10 Biggest “Oops” Moments in History

Mistakes are a very common occurrence in both history and everyday lives. While some barely have any effect, some result in unexpected consequences. Sometimes, one person’s mistake could be another person’s luck, yet sometimes that mistake could mean a terrible blow to everyone. Most of the times we cannot foresee the future or how these unexpected events could unfold. It is not always possible to avoid mistakes and we can only learn from the consequences. But, at times they do happen. Here are some such “oops” moments in history.

1. Three lost cigars caused the Confederacy to lose the Civil War to the Union. A Union corporal discovered those cigars wrapped in a piece of paper which turned out to be a copy of lost Special Order 191 containing details of how Confederate troops would attack Washington.

Special Order 191
Image Source: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Special Order 191, also known as the “Lost Dispatch” or the “Lost Order,” was drafted on September 9, 1862, during the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War and was issued by the Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. Copies of the order were made and distributed to various Confederate officers. One of the copies went missing and on September 13, 1862, was found by a Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the Union XII Corps. It was wrapped around three cigars at a site one of the Confederate Major Generals just vacated.

Upon realizing the significance of the document, it was immediately forwarded to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, who was delighted at now knowing the Confederate troops’ movements. McClellan stopped Lee’s invasion at the Battle of Antietam.(source)

2. The “Cluster,” a group of four European spacecraft, were lost when one of the rockets failed to achieve orbit due to a software design error. The rocket soon disintegrated under high aerodynamic forces making it one of the most infamous and expensive software bugs in history with a loss of $370 million.

Cluster Insigna and Ariane 5 with Cluster
Image Source: ESA, Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The “Cluster” was designed for research into Earth’s magnetosphere and consisted of four 1,200 kilograms (2,600 pounds) cylindrical spacecraft which were meant to fly in a tetrahedron formation. The Cluster was launched on Ariane 5, a European heavy-lift launch vehicle, on June 4, 1996. However, 37 seconds after the launch, the rocket veered off its path and began to disintegrate under high aerodynamic forces. It then began self-destructing in accordance with its automated flight termination system.

While designing, the inertial reference platform used for the previous model Ariane 4 was used in Ariane 5 as well. But Ariane 5’s path differed from Ariane 4, and the speeds were far greater. During the investigation, a different inertial reference platform was used to simulate Ariane 5’s flight, and it was revealed that the rocket failed in exactly the same way it did in actual flight. It was also revealed that the greater horizontal acceleration caused a data conversion from 64-bit floating point to a 16-bit signed integer to overflow and result in hardware exception.(source)

3. In 1971, a team of Soviet engineers, fearing the spread of poisonous methane gas, set fire to a crater after a rig collapsed while drilling for natural gas reserves. That was more than 40 years ago and the gas is still burning to this day.

Darvaza Gas Crater
Image Source: Tormod Sandtorv/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Darvaza gas crater, also known as the “Door to Hell” or “Gates of Hell”, is a natural gas field located near the village of Derweze, Turkmenistan. The site was identified by Soviet engineers in 1971 and originally believed to contain a substantial amount of oil. While doing the preliminary survey, they drilled to find a natural gas pocket. Soon, the ground under the drilling rig collapsed into a wide crater. Fearing the release of poisonous gases into the nearby towns, they set fire to it expecting the gas to burn off in a few weeks. However, the crater is still afire with flames and boiling mud, and has a diameter of 70 meters (230 feet).(source)

4. The Chicago Daily Tribune was so sure Thomas E. Dewey would win the 1948 presidential election that they printed the next day’s edition with an incorrect headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” It was famously held up by Truman after he won the elections, smiling triumphantly at the error.

Dewey Defeats Truman
Image Source: Byron Rollins

The year before the elections, the linotype machine printers were on strike. The Tribune switched to a method in which the papers were composed on typewriters, which were then photographed, and then engraved onto printing plates. This meant that the paper had to go to press several hours earlier. Due to the pressing deadlines during the election time, the Tribune relied on its veteran Washington correspondent and political analyst Arthur Sears Henning, who was right four out of five times before.

Assured by Henning’s prediction and the polls, the Tribune went to press with the headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman”. Henning further wrote that: “Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the presidential election yesterday.”(source)

5. In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Observer came too close to Mars and burned up in its upper atmosphere because of unit conversion errors. One team at NASA used the metric system while a team at Lockheed Martin used the imperial system.

Mars Climate Orbiter
Image Source: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste/Public Domain

The Mars Climate Orbiter was a robotic space probe launched by NASA on December 11, 1998, to study the climate, atmosphere, and surface of Mars. The orbiter was built, developed, and operated by Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace company, for NASA. However, the navigation commands for the orbiter’s thrusters were provided by its engineers in the imperial system while NASA had been using the metric system since 1990.

After a 286-day journey, the orbiter finally reached Mars and the process of inserting it into an orbit began on September 23, 1999. The mismatch in the units caused it to go to an altitude of 57 kilometers. Eighty kilometers was considered a safe altitude and 226 kilometers was the intended altitude. At such a low altitude, it is believed to have disintegrated due to atmospheric stresses.(1, 2)

6. In 1917, a French cargo ship with explosives, traveling fast to make up for lost time, collided with another ship in the Narrows in Halifax Harbor. Neither of the ships suffered much damage, but a benzol barrel toppled into the water. In a few minutes, the ship exploded with an equivalent energy of 2.9 kilotons of TNT killing 2,000 people, injuring 9,000, and obliterating two entire communities. 

Halifax Explosion
Image Source: Wikpedia/Public Domain

In December 1917, SS Mont-Blanc laden with TNT, picric acid, benzol, and gun cotton and under the orders of the French government, was traveling from New York via Halifax, Canada, to Bordeaux, France. Going in and out of the Bedford Basin in Halifax Harbor requires passage through a strait called the Narrows in which the ships should keep to the right while passing oncoming traffic and stay under five knots of speed. However, on December 6, at 7:30 a.m., Mont-Blanc headed towards the Basin as another Norwegian ship, SS Imo, was leaving. Mont-Blanc didn’t give Imo its right of way. At 8:45 a.m., the ships collided at low speed as by that time the engines were turned off and Imo had tried to reverse.

Mont-Blanc’s crew abandoned ship unable to douse the fire. At 9:04 a.m., the ship exploded with a blast radiating at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) per second, at temperatures of 5,0000C (9,0300F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres. The ship’s forward gun landed 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) to the north and the half-ton shank of the anchor landed 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) to the south. The smoke rose 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) high and the resulting tsunami carried Imo aground at the Dartmouth side of the harbor.

An area of 160 hectares (400 acres) was completely destroyed, and 12,000 buildings within a radius of 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) were destroyed. Over 1,600 people died immediately and 9,000 were injured of whom 300 died later. The entire communities of Richmond and Mi’kmaq First Nations were annihilated, while the Black community of Africville suffered only indirectly.(source)

7. On September 28, 1918, Private Henry Tandey, a British soldier serving near the French village of Marcoing, spared the life of a 29-year-old wounded German soldier. That soldier was Adolf Hitler.

Henry Tandey and Adolf Hitler
Image Source: Wikipedia, Heinrich Hoffman/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

While serving with the 5th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, Private Henry Tandey saw a wounded German soldier, who was apparently Hitler, wander into his line of fire. However, Tandey chose not to shoot and the soldier nodded his thanks and left. Later Hitler saw a newspaper report about Tandey being awarded the Victorian Cross and recognizing him kept the clipping. In 1937, he saw a painting by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania based on the real events at Menin Crossroads. The painting depicts a man, purportedly Tandey and whom Hitler recognized, carrying a wounded soldier. Later in 1938, when Arthur Neville Chamberlain, the then British prime minister, asked about it during his visit to Hitler’s home in Bavarian Alps, he said,

“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again; Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”


8. In 1980, after a simple miscalculation, a drilling company accidentally punctured the roof of a salt mine under Lake Peigneur, draining 2.5 million gallons in less than three hours. The whirlpool was so strong it sucked in the drilling platform, eleven barges, many trees, and 65 acres of the surrounding terrain.

Lake Peigneur
Image Source: OpenStreetMap/CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia

Lake Peigneur was a 10-foot (three-meter) deep fresh water lake located north of Delcambre, Louisiana. On November 20, 1980, an oil drilling company contracted by Texaco accidentally drilled into the Diamond Crystal Salt Company’s salt mine due to a misinterpreted coordinate reference system. It started a chain of events beginning with the lake completely draining into the mine below and enlarging the hole.

The lake usually flows through the Delcambre Canal into Vermilion Bay, but the drain created such huge whirlpool that the flow reversed creating Louisiana’s tallest waterfall ever at 50 meters (164 feet). Though there was no loss of life or injuries, the Lake Peigneur turned into a salt water lake permanently affecting the ecosystem and increasing its depth.(source)

9.  A few days before the end of WWII, a German submariner accidentally flushed the toilet the wrong way, causing a flood and forcing the submarine to surface. It was then captured near the coast of Scotland.

German Submarine U-1206
Image Source: nie do użycia bez zgody autora/CC BY-SA 3.0

By 1945, the Germans were able to develop new deep-water high-pressure toilets that would let them flush human waste while under the sea. The human waste is first directed into a series of pressurized airlock chambers and then blasted into the sea with compressed air. The Kriegsmarine, the navy of  Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1945, had the new toilets in the submarine U-1206.

On April 14, 1945, while cruising near Peterhead, Scotland, at a depth of 61 meters (200 feet), the submarine started getting flooded after the misuse of a toilet. The sea water soon entered and flooded the batteries which were below the toilet releasing chlorine gas. The commander had no choice but to surface and ended up being discovered and bombed by the British patrols.(1, 2)

10. A company intended to sell one share at 610,000 yen ($5,041) but sold 610,000 shares at one yen due to a typing error. It cost the company at least $225 million on a stock trade. 

Ticker Board of Tokyo Stock Exchange
Image Source: Stéfan/CC BY-SA 3.0

In December 2005, Mizuho Securities, a division of Japan’s second-largest bank, Mizuho Financial Group, Inc., intended to sell one share at 610,000 yen in a job recruiting company called J-Com Co. Due to a typing error, the order became 41 times that of J-Com’s outstanding amount, but the Tokyo Stock Exchanged processed it anyway. Though Mizuho tried to cancel the transaction, the exchange said the transactions cannot be canceled even if they were executed erroneously. It cost Mizuho at least 27 billion yen.(source)

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