We all make mistakes – that’s simply a fact of life and part of being human. Mistakes come in many forms, sometimes they’re something as mundane as messing up at work. Politicians, celebrities, and businesses are in the news for making terrible errors, from illicit sexual affairs to preventable oil spills. But sometimes grand blunders on a massive scale can affect the fate of whole countries, the outcome of wars, or even change the entire course of human history. Some mistakes are so great that we can only guess how the world would have turned out differently were it not for a few select choices. The Chernobyl disaster and the sinking of the RMS Titanic come to mind as some of the most disastrous human errors, as well as losing the Mars probe and pretty much anyone who has engaged in a land war against Russia. Some blunders, oversights, and miscalculations still affect our everyday lives; Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver taking a wrong turn, resulting in his assassination, is estimated to have cost tens of millions of lives.
Any history buff knows there are just as many stories about colossal screw-ups as there are about great victories. As the old expression goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and some decisions are so bad and have such long-lasting and monumental historical consequences that the world will never forget them years, decades, centuries or even millennia later.
These are the 16 biggest and most embarrassing mistakes ever made in human history, ranked in relative order.
16. Mars Orbiter
NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter was launched in December 1998 to study the Martian climate, including its atmosphere and surface changes. But on September 23, 1999, communication with the spacecraft was lost and it passed through the upper atmosphere of the planet, disintegrating completely. At first, the loss of the Mars probe was a mystery, but subsequent investigations revealed that the primary cause of the error was one piece of ground-based software supplied to NASA by Lockheed Martin.
Basically, what happened is that the Lockheed software produced results in the measurements used by the United States, while a second system supplied by NASA expected them to be in the metric system. The software calculated the probe’s trajectory in pounds-seconds rather than Newton-seconds, bringing it too close to the planet. To make this very expensive blunder even worse, the discrepancy between calculated and measured position had been noticed earlier by at least two navigators. You guessed it – their concerns were dismissed. NASA was out $125 million.
15. Leaning Tower of Pisa
It took 177 years to build the freestanding bell tower of the Cathedral in the Italian city of Pisa, which was originally just called the Tower of Pisa. It only took 10 years for it to start tilting, and now it’s more famous as the Leaning Tower of Pisa than being a beautiful white marble tower from the 1100s. Construction on the enormous project began in 1173 but began to tilt after its second floor was started in 1178, less than a decade later. The design was flawed from the beginning, being based on a tiny three-metre foundation set in unstable soil which couldn’t support the structure’s weight. Construction was halted for almost a century.
The mistake would be enduring: the tower’s infamous lean increased in the decades afterward, and experts say it certainly would have toppled if construction hadn’t been halted, allowing the soil to settle. The tower was finally stabilized after extensive (and expensive) renovations from 1990 to 2001, and the tower has now stopped moving for the first time in its history, with the tilt even being partially corrected.
14. Decca Records Turning Down the Beatles
It was New Year’s Day, 1962. The label Decca Records were looking to sign an up-and-coming young band, and they had two auditions that fateful day at their studios in London. Eventually, they decided that one of the two groups wasn’t sellable, choosing to sign Brian Poole and the Tremeloes in what is considered to be perhaps the greatest mistake in the history of the music industry. The band they rejected was a small four-member band from Liverpool known as The Beatles.
Many people have speculated on who made the final decision to reject The Beatles. Not long after, the band signed with EMI and would go on to achieve international stardom. The legendary blunder isn’t made better by the fact that the session was recorded (and now on YouTube), and Decca’s rejection contained phrases like, “guitar groups are on their way out,” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
13. Twelve Publishers Rejecting Harry Potter
In 1996, no fewer than twelve publishing companies rejected J.K. Rowling‘s manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (released as Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.) before Bloomsbury finally signed her on on the advice of the company chairman Nigel Newton’s eight-year-old daughter Alice. Rowling was given an advance of just £1,500 and was advised to get a day job since she had little chance to make a living on children’s books alone.
Rowling has not shared the names of the publishers who rejected Harry Potter or tweeted the rejection letters since she says they are “in a box” in her attic. Today, the books about the boy wizard have become one of the greatest literature phenomena of all time, been translated into over 60 languages and have earned Rowling an estimated $1 billion. The last four volumes of the series consecutively broke records as the fastest-selling books in history.
12. RMS Titanic
We’re all familiar with the story by now – the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, the largest passenger ship in the world, pride and joy of the White Star Line, and the luxury ship that famously sank in the icy waters on April 15, 1912 after it collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Of the 2,224 souls on board, including passengers and crew, more than 1,500 died. The huge loss of life was partially due to an inadequate number of lifeboats and partially because of design flaws like unreliable watertight compartments due to outdated maritime safety regulations.
The Titanic only carried enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, a little over half of the number of people on board and about a third of its total capacity. After the ship sank, public outcry about the preventable disaster in Britain and the United States caused major improvements in maritime safety regulations and ship design.
11. Burning of the Library of Alexandria
The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world and one of the most significant collections of books and scrolls ever assembled, though now it’s mostly famous for its destruction. The burning of the library was potentially the single greatest loss of knowledge in world history, resulting in the complete loss of many papyrus scrolls (estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height). This, of course, was in the days of transcribing books by hand and before the invention of backup disk drives. Once its vast collections were reduced to ash, they were gone forever.
The library has become a symbol of knowledge and culture being destroyed. To this day, no one knows who is really responsible for setting it aflame, though different historical accounts and pieces of evidence point to multiple culprits (from a Roman invasion to Muslim conquest) taking place in stages over centuries, and different cultures continue to blame each other for the ancient atrocity.
10. Assassination of Julius Caesar
A group of Roman senators hatched a conspiracy to gather outside of Pompey’s theater on the Ides of March (March 15), 44 B.C. in order to stab Julius Caesar to death and save the Roman Republic from tyranny…or so the typical narrative goes. Recent research has questioned the dominant perception of Caesar as a dictator in opposition to the democratic Senate, alleging that aristocratic senators worried that Caesar’s progressive reforms threatened their own power and his murder was the result of long-standing class conflict within the Roman Republic, with Caesar introducing laws that would help the poor farmers, the masses of slaves, and the plebs who had no political power.
Whatever your perception of the event, one thing is certain: Caesar’s assassins were unable to save the republic, and his death all but ensured its demise. The fall of Caesar set in motion events that would lead to a destructive protracted civil war and the end of the five-hundred-year Republic in favor of the absolutist Principate period of the Roman Empire, which would dominate Western Europe for centuries.
“Yezhovshchina” (literally “Yezhov phenomenon”) is the Russian name for the most intense period of the Great Purges in the U.S.S.R. The period is named after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Under Yezhov’s direction, NKVD agents began a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union, targeting Communist Party government officials, workers, peasants, and the Red Army leadership. There were legitimate, though exaggerated, fears that Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy had intelligence operations on Soviet territory.
While there was an anti-bureaucratic streak to the purges, they also resulted in the deaths and arrests of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in mass arrests and arbitrary executions. Estimates for the death toll range from between 600,000 to the millions. In the summer of 1938, Yezhov was removed from his post as head of the NKVD and was eventually arrested, tried, and executed.
8. Columbus’ Voyages
Christopher Columbus is famous for being a great explorer (and also a religious genocidal maniac, but that’s for another list) who triumphantly sailed the oceans and discovered the Americas. Many representations in popular culture depict a triumphant Columbus landing in America in 1492, with him being credited for the discovery. However, Columbus’ voyage, which started the European colonization of the New World under the Spanish monarchs, was based entirely on a mistake. Columbus has set sail hoping to reach the East Indies to enter into a spice trade with Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic, but he would never set foot at his destination.
Using incorrect calculations by fifteenth-century scientists that imagined a smaller world, he ended up thousands of miles away from where he intended, coming up instead on the modern-day Bahamas, Cuba, and then Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. Thinking the West Indies was Southeast Asia, Columbus still reported to the crown that he had landed in Asia (actually Cuba) and called Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) an island off the coast of China. A mistake is always made worse when you fail to take responsibility: Columbus never admitted that he landed on a previously unknown continent rather than the East Indies, which is why called the indigenous population “Indians.”
7. Khwarezm Shah Angers Genghis Khan
In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan, the ruler of the expanding Mongol Empire, sought to open trade and diplomatic relations with his neighbor, Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad of the Khwarezmid Empire. Though it just recently conquered two-thirds of what is now China, it was not originally the intention of the Mongol Empire to invade the Khwarezmid Empire. Genghis sent between 100 to 450 emissaries to Khwarezm on friendly terms, hoping to establish a trade route. The governor of the Khwarezmian city of Otrar, believing it was a plot to invade his lands, accusing the party of spying, seized their rich load of goods and arrested them all.
Trying the diplomatic route once more, this time Genghis Khan sent a party of three men to the Shah, giving him a chance to disclaim the governor’s actions. The Shah had either one or all three of the men executed (depending on the source) and had the arrested merchant party, which included both Mongols and Muslims, put to death as well. Genghis reacted furiously, invading the Khwarezmid Empire with a force of 150,000 warriors, resulting in the complete and utter destruction of the Empire. The Mongol revenge was brutal, even by the standards set by them in China. Cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Otrar and the capital city of Urgench were completely annihilated, with countless historical artifacts and records destroyed. With an estimated 1.25 million killed (which was around 25% of the population), it was arguably the bloodiest massacre in history until the twentieth century.
6. Austrian Army Attacks Itself
If you’ve ever felt like you’ve made a huge mistake, just remember it’s not as embarrassing as the time the Austrian army attacked itself and lost 10,000 men. That’s right – in 1788, when Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire fighting for control of the Danube River, about 100,000 Austrian troops set up camp near the village of Karansebes in modern-day Romania. The army broke into two formations to scout the area for Turkish forces. The scouting party found no Turks but did encounter a group of Tzigani, who sold schnapps to the weary soldiers. They cavalrymen bought the schnapps and started drinking.
After the party became louder, some infantry crossed the river and demanded some alcohol for themselves. The scouts were not fond of the idea of their find being confiscated, and a heated argument broke out. Eventually, one of the soldiers fired a shot. The scouts and infantry engaged in battle with each other, using the barrels as makeshift fortifications. During the fight, someone yelled, “Turks! Turks!” The soldiers fled the scene, and soon mayhem broke out and the situation escalated, with the assembled army killing every man they could find without thinking. At the time, the Austrian army was made up of people who spoke German, Polish, and Hungarian, among many other languages, many of whom could not understand each other. It’s easy to see how they got confused. As the legend goes, the Ottoman Army actually arrived two days later, finding Karansebes filled with 10,000 dead and wounded and conquered them with no effort at all.
5. Chernobyl Disaster
The worst nuclear disaster in world history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Planet in the Soviet Union on April 26, 1986. A combination of faulty construction, combined with the reactor operators and engineers running a hurried late-night power failure stress-test in which they disconnected the reactor’s safety systems and its power-regulating system, led to a catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor. In the core explosion and the ensuing fire, radioactive material was released into the atmosphere and was carried onto much of the western USSR and Europe by air currents.
The Chernobyl accident is the worst nuclear disaster in history in terms of cost and casualties and remains one of only two level 7 incidents (the highest classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. As a result of the accident, Soviet authorities evacuated the 30,000 inhabitants of the city of Pripyat, which remains a ghost town to this day.
4. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia
The Battle of Waterloo has become synonymous with crushing defeat and is often credited with ending the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. But it was really the disastrous French invasion of Russia that destroyed the Grand Armée, damaged Napoleon’s reputation, and brought an end to French hegemony in Europe. Having defeated the Russians in individual battles before, Napoleon was confident of victory in Russia. He aimed to preserve the Continental System, a blockade meant to isolate Britain from the rest of Europe, though the official reason for the invasion was to liberate Poland.
The French expected a quick victory, but the Imperial Russian Army pulled back and destroyed villages, towns, and crops, depriving the French of supplies and forcing them to march east. Though they never lost a battle, the 680,000-strong Grand Armée was virtually eliminated within six months from the freezing winter, Russian attacks, disease and food shortages. When the campaign ended in December of 1812, only 27,000 soldiers remained. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon, who would be forced into exile in April 1814.
3. Franz Ferdinand’s Driver Takes a Wrong Turn
It’s common knowledge that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, was the spark that started World War I. What is less common knowledge is that the first attempt to kill the heir to the Austrian throne failed when a bomb thrown by one of the Serbian conspirators was deflected away from his car earlier that day, wounding some members of his entourage instead. Having seemingly escaped assassination, the Archduke decided to go and visit some of the wounded victims of the bomb at the hospital, and his driver took a wrong turn on the way there. Realizing his mistake, the driver stopped, and the car stalled in front of a delicatessen.
In one of history’s greatest unfortunate coincidences, one of the would-be assassins, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be standing nearby where the car stopped. Princip stepped forward and fired two shots from his semi-automatic pistol, killing both Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Princip was immediately arrested, but both victims died on their way to receive medical treatment. Their deaths started a chain of events that would lead to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, igniting the First World War, which would claim the lives of more than 38 million people.
2. Invention of the Atomic Bomb
No single device in history sums up the terrifying and relentless use of science for the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction better than the atomic bomb. Born out of the carnage of World War II and the fear that Germans would develop them first, a nuclear weapon can devastate an entire city in its blast, to say nothing of the deadly radiation. Nuclear weapons have only been used twice in warfare, both times by the United States against Japan during the final stages of WWII. Two bombs were used to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 people. The ethics of the bombings is still debated.
But the atomic weapons used against Japan are mere pinpricks compared with the potential of modern-day bombs. In 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the Tsar Bomba, to date the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, 1,570 times the combined energy of both bombs dropped on Japan. Since the end of the war, nuclear weapons have been detonated over 2,000 times for tests and demonstrations. Nuclear stockpiles (especially by the U.S. and Russia) and proliferation continue to call attention to the trouble the weapons have brought and raise concerns about a third world war fought with nuclear weapons, which would bring destruction even more terrible than the previous two.
1. Operation Barbarossa
Operation Barbarossa was the code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. Under Hitler’s orders, over four million Axis personnel marched eastward in a massive invasion of the U.S.S.R. along a 2,900 kilometer (1,800 mile) front. It was the largest invasion in the history of warfare. Seeking to fulfill the “destiny” he foresaw for the German Reich in the East, Hitler was determined to conquer the Soviet territories for himself while enslaving the local Slavic population and purging it of “undesirable” elements like the Bolsheviks and the Jews. The Nazi forces achieved major victories early on, occupying important areas of the Soviet Union. But the German offensive stopped at the Battle of Moscow and was pushed back by the Soviets’ winter offensive.
Ultimately, the Red Army repelled the Wehrmacht’s massive invasion and forced the unprepared army into a war of attrition, which forced them to eventually retreat from all Soviet territory. The failure of Operation Barbarossa was the turning point in World War II; the Germany severely underestimated their opponent and overestimated their own logistical and industrial capability to sustain a prolonged war, and the Axis never recovered. The failure of the invasion forced Nazi Germany to fight a two-front war it could not win. Germany would surrender on May 9, 1945.