According to the Pratfall effect, competent people become more likeable after making small mistakes. After all, everyone is prone to the odd blunder now and again. But some errors are so spectacular that they end up becoming the stuff of legend. For example, we all remember the tale of George Bell, the Excite CEO who refused to pay $750,000 for a little-known search engine called Google. And how about NASA’s decision to record over the tapes of the moon landing?
These mistakes remain a part of history and, while deeply embarrassing, are important to learn from. So, without further ado, we take a look at just some of the top 10 blunders that are sure to go down in history.
10 Fort Blunder
Fort Montgomery is an unusual piece of history. The United States started building the military fortification in 1844, during a period of heightened tensions with British Canada. Sitting on a small island in Lake Champlain, New York, the structure was originally designed to protect the Northern Frontier from assault. Work on the project was accelerated during the American Civil War, as the Union fretted over British intervention from the north.
But Fort Montgomery rose from the ashes of its ill-fated predecessor. During the War of 1812, the British imposed a naval blockade to stop the U.S. trading with the French. Although a ceasefire was soon announced, the Americans ramped up efforts to protect the northern border, erecting an imposing garrison along the lake. But the engineers made one fundamental mistake: the building was on the wrong side of the border. After surveyors spotted the error, construction was abandoned and the locals used the fort’s limestone blocks to build their own homes. And so the name “Fort Blunder” was born.
9 Killing the World’s Oldest Tree
A young geologist named Donald Rusk Currey will forever be remembered for killing the world’s oldest living tree. As part of a research study into Little Ice Age events, the grad student sought to chronicle the age of bristlecone pines in White Pine County, Nevada. It was known that Bristlecones lived for many thousands of years and could therefore provide important insight into past climactic events.
So, in 1964, Currey set about collecting tree core samples near the slopes of Wheeler Peak. The inexperienced researcher broke several boring tools while working on one specimen, dubbed the Prometheus Tree. With time running short, Currey asked the U.S. Forest Service to cut down the tree with a chainsaw. Permission was granted. Currey dragged part of the tree trunk back to his motel and began the arduous task of inspecting its rings. After a full week of counting, he made a shock discovery: The tree was over 4,800 years old. Decades later, the University of Arizona’s tree-ring laboratory conducted a more accurate analysis, establishing that Prometheus was actually around 5,100 years old – the oldest living tree on the planet.
The U.S. Forest Service received so much flak from the incident that it begged the tree-ring lab to find a living specimen older than Prometheus. One of the institution’s graduate students spent season after season looking, but ultimately came up empty.
8 Thanking Martin Luther King’s Killer
In 2002, city officials in Lauderhill, Florida, were gearing up for their annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations. James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader, was invited to attend the event as an honorary guest. The city went the extra mile to celebrate the actor’s esteemed career, ordering a plaque inscribed with the faces of influential black figures. The company responsible for making the gift, Merit Industries, was supposed to add a message thanking Jones for “keeping the dream alive.”
But when the event organizers reviewed the finished product, something caught their attention. The engraved message read: “Thank you James Earl Ray for keeping the dream alive.” Seeing as James Earl Ray was responsible for Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, the plaque’s sentiments did not go down well.
After intense scrutiny, Merit Industries said it had made a genuine mistake. “We have a lot of people who don’t speak English,” stated the company’s owner, Herbert Miller. “Accidentally, one of the girls, who doesn’t know James Earl Jones from a man on the moon, accidentally typed James Earl Ray.”
James Earl Jones was unfazed by the incident. During an acceptance speech at a local country club, the iconic actor explained how Reverend Jesse Jackson had also once introduced him by the name of Dr. King’s killer. “It’s the same slip of the tongue,” he added.
7 Slitting Your Own Throat on Stage
In 2008, the German actor Daniel Hoevels delivered an absolutely unforgettable performance of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart.” During the closing act of the play, the 30-year-old performed a scene in which his character is supposed to commit suicide with a knife. Hoevels, picking up what he thought was a prop weapon, swiftly ran the blade across his neck. But the performer soon discovered that the knife was very real. Hoevels fell to the floor, blood gushing from a self-inflicted wound to the throat. The audience applauded the grisly spectacle, thinking it was all part of some elaborate special effect. The suspension of disbelief was only broken when Hoevels limped off the stage to seek medical attention.
A doctor who treated Hoevels’ injuries said he was lucky to be alive. “If the actor had put a little more pressure on the knife or even struck an artery, he would probably have bled to death on the stage,” he explained. The Austrian theatre company, Vienna Burgtheater, said it had recently purchased the knife from a local store but had forgotten to blunt it down. Incredibly, Hoevels returned to the stage the following night, his neck wrapped in bandages.
6 Broadcasting Pornography at a Funeral
Cardiff City Council was forced to apologize when one of its crematoriums accidentally broadcast hardcore pornography during a funeral service. The offensive material was beamed to one of the display screens, following the reverend’s attempts to play a tribute video to the deceased. Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe only realized that something had gone terribly wrong when the TV started making unexpected noises.
The reverend apologised to his flock, which by now had gathered round the display, claiming he had “never seen such filth.” One witness described the audience’s reaction thusly: “It was around four or five minutes before they could turn it off. Everyone could not believe what they were seeing.” [LINK 11] An engineer eventually arrived and put an end to the surprise broadcast.
A council spokesperson said the SMART TV had only recently been installed, speculating that it had accidentally received the adult content via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The council also ruled out the possibility that a rogue employee had succumbed to their baser desires.
5 A Phone Bill Exceeding World Debt
In 2012, a French woman opened up her phone bill to discover that she owed over 15 quadrillion dollars (12 quadrillion euros). In numerical form, that’s 15,000,000,000,000,000 dollars. To put that into perspective, the world debt currently stands at 258 trillion dollars (258,000,000,000,000).
The startled customer, Solenne San Jose, called the phone company to clear things up. Sadly, the customer service advisors at Bouygues Telecom didn’t see what all the fuss was about. “One operator told me: ‘It’s automatic, there is nothing I can do,’” explained Mademoiselle Jose. “Another simply informed me that I would be contacted to set up a repayment plan of instalments.” Considering the woman had just lost her job as a teaching assistant, the company’s response seemed a tad unkind.
It turns out the charge, which should have read 117.21 euros, was the result of a simple printing error. After a little back and forth, the bill was eventually overturned and the phone company issued an apology.
4 Destroying a Museum Piece for a Movie Shoot
The Hateful Eight saw Kurt Russell fill the boots of a weathered bounty hunter named John Ruth. While transporting a known murderer across the snow-topped mountains of Wyoming, a blizzard forces Ruth’s party to hunker down in a nearby lodge. In response to his bounty’s incessant singing, the bounty hunter eventually takes a six-string guitar and smashes it against a wooden beam. “Music time’s over,” Ruth growls. But Unbeknownst to Kurt Russell, the guitar was an irreplaceable 145-year-old museum piece, which the studio was borrowing from the Martin Guitar Museum.
If you watch the clip closely, Russell’s co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, breaks character during the scene. She explained the mix-up in a recent interview: “I don’t think Quentin knew that it was the [vintage instrument]… he wanted to play one scene in the movie in real time without a cut, in one long take. Kurt felt terrible; he had no idea. When he found out, his eyes literally welled up.”
According to a member of the production team, the scene was supposed to end just before Kurt smashed the guitar. Shooting would then resume after the instrument, which was valued at $40,000, was replaced with a replica. The owners of the guitar museum said the studio had not adequately explained the incident, simply claiming the item had been destroyed in an accident. In light of the incident, the museum claims it will never again loan its guitars to the movie industry.
3 Doing a Ratner
In 1991, the chairman of a budget jewelry chain delivered a speech so cataclysmically ill-advised that it killed his company. Gerald Ratner delivered the speech to a conference of his peers at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The British businessman pointed out that his company, Ratners Group, had made a whopping £120 million in profits – an impressive feat given that much of the Western world had been plunged into a recession.
But he then made the mistake of critiquing his own products, describing a 6-piece sherry decanter in less than favorable terms. “People say to me, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say to them, ‘because it’s total crap.’” [LINK 18] He continued: “We even sell a pair of earrings for under a pound – gold earrings, as well. And some people say, ‘well, that’s cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer’s.’ But I have to say that the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings.”
The press quickly got wind of the business tycoon’s remarks, criticizing him for mocking working class customers. The bad publicity, combined with the ongoing recession, saw the value of the company plummet by around $750 million and led to hundreds of store closures. Mr. Crapner, as many news outlets have since dubbed him, lost his position as company chairman and Ratners was forced to change its name to Signet Group. The speech is now so famous in business circles that the expression “Doing a Ratner” is often used to describe industry blunders.
2 Burning Down Hundreds of Acres of Woodland
Johnny Cash has a rather storied past when it comes to criminal wrongdoing. While living in the scenic community of Casitas Springs, California, the iconic singer decided to go on a fishing trip with his nephew, Damon Fielder. According to Fielder, Cash had taken a cocktail of whiskey and drugs during a road trip to the Los Padres National Forest. While there, the two had a falling out over Cash’s drug habits, prompting Fielder to storm off in a fit of rage.
After seeing an enormous plume of smoke on the horizon, the youngster returned to find his uncle on his knees attempting to extinguish a roaring fire. Fielder pleaded with Cash to leave the area for his own safety. When the singer refused, Fielder tried (and failed) to use a tree branch to knock Cash unconscious. The inferno spread quickly, tearing through over 500 acres of woodland and laying waste to a shelter for nesting condors. The woodland became a hive of activity, with hundreds of firefighters, Navy Seabees, and Forestry workers joining forces to combat the disaster.
Only Johnny Cash knew what happened that fateful night. He claimed the fire was started when a damaged wheel bearing from his truck kicked hot oil onto a patch of grass. But Fielder believes the blaze started after Cash tried, in a drug-addled stupor, to make his own impromptu campfire. Cash showed little remorse during his deposition. When asked if he had caused the fire, Cash responded: “No. My truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The federal government sued the Arkansas legend for over $120,000, with Cash eventually settling the case for $82,000.
1 Making Hitler a State Spy
As part of the armistice of World War I, the Allies imposed stringent conditions on Germany. The beleaguered nation withdrew its troops on all fronts, turned over its massive stockpile of armaments, and accepted Allied forces stationed along the Rhine. On top of this, the Germans were slapped with a $37 billion reparations bill.
A disillusioned Adolf Hitler would go on to work as an intelligence officer (Verbindungsmann) for the German army. He was tasked with infiltrating the German Workers’ Party (DAP) in 1919, as the military’s top brass wanted to keep an eye on the group’s supposedly Marxist leanings. Hitler discovered something entirely different, however. The party peddled anti-Semitic, ultranationalist propaganda and eschewed both communism and capitalism. Hitler was quickly seduced by these ideals, gorging on the party leader’s political pamphlet, “My Political Awakening”. Hitler’s superiors gave him the green light to join the DAP, and the rest is history.
While Hitler was discharged from the army in March 1920, he continued engaging in party politics. He quickly assumed complete control over the DAP, changing its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party), and started delivering speeches to thousands of fanatical supporters. The Nazis seized power in 1933, changing the world forever.