On the morning of January 28th, 1986, NASA moved ahead to launch the tenth flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger even though there had been concerns about its rubber O-rings. The Shuttle broke apart just 73 seconds after liftoff, claiming the lives of all seven astronauts aboard, including Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher who had been selected to join the mission and teach lessons from space.
The aftermath of the tragedy prompted NASA to suspend all its shuttle missions temporarily.
It was a major fault, but it is not the only big mistake in history.
The Austrian army attacked itself and killed 10,000 of its own men in 1788.
If there is anything that history teaches us, it is that mistakes have to be made; big ones, sometimes. Since time immemorial, there have been major screw ups that have been left in the minds of people for decades and centuries. These mistakes have been executed in the military, in space exploration, by governments, by individuals, and by large organizations.
Some of them have remained in the history books because they were so devastating and amounted to billions in damages. The meltdown at Chernobyl, for example, led to a total of around $720 billion in losses. That is the type of loss that you don’t forget easily.
We all make mistakes, and they are so ingrained in us that they somehow form part of being a human being. But some mistakes are much bigger than others and may continue affecting us for years. These errors have been caused by pure stupidity, miscalculations, bad luck, and sometimes incompetence.
In fact, almost every decade, a new form of screw-up emerges and changes the course of history. Some of the organizations and individuals who committed these faults still exist. They are a reminder that rising and falling is part of life.
Here are some of the biggest mistakes in history:
20. CAPTAIN EDWARD SMITH CRASHES THE TITANIC INTO AN ICEBERG
The Titanic, which was known as the unsinkable ship, sank just four days into its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, in 1912. In the catastrophe, which led to a loss of $7.5 million, it is believed that the crew ignored warnings of icebergs along their path and went on to hit the ice. The result: the death of 1,517 humans after the right side of the Titanic is scraped an iceberg and she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
There are controversies that surround how the ship sank and why so many people lost their lives, but it is mostly believed that it was out of ignorance coupled with other obvious mistakes.
For example, it is believed that the ship was moving fast because Edward J. Smith wanted to beat the crossing time of Titanic’s older sibling, the Olympic. If this is true, it was Smith’s mistake because he was moving fast in an area known to have ice. In fact, the Titanic received several warnings about ice, but the warnings were not taken seriously.
The tragedy was made worse by the fact that Titanic had few lifeboats. The available boats could only accommodate some 1,200 passengers, yet there were more than 2,200 humans on the vessel.
19. BLOCKBUSTER MISSES AN OPPORTUNITY TO OWN NETFLIX
It’s hard to imagine that back in the day people used to line up at rental stores to get movies.
Blockbuster went bankrupt after the emergence of online video streaming services like Redbox, Hulu, and Netflix. But back in 2000, Netflix had made a proposal to Blockbuster by asking the rental store to partner with it.
Reed Hastings, the then Netflix CEO, approached John Antioco, Blockbuster CEO, and asked if he could sell him Netflix for $50 million. The idea was that Netflix would manage Blockbuster’s brand online while Blockbuster would promote Netflix in physical stores.
But Blockbuster felt the merger was not going to be beneficial. Ironically, Blockbuster later went bankrupt after Netflix acquired a bigger share of the market.
Just recently, Netflix reached 50 million subscribers, and its services became available in 40 countries. Antioco may have been tough, but he lacked the vision to see where the home video industry was headed.
18. THE DESTRUCTION OF ALEXANDRIA LIBRARY
The great library of Alexandria was born in 283 BCE. For years, scholars and librarians filled it with thousands of scrolls. The library was frequented by academics from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, some of whom came to give their lectures and to seek knowledge from its several texts. It was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.
Unlike most private libraries, the library of Alexandria was open to whoever could prove he or she was a worthy scholar. The Alexandria library was more democratic than most learning institutions.
But hundreds of years after its establishment, the world was shocked to learn that Julius Caesar burned it down in an attack. Though the historical accuracy of this claim is controversial, there is a consensus that the library was burned and many scrolls and books were destroyed. Its destruction became a symbol of the destruction of knowledge and culture.
The destruction of the library is considered an ‘international catastrophe’ because it was considered the greatest archive of knowledge. In fact, its destruction has been lamented for years. At one time, it is believed that the library held over 500,000 documents from India, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, and Greece among many other nations.
Stories about the demise of this library have been circulating for centuries, but what became evident is that the world had lost a gem.
17. GRADE-SCHOOL MATH ERROR LEADS TO THE DISAPPEARANCE OF A MARS ORBITER
In 1999, a simple math error led to the vanishing of a Mars orbiter that cost NASA $125 million. The craft had been designed for NASA by Lockheed Martin but got lost in space because the NASA team used metric measurements while Lockheed used English measurements. This inconsistency led to a mismatch that caused the craft to malfunction and get lost in space. The two different measurement systems made it impossible for the craft’s navigation coordinates to be sent from a team in Denver to another team in California.
The Orbiter had been launched as part of the Mars Surveyor ’98 program.
16. NAPOLEON’S INVASION OF RUSSIA
On June 24, 1812, Napoleon, with an army of 600,000 men, invaded Russia with a plan to end the war within twenty days by engaging the Russians in a fierce battle. He had prepared wagons that would carry 30 days worth of food, and he thought the road network in Russia would support his strategy.
However, he discovered that the terrain was ‘uncooperative,’ and he had to move along a narrow front. Even though he had an ample supply of food, he expected his army to forage along the way. But he also discovered, in addition to the poor roads, the agricultural base was unsupportive.
The first troops were able to get the best food, but as more troops passed through the same area, there was less to be consumed. And the Russians made things difficult by using a scorched earth policy as they retreated. As time went by, the soldiers became weaker, and they had to move further from the roads to search for food. The horses were also starving.
Napoleon’s warfare method meant he had to move his men, as fast as possible, to where they were needed the most. Therefore, he had to move his army over long distances and bring them together only when it was necessary.
By the time he arrived in Moscow, over 200,000 of his soldiers were either hospitalized or dead. In Moscow, he discovered that most people had been evacuated and winter was in full swing.
He began retreating, but his supplies were running out fast. There was so much starvation that the soldiers resorted to killing horses for food, making it impossible to transport artillery and other supplies. At certain times, the troops became indisciplined and rioted uncontrollably.
15. FOUR PESTS CAMPAIGN
The four pests that needed to be eliminated were sparrows, rats, mosquitoes and flies. Mao Zedong had initiated the hygiene campaign because he saw a need to exterminate these pests. The action was part of the Great Leap Forward that was trying to change Agricultural farming in China.
Sparrows (mostly the Eurasian tree sparrow) were notorious for eating grains and needed to be exterminated. The citizens did everything they could to end the menace: tearing down sparrow nests, shooting them down from the sky, clanging pots and pans or beating drums to scare them until they fell from the sky out of exhaustion. The result was a near-extinction of sparrows in China.
By April 1960, the citizens realized that the rice yields were substantially reducing instead of increasing. This was largely because the birds had been eating the insects, which now descended on the grains uninhibited. Mao put an end to the campaign and replaced sparrows with bed bugs. But it was too late; with no sparrows in sight, the locust population became uncontrollable and worsened the ecological problems. In fact, things got out of control to an extent where the Chinese government started importing sparrows.
The high population of insects, in addition to the misuse of poisons and the effects of widespread deforestation, were significant contributors to the Great Chinese Famine that took place between 1958-1961. During the time, it is estimated that some 30 million people lost their lives due to starvation. The numbers vary with some claiming that the death toll may have reached 45 or 78 million.
14. FAULTY EQUIPMENT CAUSES THE CHALLENGER TO EXPLODE
The Challenger, a NASA space shuttle, blew up on the morning of January 28th, 1986, just 73 seconds after its launch. Sadly, all the seven crew members on board succumbed in the explosion that translated into a loss of $5.5 billion.
Critics and space enthusiasts blamed NASA for the faulty design. Apparently, the O-rings between the segments of the SRB’s (Solid Rocket Booster’s) were known to leak under some circumstances, and this information had been available from the beginning of the Shuttle program. The leaking would cause the O-rings to erode, and this resulted in poor sealing. The result was that combustion gases would escape and that was extremely dangerous.
Engineers (both from Marshall Center and those working for Morton Thiokol) had predicted the problem, but their concerns had not been taken seriously. Neither NASA nor Thiokol thought about the severity of the problem, and they were not willing to ground the Shuttle fleet.
In later years, the O-ring problem became more evident but continued to be ignored since it had not caused any disaster. The tragedy became a reality because the O-rings would particularly be affected by extreme temperatures.
More concerns were raised by Thiokol’s engineers, but NASA applied intense pressure and the Thiokol management caved.
The Challenger was ultimately destroyed by the SRB’s O-ring seal.
The disaster changed the Space Shuttle program forever. It paralyzed space programs and triggered years of investigations and studies.
13. THE BATTLE OF KARÁNSEBES, 1788
The Austrian army, consisting of approximately 100,000 soldiers, was setting up camp around Karánsebes. The leading units of the army crossed the Timis River to check if the Ottoman Turks were present. They found that the Turks were not there, but they ran into a group of Tzigani merchants who offered to sell them schnapps, a type of strong liquor.
The troopers bought the schnapps and immediately started drinking. As they were merry-making, an infantry came and also demanded the alcohol, but the first group declined, and an argument ensued. Things took a dangerous turn when one soldier fired causing the two groups to engage in a fierce battle.
The commotion led to more confusion, and the original group fled the scene thinking that the Ottoman army was about to attack. Other members from the infantry also left the scene. The infantry was mostly made up of Italians, Austrians, and Croats, most of whom would not understand each other.
As the first group made its way through the camp, a commander thought the Ottoman army had attacked and ordered artillery fire. The commotion woke up everyone as the sound of battle dominated the camp.
Those who had been woken were made to believe that the Ottoman had attacked while in reality, they were dealing with their fellow Austrian soldiers. There was more gunfire and the confusion escalated to a point where the entire army retreated.
The incident, which took place on 17 September, 1788, led to the death and wounding of 10,000 Austrian soldiers, a weakness that made it easier for the Ottoman army to acquire Karánsebes when they arrived two days later.
12. EXCITE MISSES A CHANCE TO ACQUIRE GOOGLE FOR LESS THAN $1 MILLION
Around 1999, Excite ranked No. 2 among search engines while Google was still struggling to establish its presence. During the time, Larry Page made an offer to Excite to buy Google for $750,000 but demanded that Excite would replace its technology with Google’s. This may have been the reason Excite declined the offer.
Back then, Excite was a bigger force in the online world while Google was lurking in the shadows. But Excite passed on a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire one of the companies that would soon define the future of the internet.
Excite had recording remarkable results and it even merged with several other brands. But around 2001, the company started to record a decline. In March of 2004, Excite was bought by Ask Jeeves (now ASK.COM).
Initially, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had offered to sell Google for more, but they reduced the amount to $750,000 after George Bell, the then Excite CEO, declined the first offer. But Bell was still not interested.
After being rejected, Google underwent multiple rounds of funding and continued to refine its search engine, managing to go public in 2004 with a share costing $85.
Google’s shares have continued to increase in price over the years, and today the company records more than $50 billion yearly. Today, it is among the top businesses in the world, racking up millions of dollars every month.
11. KODAK DELAYS TO INVEST IN DIGITAL CAMERA TECHNOLOGY
Kodak failed after the emergence of the digital camera, but the company could have saved itself had it chosen to adapt to the changing technologies. Instead, Kodak held on to its old business model until it was too late.
Kodak had filed for a patent for one of the first digital cameras back in 1977. However, the company was racking up profits from films and hesitated to introduce the technology to the people at the time.
Kodak continued paying attention to the traditional film cameras even though it became apparent that the market was moving into a digital era. When it eventually realized that it was time to change strategy, it was already too late, and the company had already started incurring massive losses. This was largely because it was trying to compete with businesses that had been producing digital for years.
It was a sad failure considering Kodak had stumbled on the technology earlier. Kodak was aware that digital photography had the potential of replacing its established film business, but the company was reluctant because it still had roughly ten years to prepare for the transition.
10. A CONTROLLED BURN GETS UNCONTROLLABLE AND RAZES 48,000 ACRES IN NEW MEXICO
This happened in May of 2000 after a controlled burn got out of control in New Mexico and razed 48,000 acres. The Cerro Grande Fire had been started to mitigate the wildfire risk at Bandelier National Monument. However, the fire spread and became unmanageable leading to the burning down of thousands of acres, including the homes of 400 Los Alamos families. The damages from the fire totaled $1 billion, which the federal government was forced to pay out.
The intention of the fire was to preserve the monument, but the high winds and the drought conditions made it easier for the fire to spread and the flames burned for more than a month.
The Cerro Grande Fire may have further been propagated by a policy on logging and overgrazing that left the forest with thousands of trees and a thick layer of dropped pine needles, which was ready ‘fuel’ just waiting for wind and fire.
The residents had also failed on their part: they had not removed pine needle from their yards and had not kept vegetation away from their structures. They also lacked fire-resistant roofing.
9. RUSSIA SELLING ALASKA TO THE U.S. THINKING IT WAS A USELESS WASTELAND
Around the late 19th century, Russian Emperor Tsar Alexander II did not see the value of Alaska, mostly because it was covered with ice. The Tsar became fearful that the land would forcefully be taken over by the United States and so he decided to sell it for just $7.2 million on March 30, 1867. Russia did not gain much from the sale since the value of the ruble and the dollar were almost the same. In reality, the country had lost plenty of natural resources worth billions of dollars. But at the time, the deal was considered a great achievement of diplomacy.
The Russians had stumbled upon Alaska when they were exploring the northwestern coast of North America around the first half of the 17th century. They then owned the region for the next 126 years. It would be entirely wrong to claim Alaska was fully owned by the Russian Empire because it was actually the property of a transnational corporation.
Looking back, it may be difficult to understand how the Russians decided to sell 1.7 million square kilometers of land. In addition, the fact that the transaction could not have had any substantial effect on Russia’s coffers makes it look ludicrous.
8. FAULTY EQUIPMENT CAUSES NUCLEAR MELTDOWN AT CHERNOBYL
This is the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause deaths resulting from radiation. The disaster happened in the early morning of April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and resulted from a faulty reactor design coupled with human error.
Twenty-eight reactor staff and emergency workers perished from the radiation and thermal burns. Researchers also believe the accident was responsible for almost 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer among those who were under 18 years old at the time.
The accident may have been caused after operators went against the technical specifications. The workers had decided to run the plant using very low power without taking the necessary safety precautions and without informing the safety personnel.
The four Chernobyl reactors were pressurized water reactors that were highly unstable at low power. This was mainly because of a number of reasons which accelerated nuclear chain reaction and power output.
After the explosion, the fire burned for ten days releasing an enormous amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The radioactive material managed to escape to the environment because the Chernobyl plant lacked massive containment structure that is present in most nuclear plants today.
A total of 31 people died due to the accident while more than 200 others continued to suffer from acute radiation sickness. Some 135,000 persons had to be evacuated from the area after the incident.
7. AN ELDERLY MAN THROWS OUT A LOTTERY TICKET WORTH MILLIONS
An anonymous woman who used to play the lottery in England had picked the correct numbers to win EuroMillions, but her husband had thrown away the ticket. The woman had been writing her numbers on a separate sheet of paper before giving the tickets to her hubby.
The old lady only realized later that her numbers matched those that had been given. In fact, she only discovered her win after the ticket remained unclaimed for more than a week, but when she checked her notepad, she couldn’t believe; she was the winner.
Sadly, she could not trace the original ticket because it had been dumped by her hubby. According to the lady, she had given the ticket to her husband for safe-keeping before the EuroMillions draw.
She was shocked when she realized that she had the winning numbers, but when she asked her husband for the ticket, he confirmed that he had thrown it away. She had to ransack the house but could not find the original ticket. She even admitted that her husband was prone to losing everything she gave to him.
6. A MISLEADING STUDY CONVINCES PARENTS THAT VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM
Vaccination rates declined significantly when the world was made to believe that vaccines caused autism, all thanks to the findings of a discredited British study that made this unreasonable claim.
The mastermind behind this falsehood was Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a medical researcher, and a British surgeon. He went ahead to publish the study in The Lancet in 1998 claiming he had found a connection between autism and vaccines. Wakefield had managed to convince a huge population that childhood vaccines such as rubella, mumps, and measles shots would cause autism.
Once the study was published, it spread very fast, instilling fear in medical practitioners and parents. But after a 10-year-long investigation disentangling Wakefield’s research, experts discovered that there was no relationship between vaccines and autism.
Due to the paper’s scientific limitations, it was retracted in 2010. Researchers had even gone ahead to carry out studies with 500 children, but they did not find any connection. More findings trickled in, and all of them opposed Wakefield’s findings.
Sadly, the memories of the study remained with the world because today one out of four parents have been made to believe that vaccines cause autism. This has led to a steady decline in vaccinations.
The study had done a long-lasting damage to public health.
5. 20TH CENTURY FOX ALLOWS GEORGE LUCAS TO KEEP THE MERCHANDISING AND LICENSING RIGHTS TO STAR WARS
20th Century Fox made a terrible decision in 1977 when it sold the merchandising rights to the Star Wars franchise. Even though 20th Century may have argued that it was impossible to predict how Star Wars would transform, it was still an egregious error. In fact, the corporation had not only given out the rights to the first Star Wars film but also to its sequels.
After George Lucas’s success with American Graffiti, 20th Century offered him a modest fee to write and direct Star Wars, but Lucas managed to negotiate to his advantage. He wanted to secure the production of Star Wars sequels as well as have ownership of the merchandising and licensing rights to the film’s franchise.
20th Century was not bothered about the merchandising of the movie, probably because their last attempt to make money this way had failed terribly. But it seems Lucas had put considerable thought into his plan.
It did not take long before Star Wars became the highest-grossing film in history, a title that it held until 1982. With its success, Star Wars merchandise brought in massive profits. For example, since 1977, toy licensing alone has recorded a revenue of about $12 billion. Star Wars has been able to make more money from its merchandise than even the film itself.
This is how George Lucas turned into a wealthy man. Hollywood had expected Star Wars to be a huge flop, but the film ended up being one of the most financially successful films of all time.
4. RON WAYNE SELLS HIS APPLE SHARES FOR $800
Ron was one of the original founders of Apple back in 1976. At 42 years old, Ron provided the much-needed supervision to his other colleagues Steve Wozniak (25) and Steve Jobs (21). He was responsible for drawing the first Apple logo and also wrote the original partnership agreement. He also wrote the Apple 1 computer user’s manual. However, Ron’s name is rarely mentioned when Apple surfaces in conversations.
Ron revealed that he could not stand Jobs and considered him socially awkward and manipulative. He later admitted that he suspected Wozniak’s idea for a personal computer would become successful, but he did not anticipate what Apple has become today.
Ron’s role was mostly to be an intermediary between Jobs and Wozniak, but he decided to leave Apple after he could not stomach the fact that Jobs had spent over $1500 on parts for a product. Wozniak and Jobs invited him back to rejoin them after a few years, but Ron’s decision was final: he had left Apple for good. Ron felt like Jobs was a quarrelsome man who would easily lose his temper.
3. DRIVER MAKES A WRONG TURN THAT ENDS FRANZ FERDINAND’S LIFE
Historians believe that the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, started World War I. The couple had visited Sarajevo but little did they know that Serb terrorists were waiting for them. The terrorists were seeking to revenge Austria’s annexation of Bosnia.
At first, the couple escaped unharmed when a hand grenade was thrown at their car. Ferdinand only complained about the situation before deciding to head to the hospital to visit those who had been wounded. But this was going to be the start of trouble.
Initially, 19-year-old assassin Gavrilo Princip had tried to kill Ferdinand that same day, but his plan did not go as expected. He aborted the mission and headed to a café to have a sandwich. But little did he know that Ferdinand was going to cross his path.
Leopold Lojka, Ferdinand’s driver, took the wrong turn into Josef Street and drove right in front of Princip. He had committed a significant error because he was not supposed to use Josef Street.
Lojka immediately slammed the brakes when he realized he had made an error, but his action caused the car to malfunction. Since everyone in the car was now a defenseless victim, Princip seized the opportunity and opened fire killing Ferdinand. Sophie was also caught in the crossfire when she tried to cover Ferdinand with her body.
After the shootings, things started to heat up. For example, Germany assured an angered Austria that it was going to support her crisis.
The shooting took place on the morning of 28 June, 1914, in Sarajevo, and triggered a series of events that led to the start of World War I, which saw some 16 million people losing their lives.
World War I led to severe economic problems and brought about the Great Depression.
2. YAHOO MISSES AN OPPORTUNITY TO BUY GOOGLE AND FACEBOOK
Without a doubt, Google and Facebook are among some of the top companies today. But a few years back, they would have been acquired by a former web giant, Yahoo.
This was back in the summer of 2002, just two years before internet search giant, Google, went public. When the then Yahoo CEO, Terry Semel, sat together with other officials, he thought $5 billion was too high, yet Google’s revenue was at $240 million a year while Yahoo made $837 million yearly. Semel wanted to offer $3 billion.
After having discussions with the relevant parties, Semel thought it was not right to spend that much money on a search engine yet Yahoo had a back plan to buy another top-notch search engine.
But Semel’s decision was going to be regretted later.
Today, Google controls around 70% of the search-related advertising market. Google has grown to be a vibrant company while Yahoo has dwindled over the years. Google’s algorithm had nailed web searching, and Yahoo had the opportunity to own this formula. But Yahoo thought they’d dominate the web forever. According to David A Vise’s The Google Story, Yahoo did not want to lose traffic to other sites that came in search results. The firm wanted internet users to spend more time on their web page.
This was not the only time Yahoo blew its chance for excellence. It also had an opportunity to acquire the social-networking darling Facebook, but it still failed. Instead, Yahoo was interested in the acquisition of YouTube, which was quickly bought by Google. By 2006, it became apparent that Facebook was going to be around for a long time, but when Facebook went to Yahoo to sell the company, the two failed to reach an agreement.
1. THE MERGER BETWEEN MERCEDES-BENZ AND CHRYSLER
The merger between Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler happened in 1998 at the cost of $37 billion and gave birth to Daimler Chrysler. However, the merger did not go as planned and by 2007, Mercedes had to sell Chrysler.
The partnership was considered one of the biggest mergers between corporations, but it had its own challenges. First, there were cultural differences between the Germans and Americans. Second, Daimler had been concentrating on luxury brands and high-end customers and did not understand why Chrysler was concerned about price.
Daimler had to break its parts-sharing agreement because it became worried about sharing Mercedes components. At the time, Chrysler was already experiencing the U.S. auto crisis. Shareholders became concerned, and Daimler had to get Chrysler off its hands with a payment of $650 million in 2007.
The merger has been blamed as a mistake by Daimler’s CEO, Dieter Zetsche. The reality is that both companies could not achieve global integration because their brands clashed.
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