As the week comes to an end, some of us probably had bad weeks. David Cameron certainly did. But don’t worry, as bad you might have had it, or as bad as you feel like you screwed up, some people in history did much worse than you.
The baker who started London’s Great Fire
On September 2, 1666 a fire broke out in the middle of London. Since the city was built from wood and other flammable materials, the fire quickly spread, engulfing a large part of the city. Citizens evacuated as quickly as possible to escape the inferno. Only six people actually died from the fire, however, the damage ended up costing around 10 million pounds, much more than the total income of the city.
When people came back into the city most had lost their homes and fortunes, completely destabilizing the English economy. The fire destroyed more than 13,000 houses. Many historical churches also went up in flames. Debtors prisons filled up as people struggled to pay off their debts in the destroyed city. Eventually the city was rebuilt from bricks, but many Londoners lost everything. Most residents wondered how the fire had even started in the first place.
Records show that a single baker, Thomas Farrinor, caused all this devastation. Farrinor worked as the king’s baker. On the night of the fire he toiled all night baking, but when he went to bed he forgot to properly extinguish his baking fire. Farrinor’s house went up in flames right after he fell asleep. Although he escaped with his family, the fire spread to nearby inns, eventually spreading to Thames Street, igniting the warehouses filled with flammable material. At that point there was nothing anybody could do to stop the flames.
After London rebuilt from the fire the government placed a monument on the site of the bakery to commemorate the destruction. In 1986 a group of London bakers made an official policy to the royalty for the fire and the small mistake of Thomas Farrinor.
The defense worker who started the agent.btz attack
One of the worst things that can happen to a modern government is a data breach. Breaches in encryption can cause a cascading series of problems for governments, opening up their deepest, darkest secrets to the world. In 2008 the United States suffered a huge data breach caused by a single computer worm named Agent.btz, opening up all the United States’s data to the world.
It all started when somebody in the United States defense department made an extremely dumb mistake. Supposedly the Agent.btz worm was on a flash drive that some random employee found and opened up on their computer. Accounts about how this employee found the flash drive vary. Many sources say that it was found in a parking lot and then got plugged into a computer attached to the defense network. Other sources state that this is just an urban legend. Whatever the case, somebody working in the United States government decided it was a good idea to plug an unidentified flash drive into their work computer.
Once Agent.btz entered the networks, it went to work. The worm continued to change and evolve, becoming extremely difficult to scrub out. The Pentagon took 14 months to get it off their computers. By that time the damage was already done. China alone took terabytes worth of information from the cracked networks, making it the biggest data breach in United States history. Other countries have also been attacked by the worm, but the United States has the most embarrassing encounter story. Time will tell just how damaging the attack was and its implications.
During a trip to get water in 1856 a Xhosa woman named Nongqawuse claimed to have seen two spirits who told her that she was a prophetess for the natives of South Africa. Racial tensions between the Xhosa and the British colonists were extremely tense, and Nongqawuse gave the people much desired guidance on how get rid of the settlers.
Nongqawuse prophesied that if the Xhosa people killed all their cattle and burned their crops, then the next year the Xhosa ancestors would rise out of the grave and drive the British into the sea. Then the sun would go red and a Xhosa golden age would begin. After years of colonial rule the people were eager for any hope and began to follow Nongqawuse’s prophesy. Within a few months the Xhosa destroyed most of the crops and cattle in their lands. A small part of the Xhosa did not believe Nongqawuse and refused to destroy their food. They got labeled as unbelievers and shunned.
While Nongqawuse was vague about when the great cleansing would start, her uncle Mhlakaza made predictions about the specific date. As 1857 started the first date came and went. Mhlakaza continued to offer new dates, with Nongqawuse blaming the non-believers for the failure of her prophesy. When February of 1857 came and went, the tribal leaders ordered for the death of Nongqawuse. She ran off to British custody and disappeared. But the damage was already done. Mass starvation swept through the Xhosa, killing a large part of their population. The situation was so bad that the leaders of the Xhosa turned to the British for help, signing binding labor contracts in exchange for food. The British governor demanded Xhosa land as well, and in the end 600,000 acres fell under British colonial authorities, letting the British get a huge foothold into South Africa.
Shah of Khwarezm executing Genghis Khan’s envoys
In the 13th century the main Islamic empire in the Middle East was Khwarazmia, a dynastic empire that spanned for modern-day Iran to the Mediterranean. When the Mongols conquered China, the Shah of Khwarazmia, Muhammad II, sent out envoys to find out about the Mongol commander. In return, Genghis Khan sent back envoys to find out about the Shah. At first relationships were cordial, but Muhammad II quickly became distrustful of the Mongols, even though all signs pointed to them remaining uninterested in the Islamic Empires.
As a show of goodwill Genghis Khan sent a caravan of goods and treasure to Muhammad II. Suspecting that the caravan was secretly Mongol spies, the Shah ordered the caravan destroyed. When Genghis Khan found out about what happened, he was furious and quickly reversed his non-aggression policy against Khwarazmia. It turns out that destroying the caravan was one of the worst political mistakes in history. Within a few years the Mongols were streaming into Khwarazmia.
The war against Khwarazmia was long, but in the end the Mongols took control of a large chunk of the Middle East in 1231. Historical implications of this event are extremely far-reaching. In essence, the Mongol invasion stripped away control of the Middle East from the Muslims. They never quite regained control of the same extent of land for any significant time, allowing for colonialism and eventually the issues that we see today. With a stronghold in the Middle East the Mongols began attacking Europe. This was not something they would have considered if not for the conquest of Khwarazmia. The Mongol wars in Europe profoundly changed European history, leading to the breaking down of nations, trade wars over the Mediterranean, and the founding of Russia as a single nation. All of this because one Shah was too blood thirsty.
Thomas Midgley discovering CFC Freon
With modern-day environmental crises it’s nearly impossible to point the finger at any one person. The human race has created out environmental issues, each person contributing a bit on their own. However, there is one man who did the most damage to the environmental in his lifetime: the friendly chemist Thomas Midgley.
Working at General Motors in the early 20th century, Midgley tried to find ways to make fuel more efficient. He discovered a technique of adding lead to gasoline. Known as leaded gasoline, the invention was groundbreaking, but had one big side effect: the fumes released by leaded gasoline are extremely toxic to humans. Midgley himself suffered from lead poisoning as a result of his work. For decades cars used leaded gasoline, poisoning people and ruining health until it was finally phased out.
But that is not Midgley’s biggest little mistake. During the 1920s he began to work on refrigeration and ways to make cooling units more effective. During experiments he synthesized freon, which is now well-known as a dangerous chlorofluorocarbon. Freon and other CFCs became used throughout the world, especially in aerosols. Unfortunately, as many now know, CFCs are horrible for the environment, and they contributed to punching a hole in the ozone that has taken decades to fix.
Midgley’s legacy is now that of a chemist who did not know who harmful his inventions were. Both leaded gasoline and CFCs were little mistakes, but caused countless health issues and deaths. Midgley is now described as having “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”