1. The Alaska Purchase was a huge waste of money
Some members sarcastically referred to Alaska as then-president Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”
Considering the times and how little was known about the area, it also wasn’t surprising that the purchase came under intense scrutiny from the press. Even after the U.S. officially took control of Alaska and offered American citizenship to the few Russians who were living there, almost all politely declined the offer and moved back to Russia instead.
Russia’s Emperor Alexander II had been trying for years to tempt the United States with the purchase of Alaska’s 375 million acres, in part to pay off some hefty debt his country had accumulated as a result of the Crimean War (fought between 1853-1856).
Russia’s minister to the United States, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, was instructed to get the talks back on track again when the start of the American Civil War sidelined everything in 1861.
Although economist David Barker infamously made the argument the deal was a bust for the United States, others counter that with the millions of barrels of oil that Alaska has provided over the decades America definitely came out on top.
2. We seriously thought aliens were living on Mars
In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he was making a meaningful scientific observation about Mars, and with it he offered a detailed hand-drawn map as proof of his claim. Schiaparelli’s hypothesis? Mars’ surface was covered with naturally-formed channels.
Groundbreaking at the time, yes, but also a statement that was translated into English incorrectly. The Italian word for channels, canali, was incorrectly translated to read “canals.”
Channels, canals – same difference, right? For American astronomer Percival Lowell, the answer to that question was a definite, “No!” Lowell took the canals concept and Schiaparelli’s drawing as all the proof he needed that there was some kind of life form on Mars had to have dug them.
In 1894, he opened the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, where he had an impressive telescope installed so that he might get a better look at the Martians’ handiwork.
Lowell then went on a 22-year-long Mars observational binge that eventually saw him publishing 400 pages worth of his now-debunked conclusions and theories in 1906.
To be fair to both Lowell and Schiaparelli (both of whom were wrong in their assessments of the Red Planet, by the way), their telescopes were extremely primitive compared to today’s technology. But the translation guffaw? That’s a mistake that someone could’ve avoided and saved some people a lot of time.
3. Titanic’s binocular boo-boo
If you’re looking out for icebergs that could potentially spell disaster for the ocean liner you’re a crew member of, you would think that a pair of binoculars would be standard issue.
In the case of the RMS Titanic, we all know how that story ended.
On April 15, 1912, only four days into its maiden voyage, the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. 832 passengers and 685 (or 76%) of Titanic’s crew were lost at sea that horrific night. For over 100 years the point has been made and argued: how does an iceberg catch you by surprise?
For Titanic, it comes down to a single key, removed from the ship by its Second Officer, David Blair. Exact details are limited as to how this came to occur, but this much is known: a few days before Titanic’s fateful voyage, White Star Lines made some major changes in the upper ranks of Titanic’s crew.
As a result, Blair was bumped from the ship’s command chain and was quickly sent packing.
In the ensuing rush, Blair left with the keys to the crow’s nest locker which contained all of Titanic’s binoculars.
4. The wrong turn that started a war
It seems as though on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand could not avoid deadly misfortune. The next in line for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on that particular day Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were touring the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in a motorcade. It was a bold move on the part of the Archduke, who was in the region to inspect his troops.
Serbian nationalists were infuriated with the annexation of the Balkans by Austria-Hungary in 1908, and Ferdinand was an easy target being chauffeured slowly through the streets in a convertible with almost no security.
It was during that tour that Ferdinand and Sophie had a close call that used up their luck for the day; a follower of the nationalist Black Hand Gang, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, tossed a bomb at their car.
The bomb missed the couple but bounced into the street, wounding an officer and several bystanders as a result.
While en route to a hospital later that day to visit those injured in the blast, Ferdinand’s procession took the wrong turn that helped change history.
The couple’s driver steered directly into the eye line of another armed Black Hand Gang member, Gavrilo Princip, who unloaded several rounds into the car, killing both Ferdinand and his wife.
The assassination led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, and European powers soon began picking sides, forming the alliances that would fight together through World War One.
5. “Tear down this wall!”
History has embraced the moment in 1987 when U.S. president Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev take a positive step towards healing the strained relationship between Russia and Western nations by removing the Berlin Wall.
As a long-standing concrete symbol of the Cold War, the Wall’s presence would eventually claim the lives of 171 people who attempted to scale it during the 30 years it divided East and West Germany.
On November 9, 1989, everything changed. Was that the plan when East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski was handed a speech to read during a live international press conference announcing minor adjustments to East Germany’s oppressive travel restrictions? Absolutely not. Schabowski fumbled his way through the speech, having never read it prior to having a camera pointed at him.
Mixed into an almost incoherent blurb about East Germans potentially being allowed limited permission to travel abroad was the line, “possible for every citizen.
” More babbling, and then the icing on the cake that every news outlet in the world and every citizen in Germany jumped onto: “right away, immediately.” The overall context of the announcement was lost in the mumbled words, and what was heard was taken as the wall was officially open.
6. The birthday party that lost Normandy
Troops in the water during the Battle of Normandy.
When reading history textbooks, it’s not uncommon to see very fleeting mentions of German general and military tactician Erwin Rommel when the topic turns to D-Day and the Allied attacks on the beaches of Normandy.
The Allied upper command viewed Rommel as the elite of Germany’s war effort, but from the Axis side of things the reviews were a little less glowing. Rommel, they felt, wasn’t a “big picture” commander. The “Desert Fox” had an impressive list of victories to his name, but the logistics and strategy of battle were never his strong point.
Troops in the water at Normandy.
Which might be why, when hundreds of thousands of Allied troops began storming Normandy on June 6, 1944, Rommel was conspicuously absent. D-Day was initially intended to take place on June 5, but poor weather forced the Allies to postpone their plans. At the time, the Allies were ahead of the German forces when it came to forecasting the weather.
In this case, Rommel and his team of commanders were told the weather would not be clearing for a few days, which led Rommel to make the decision that had an enormous impact on the outcome of the invasion.
He left, choosing to surprise his wife on her birthday back in Germany. Although notified of the Allied assault by phone the morning of the 6th, it still took Rommel hours to get back to his post, at which point he walked into a deadly situation that was beyond repair for the Axis forces.
7. One word became a death sentence for Hiroshima
On July 26, 1945, the United States, Great Britain and China served Japan with a document outlining their very specifically worded terms for the Japanese surrender which would then bring an end to World War Two.
Called the Potsdam Declaration, it demanded that Japanese forces lay down their arms immediately and a “responsible government” be put in place.
In exchange, Japan would avoid being “enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation.” If the Japanese refused, the Potsdam Declaration promised “prompt and utter destruction.”
When later questioned by Japanese reporters about whether Japan would agree to the terms, the country’s prime minister, Suzuki Kantarō, replied with a statement that used the word ‘mokusatsu.
‘ It is still a source of debate as to whether Kantarō was merely trying to say, “no comment” – one English version of the word, or if he really meant what the international press and the United States interpreted it as: “treat with silent contempt.”
Highly annoyed with the perceived slight of their offer to allow Japan to diplomatically conclude the war, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
8. Joseph Stalin’s death wish
At the time of his passing on March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin was a train wreck of a human being. As leader of the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953, he ruled the country as a tyrannical dictator who favored executing anyone who opposed him.
Under his rule, the Soviet Union was pushed into industrialization in an attempt to separate itself from its peasant background and compete with, and then surpass, Capitalist nations in the global economy.
One piece of Stalin’s deadly legacy saw him forcibly taking control of Russian agriculture, shooting or exiling millions of farmer who dared to stand up against the policy.
When you rule through fear and destruction, it’s understandable that people do their best to avoid you. According to Stalin’s 11-page autopsy report, he died of suffocation caused by a stroke. Although different theories continue to circulate as to whether this was the actual case (some think the man was poisoned), what is known is that after yet another night of heavy drinking Stalin went to bed, closing his bedroom door behind him.
Never one to be too chatty with his staff (all of whom were petrified of him), Stalin’s guards were concerned for their leader’s well-being but were too afraid to check on him for fear of the possible punishment for waking him.
9. Know your time zones before you invade
The United States’ 1961 plan to drop a mercenary force made up of 1400 exiled Cubans onto the shores of their homeland failed because they forgot about time zones.The United States’ 1961 plan to drop a mercenary force made up of 1400 exiled Cubans onto the shores of their homeland was one that never really stood a chance.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the U.S. upper brass began to get the cold sweats over the new Cuban leader’s relationship with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev.
A CIA plan hatched during the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower was handed over to John F. Kennedy’s people two month’s into the new president’s term, and at the time it did make sense – sort of.
Covertly send in the armed exiles, gain the support of the Cubans who opposed Castro’s communist regime and maybe win over segments of Cuba’s military along the way. The major flaw in this particular multi-step plan?
For it to be a success, everything the CIA assumed would happen had to happen. Which of course, it didn’t.
Amongst the many mistakes committed during the Bay of Pigs invasion was the deadly icing on the cake of U.S. support aircraft arriving at the incorrect time due to an oversight about the one hour time zone difference from the planes’ departure point in Nicaragua to their arrival in Cuban airspace.
In the meantime, Castro had an army numbering around 20,000 men securing the ground and immobilizing the CIA-trained strike force. Estimates put the exiled Cuban death toll around 100, with over 1,200 captured. Those held prisoner by Cuba were finally freed after nearly two years, thanks to a deal that saw $53 million worth of medicinal supplies and baby food being sent to Cuba.
10. NASA’s $125 million miscalculation
Mars has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately, in part because it’s a planet a few folks with deep pockets think we should be trying to colonize.
Mars has been a destination point that has been on the radar for decades, though, and the red planet ranks behind only our moon for having the most attempted missions sent its way. Of those attempts, half have failed. And of those half, one was due to a mistake a grade schooler could have caught.
On December 11, 1998, the Mars Climate Orbiter was launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral powered by a Delta II rocket.
It was scheduled to start orbiting Mars nine months later, which the $125 million craft almost did. Put a heavy emphasis on the “almost” portion of that statement. On September 23 of that year, the MCO was approaching Mars and preparing to fall into the planet’s orbit when it vanished.
In a world of exploration where threading the proverbial needle is often a necessity, a miscalculation between measurement units caused the MCO to hit Mars’ atmosphere, burning to a crisp instantly.
It was later discovered that two separate pieces of software responsible for the orbiter’s thrusters were the culprit – one programmed with the imperial measurement unit of pounds, the other with the metric unit of newtons.
It was an undiagnosed issue that plagued the mission from the time of launch, with constant course readjustments needing to be made. When push finally came to shove, this mathematical misstep proved to be a costly mistake.
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