5 Historical Screw-ups Worse Than Anything You Did This Week

You might have made some huge mistakes this week, but I guarantee they aren’t as bad as what these people did.

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1995 Norwegian Missile Incident

Even after the Cold War ended, nuclear tension between the United States and Russia continued to cause worries for the military leaders of both countries. On January 25, 1995 the two countries came closer to nuclear war than they had in decades, just because some mid-level officers forgot to pass along information to radar technicians.

On the morning of January 25th radar crews in Russia detected a rocket launch from Norway. They quickly determined that the missile had the same flight path and speed that a ICBM would have. Worse still, the rocket was heading straight for Russia. The technicians panicked. Advisers to President Boris Yelstin informed him of the missile. For the first time in history the Soviet nuclear command systems went to combat mode. Even during the Cold War this had never happened.

Weeks earlier NATO had planned the rock test and had informed 30 countries, including Russia, of the test. The rocket was not military, but was conducting low altitude research on the aurora borealis above the Svalbard islands. Although the Russian leaders got the memo, nobody gave the information to the radar crews before the test commenced. As radar information poured in, the situation escalated. Finally observers realized that the rocket was not heading directly at Russia but would crash in the ocean. Hours later the Russians realized that the rocket was just from the mission that they were actually informed of months earlier.

But by that time the nuclear attack systems across the country were activated and the nuclear submarine commanders were preparing for a retaliatory strike. Eventually they stood down. Fortunately a nuclear war did not break out, but the world came extremely close to nuclear war that day, just because a memo did not get passed down the chain of command.

Thomas Austin’s Australian Rabbits

Thomas Austin was an English colonist who landed on Australia in 1859. Not finding the giant island interesting enough, Austin decided that he needed to give himself some entertainment. He had 24 rabbits released into the wild to use as hunting targets. Unfortunately for the future inhabitants of the island, the colonists let some get away, hoping that they would multiply and make the island more like Europe.

And they multiplied like crazy. Within a few decades of Austin’s landing the rabbits were becoming one of the biggest ecological disasters for Australians. The rabbits destroyed large tracts of vegetation, caused irreparable damage to ecosystems across the country and making farming extremely difficult. By the 1920s, not even one hundred years after Austin’s expedition, there were 10 billion rabbits on Australia, causing huge amounts of damage.

Not content to let the furry pests defeat them, Australians devised more and more drastic ways to kill the population. In 1950 they released the Myxoma virus into the rabbit population, but it proved not toxic enough, only killing 40% of rabbits infected. Forty years later the government released calicivirus into the rabbit population. This time 90% died, but that was still not enough. The furry pests multiplied again. Even now, the rabbits are causing millions of dollars worth of damage and the Australian government is researching more complex viruses to kill them. If only Austin would have thought ahead back in 1859.

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“The Method” by Archimedes being destroyed

Back in the 13th century paper was not an extremely easy to find commodity. Often, monks trying to record religious works would use a technique to erase the words off older books. This would give them enough paper for their religious writings. It is hard to know how many wonderful writings were lost in this way, but one of the worst examples was when a text by Archimedes known as “The Method” was destroyed.

The destruction occurred in 1229 when a priest in Jerusalem named Johannes Myronas needed paper to write a prayer book. Looking through piles of old books he found a Greek text and promptly erased the words on it. Years later the prayer book was sold at auction. Experts examining it realized that there was a text underneath the prayer book and were able to recover it, discovering that it was written by Archimedes.

“The Method” was an amazing find. In it Archimedes laid out the foundation of differential and integral calculus, 2,200 years before Newton and Leibniz developed the modern techniques. Archimedes’s mathematics on the subject were primitive, but had it survived, it would have allowed the discovery of calculus centuries earlier. No other copies of “The Method” have survived, leading historians to believe that the 1229 copy was one of the only copies in the world at the time. Had Myronas not destroyed the book, who knows how much more advanced mathematics would be today.

Chinese anti-sparrow campaign

Chinese dictator Mao Zedong was well-known for his purges and “improvement” programs. Often these programs were ill-thought out and had disastrous outcomes. But none were so bad as the Great Sparrow Campaign.

The campaign came about as a way to produce crops more effectively. Chairman Mao wanted to eliminate four pests from the country: rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. Throughout the country Chinese sparrows would snack on farmer’s crops, leading to loss of production every year. Out of the four pests, the sparrows were the easiest to get rid of. Every citizen in China became a part of the campaign, organizing hunting parties to kill the birds. According to government experts, for every million sparrows killed there would be enough excess grain to feed 60,000 people.

For the first few years of the campaign it was extremely successful. Sparrow populations plummeted and the Chinese government was recording a surplus of grain. But then 1958 hit. Unbeknownst to Chairman Mao, the sparrows did not just eat grain, they also ate insects that destroyed crops at a higher rate then the sparrows did. Just a bit of research would have discovered this, but by 1958 the damage was already done.

Farmers across the country suffered huge attacks from locusts. Without the sparrows to keep the population in check the locusts swarmed across the country side, devastating the Chinese crops. China plunged into a famine, resulting in the deaths of 30 million people, exacerbated in large part by the anti-sparrow campaign.

The death of Stonewall Jackson

One of the most remarkable generals of the American Civil War was Stonewall Jackson. General Jackson fought for the Confederacy and was a brilliant commander. First given command in 1861 by General Robert E. Lee, Jackson quickly distinguished himself in battle, scoring a nearly perfect track record of victories. Jackson was a tough commander, but was well-loved by his men. Battleing an ever-growing series of incompetent Union generals, Jackson’s leadership lead to great military success for the Confederacy in 1862 and early 1863.

But then disaster struck. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Jackson had used a risky surprise attack to get the upper-hand against his Union opponents. After destroying a large part of the Union army Jackson decided to personally conduct reconnaissance of the Union lines. With his staff, the general rode out into the night, leaving his men as watch.

As the night went on, the sentries became jittery, waiting for a Union counter-attack. Suddenly they saw a group of horses riding up to the Confederate base. Without verifying the riders’s identity, the sentries opened fire. It turned out that this was Jackson and his staff. Jackson was hit in the first volley. His staff frantically yelled their identities to the sentries, but believing it was a Union trick, the sentries continued to fire until cooler heads prevailed and realized the voices of the staff.

Jackson was hit three times but could not get medical help right away. Although eventual treatments went well at first, Jackson succumbed to his injuries a week later and died. It is impossible to know what would have happened if Jackson survived, but the war would have gone very differently for the Confederates. General Lee considered Jackson his right-hand man, showing how important the general was to the war effort. With Jackson in command, decisive Union victories like Gettysburg would have gone very differently, delaying the victory of the war if not completely turning it around.

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