reinforcing.
A loss at Gettysburg for the Union would have been disastrous and would likely have led to the Sacking of Harrisburg, and the pilfering of Camp Curtin which would have given the Confederate Army substantial supplies and weaponry.