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7 Fascinating Historical Mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes. Most of the time they're fixable, but sometimes they can result in governments falling! From space explorations to the Berlin Wall, let’s look at some of the ways one small mistake has had a big impact.

Tear Down That Wall!

To outsiders, the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed rather sudden. That’s because it kind of was.

Gunter Schabowski was an East German official. In 1989, he gave a press conference to international reporters and was handed a last-minute addition saying that East Germans were now allowed to apply for permission to travel abroad. However, Schabowski didn’t have time to practice the announcement (he was actually reading it for the first time himself when he presented it) and made it sound like East Germany was going to start allowing their citizens to emigrate. When asked what the rules were to apply, he couldn’t find the papers listing the rules since the announcement was so last-minute. He was overwhelmed as he was asked difficult and in-depth questions about a new policy he knew almost nothing about.

Finally, someone asked a question he knew the answer to: “When does this take effect?”


It didn’t take long for the news to get embellished. He didn’t have the list of rules ready, which meant that as people talked about it, the story evolved into “there are no restrictions! Anyone can leave, effective immediately.” So East Germans rushed to the gate, ready to leave.

The guards were not aware of any change in policy, let alone one where people were allowed to cross the wall. However, their higher-ups were not responding to calls and more and more angry people were showing up at the wall, wanting out. The guards decided to open the gates, and the rest was history.

Accidental Invasion

Everyone’s gotten lost while walking home before. Usually, that doesn’t end in an invasion of another sovereign nation. Unless you’re Switzerland.
Accidental Invasion

Switzerland sent 170 troops into Liechtenstein in 2007. This wasn’t intentional, though; the soldiers were training in the night, in the rain, and Liechtenstein is a very small country. The troops got disoriented and forgot Liechtenstein was something they needed to worry about. Switzerland sheepishly apologized to Liechtenstein the next day.

Metric vs Imperial

America is one of three countries that does not use the International System of Units (AKA metric system) as their official measurement system. This can make things complicated since the scientific community often uses metric, resulting in calculating between the two being confusing...and potentially expensive. A perfect example of this is the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster in 1999.

NASA was working with an engineering team at Lockheed Martin to launch a ship to study the surface of Mars. Together, they created the Mars Climate Orbiter which was planning on hovering in Mars’ atmosphere around 110 kilometers from the planet, where the atmosphere was thin and easy to enter.

Then the Mars Climate Orbiter was launched, entered the atmosphere only 57 kilometers from the planet’s surface (about 50% of the planned distance), and it bounced off of Mars’ dense atmosphere like a skipping stone. The entirety of the Orbiter was either burned up in the atmosphere or the destroyed remains were launched into the void of space (NASA isn’t sure which one).

What caused the failure? Lockheed Martin used the American measurement system while NASA was using the metric system. One made the software to measure the Orbiter’s position and the other made the software to track how much force was needed to get to where it wanted to go. If you think about it like a car, it’s as if your GPS told you that you were 5 miles away from your destination. Based on that, you know that if you drive at 5 mph, you’ll get there in one hour. Except you were actually driving in 5 kilometers per hour. And blindfolded. That mixup cost NASA $125 million. Whoops!

Friendly Fire

Without modern-day conveniences, communication can be very difficult. That’s a large part of what caused the catastrophic Battle of Karánsebes in 1788. Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrian Army was looking for Ottoman scouts around Karánsebes when a gunshot rang out. Immediately, the Austrian Army sprung into action.

It was a brutal battle. Depending on the source, the Austrian army suffered between 150 and 10,000 casualties, while the Ottomans suffered none. How is that possible? Were the Ottomans just that good at fighting?

Not exactly. The Ottomans didn’t get hurt because no Ottomans were present at the time.

It probably isn’t a surprise to learn that alcohol was involved in starting this misunderstanding. Several Austrians were looking for Turkish scouts (I’ll refer to this group as Scout-Austrians to avoid confusion) and were excited to find a group of travelers who were selling alcohol. They proceeded to drink. A lot. Some infantrymen found the group and asked for alcohol, which was denied. A fight broke out, leading to gunshots.

The Austrians in Karánsebes (now referred to as city-Austrians) heard gunshots and assumed the city was under siege. They cried out “Turks! Turks!” which the Scout-Austrians heard and rushed to their aid. Except in the dark, you couldn’t tell they were Austrians, so they were assumed to be a Turkish army. The Scout-Austrians, being fired at by the City-Austrians, assumed that the Turks were trying to take the city, so they returned fire.

By the light of day, it became obvious what had happened. Austria scrambled for reinforcements, but the Turks arrived two days later and easily took the town. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

300% Mortality Rate

Stories like Robert Liston’s are why we’re warned against showing off. Liston was known as the fastest surgeon of the 19th century, and surgical speed is something that you really want if anesthesia isn’t widespread. Since patients weren’t unconscious, having a long surgery time also increased the chance of them literally trying to run away, worsening their (already low) odds of surviving the operation. To give you an idea of how dangerous being in a traditional surgery was, the surgeons at St. Bartholomew’s hospital lost about one in four patients. Liston only lost one in ten.

Unfortunately, this made him kind of cocky, which meant he took unnecessary risks in order to show off. He liked to have people time his operations and would try to break his own record. This cumulated in his most famous operation where he amputated a patient’s leg and accidentally cut off an assistant’s fingers, as well as slashing a spectator’s coat. The patient and assistant both died of infection and the spectator died of shock, giving the “fastest knife in the West End” a place in history as the only doctor to perform an operation with a 300% mortality rate.

Latch-Key City

In 1453, Constantinople was known for being a heavily fortified citadel. It had been in the control of the Roman (and then Eastern Roman AKA Byzantine) Empire for 1,000 years. So when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II started a siege on the city, the people didn’t think he actually had a chance to conquer it.

Unfortunately for Constantinople, the Turks had something that they couldn’t have planned for: an open door. The Ottomans had planned on using gunpowder to fire cannons at the wall of the city, but when the Kerkoporta gate leading into the city was left open, the Turkish army figured they would just walk in. After “conquering” the gate, the Turkish army raised their flag it, and Constantinople immediately began to panic. Soldiers started running, Byzantine’s allies retreated, and the remaining army was overtaken by the Turks. This was widely thought to cause the end of both the Empire and the Medieval Period. Moral of the story: always double-check your doors!

The Wicked Bible

This section title is not just a clever name or a pun, but rather the actual historical name of the mistake made by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas in 1631. They were trying to reprint the King James Bible, but they forgot one word. A one-word mistake for the entire bible? Certainly, it couldn’t be any word that was too important.

Except it was the word “not.” As in “thou shall not commit adultery.” Or, as their reprint said, “thou shall commit adultery.” Oops.

As soon as it was noticed, King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury both were horrified. All copies of the “Wicked Bible” were ordered to be burned, and the printers were fined £300 (about £49,000 as of 2018) and had their printing license revoked.

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