Cringe-Worthy Facts About The Biggest Mistakes In History

January 25, 2024 | Rachel Seigel

Cringe-Worthy Facts About The Biggest Mistakes In History

"Some of the best lessons we ever learn are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future" -- Dale Turner

History is shaped by mistakes. Some lead to monumental leaps forward in human understanding. Most do not. Of those in the second category, many are simply embarrassing, and result in a good bar story. Meanwhile, other have simply disastrous consequences. Below are 48 of the biggest mistakes that have been committed in history.

1. Didn’t Understand The Food Chain

From 1958-1962, Chairman Mao Zedong China launched the “Four Pests Campaign,” which would exterminate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. What they didn’t realize was that sparrows ate a large number of insects. Without the sparrows to eat them, locust populations grew, and created an ecological imbalance that exacerbated the Great Chinese Famin, which resulted in 15-30 million deaths. 

That's right, when Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the extermination of sparrows, he accidentally sentenced 15 million citizens to end, all because he didn't realize that sparrows were mission critical for pest control.

biggest mistakes in history

2. He Should Have Accepted The Offer

In 1999, the founders of Google approached Excite CEO George Bell, offering to sell him the search engine for $1 million. When Bell refused, they lowered the price to $750,000, which he also rejected. Today, Google is valued at $365 billion.

Wikimedia Commons

3. We’ll Pass

In 2009, Facebook turned down a pair of programmers for jobs. No big deal, right? Must happen all the time at FB HQ....

A few years later, though, the pair developed WhatsApp. Facebook subsequently purchased that venture for a cool $19 billion.


4. Trains Were Too Wide

The French state railway SNCF spent $15 billion on a new fleet of trains, but unfortunately, they were the wrong size, and were too wide for their 1300 platforms. The mistake cost them an estimated $50 million to correct.


5. A Case Of Bad Timing

Just over 200 years ago, Napoleon’s army attempted to invade Russia.


A combination of factors spelled doom for the invasion. There wasn't nearly enough food for the army and horses. Poor discipline was rampant in the ranks. And, of course, none of the men were prepared for the unimaginable brutality of a full Russian winter.

It was a devastating failure. Napoleon lost 500,000 people.portrait of Napoleon in the historical castlePack-Shot, Shutterstock

6. Infidelity Is Expensive

Tiger Woods’s admission of multiple illicit affairs with women cost him his wife, and 750 million dollars. He also lost his sponsorships with Gatorade and others, but even worse, the shareholders of the companies with Tiger Woods endorsements lost an estimate $5 to $12 billion dollars in the wake of the scandal.

Wikimedia Commons

7. Gambled And Lost

The Spanish telecom company Terra took a gamble when they purchased the search engine Lycos in 2000 for almost $12 billion. At the time, Lycos was the third most visited site in America... but that was before bubble burst. In just about a year, most internet companies in America lost millions in value. And Lycos was perhaps the biggest loser.

Terra would eventually sell the search engine in 2004 for just $95.4 million. That's an astonishing loss of $11.6 billion dollars on their investment.

Two young people wearing suits are arguing at office.yanalya, Freepik

8. I Accidentally Taped Over It!

Back in the days of data tapes, it was easy to accidentally tape over earlier recordings. Unfortunately for NASA, that’s exactly what they did, and the original tapes of the moon landing were erased and re-used. Luckily, they were able to restore the original broadcast, and offer the world a glimpse of the historic event.

The admission that NASA accidentally erased the original footage had fed rocket fuel to conspiracy theorists,  who already believed the entire lunar program that landed people on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972 was staged on a Hollywood set.


9. The Worst Nuclear Accident In U.S. History

The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in March of 1979 was the result of mechanical failures that were made worse by poor training and oversights in the human-computer interaction design. It was the most significant nuclear disaster in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.

There are conflicting reports on the cost of the disaster, with some sources stating that the radiation exposure wasn't significant enough to result in additional cancer deaths, while others insist that thousands of additional deaths have been observed.Chernobyl Disaster FactsShutterstock

10. Loss Of Cultural Knowledge

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, and was dedicated to the Muses--the 9 goddesses of the Arts.

The burning of the library resulted in an irreplaceable loss of knowledge and literature.

Wikimedia Commons

11. Don’t Drink And Steer

In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker was headed to California when it ran aground on the Bligh Reef off the Alaskan coast. The tanker spilled around 760,000 barrels of oil into the water, and the captain was later accused of being tipsy at the time of the accident. He was convicted of negligent discharge of oil.Oil Tanker ShipShipspotter Stahl, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

12. Is That Leaning?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a free-standing bell tower in the city of Pisa Italy.

The tower is famous for its lean, but that wasn’t by design. The foundation for the tower was built on ground that was too soft to support its weight, and it started to lean during construction.Bizarre eventsWikimedia.Commons

13.Threw Away Millions

A lottery winner in England lost 181 million dollars when her husband accidentally threw away her winning ticket. The woman knew the announced numbers were hers, because she always wrote them down on a separate sheet of paper before giving the ticket to her husband.

Max Pixel

14. Brought Down By Foam

On Feb 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disastrously disintegrated on re-entry, ending all seven crew members. Back when the shuttle launched, a piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and punctured the shuttle’s wing, causing damage that made the rocket unable to withstand re-entry. NASA knew about the problem when it occurred, and came under scrutiny for their negligence.

Space Shuttle Columbia 1994. (Cropped)NASA, Wikimedia Commons


15. Cutting Corners

In April of 2010, a BP oil rig burst in the gulf coast, pushing nearly five million barrels of oil from the well. It was eventually determined that years of BP favoring speed over safety and cutting corners were the true causes of the accident.Everyone Makes Mistakes At Work, But These Are UnforgettableFlickr, Offshore Norge

16. Couldn’t Corner The Market

Yasuo Hamanaka, the former chief copper trader at Sumitomo in Japan attempted to corner the market (get enough market share to manipulate the price) on copper back in 1996.

Before prices dropped and the scheme collapsed, Sumitomo controlled as much as 5% of the world’s copper. He was known as "Mr. Copper" because of his aggressive trading style. On June 13, 1996, Sumitomo Corporation reported a loss of US$1.8 billion caused by unauthorized copper trading by Hamanaka on the London Metal Exchange. It was later revealed that the true losses caused by Hamanka totalled $2.6 billion dollars.


17. Should Have Prepared For Winter

In June of 1941, Adolf H. was riding high on his victories, and was determined to claim the Russian territories to fulfill Germany’s destiny. Convinced that he would easily win, he ignored the warnings of his Army, and reportedly told them that “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russian edifice will come tumbling down." Thanks to some strategical miscalculations on Adolf H. part, and their unpreparedness for Russian winter, the German army were eventually forced to retreat.

Wikimedia Commons

18. That’s Not The System We Used!

A group of Lockheed engineers used Imperial units of measurement to build the Mars Orbiter, but the rest of the team used Metric. The use of two different systems caused the spacecraft to approach Mars on a trajectory that brought it too close to the plane. It disintegrated as it passed through the upper atmosphere. The mistake cost NASA approximately $125 million back in 1999.

Wikimedia Commons

19. Guitar Groups Are Out

D. Rowe, an A&R man at Decca Records at the time of the Beatles’ audition, is known in history as "the man who turned down the Beatles." Sources that after Rowe first heard the Fab Four, he told their manager that “Groups with guitars are on their way out.”

After their rejection, he went on to sign the Rolling Stones, and several other famous groups, but missing out on the Beatles was a big one: The Beatles have sold 600 million albums worldwide and 177 million in the United States alone.


20. They Defeated Themselves

On September 18, 1788 during the Austro-Turkish battle in the town of Karansebes, a group of Austrian army bought some drink from a band of Gypsies, got tipsy, and began to shout that the Turks were coming.

Mass confusion ensued (partly due to language barriers), panicked army began attacking at the supposed "Turkish invaders" and by the morning, 10,000 of their own army were deceased. With Friends like that, who needs enemies?

Shocked Man With GlassesKarolina Grabowska, Pexels

21. Safety First

Oil workers on the Piper Bravo Oil Rig were evacuated after an explosion ending 167 of the 226 men working on the rig in July of 1988. A safety inspector forgot to replace a valve after a routine check, and when a worker (unaware that a valve was missing) pushed the start button, gas leaked out.

Drilling rig waiting to be refurbished - 2022Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons 

22. Poked The Wrong Bear

The Sultan of the Khwarezm Empire in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran had agreed to a trade treaty with Genghis Khan, but when the caravan arrived, the Governor of Otrar seized the goods, and had all but one of the merchants ended.

Kahn then sent a delegation to the Shah to demand punishment, and he responded by shaving the heads of the ambassadors, and sending the interpreter home headless. Kahn retaliated by invading and conquering Otrar.ConquerorsShutterstock

23. A Not So Controlled Burn

In 2000, the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico began as a controlled fire, but high winds and drought caused the fire to spread out of control. The fire burned for more than a month, destroying 48,000 acres, and displacing more than 400 families.

Dating An IdiotPexels

24. Blind Belief

The triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Number 1 power plant occurred largely because despite warnings that the aging plants would not withstand a major disaster, the Japanese government had blind belief that the plants were so safe, and that a disaster of that magnitude was impossible. The accident will take an estimated 40 years and billions of dollars to clean up.

Wikimedia Commons

25. They Should Have Listened

Stop me if you've heard this one...

In April 1912, the largest passenger ship ever built began its maiden voyage across the Atlantic from England to New York. It would never finish the trip.

The Titanic was called "unsinkable". It wasn't. The ship sank in the early morning hours of April 15, after crashing into an iceberg and taking on water.

Long before the actual incident, the Titanic's crew received warnings about icebergs in the area. In the interest of saving time, the warnings were ignored. That mistake claimed the lives of 1,517 people.

Titanic Facts

26.  Billion-Dollar Write-Down

Sony thought that they were making a smart purchase when they scooped up Columbia Pictures for 3.4 billion dollars in 1989. The cost of the deal increased when they had to spend $200 million on another production company, and another $500 million to settle a lawsuit. In the end, they were forced to take a 3.2-billion-dollar write-down on the acquisition.

Jane Bartholomew Possible Model for Columbia Pictures'' Miss Liberty Logo.

27. They Thought It Was Useless

Dutch navigators extensively explored Australia almost a century before Captain James Cook claimed it for Great Britain in 1770, but they chose not to settle there because it failed to live up to their expectations. The island had been fabled to be overflowing with gold and giants, and they were disappointed by the seemingly barren coastline.Captain James Cook factsWikimedia Commons

28. Equipment Failure

America’s most expensive jet was destroyed on a practice flight in Guam when faulty sensors caused the plane to stall on take-off and crash. Luckily, both pilots were able to eject safely.



29. They Wished They’d Kept It

At the end of the Crimean battle, Russia was weakened and had very little money, and they knew that Britain could simply take over their Alaskan territory if they wished. As far as the Czar was concerned, it was just a useless piece of barren land, so he decided to sell it to the United States, rather than lose it to their British enemies. Neither party knew about the gold and petrol that lay beneath the land. If they had, Russia likely wouldn’t have sold it for 2 cents an acre.

Wikimedia Commons

30. There Was No Feast

In 1532, Conquistador Fransisco Pizarro lured the Inca ruler Atahualpa to a supposed feast in his honor. It turned out to be a trap. Pizarro’s men massacred 80,000 Inca warriors, and captured Atahualpa, forcing him to convert to Christianity before ending him.

Wikimedia Commons

31. An Unsuccessful Merger

Unfortunately for Mercedes Benz, their 1998 merger with Chrysler failed to work out as planned, and less than a decade later in 2007, Mercedes sold the company for $7 billion- about $13 billion less than they’d paid for it.Explain to an adultPexels

32. Hydrogen Is Flammable

The Hindenburg disaster marked the end of the airship era, blasting 35 passengers, and one member of the ground crew. The airship caught fire because of a spark that ignited leaking hydrogen. As the Germans discovered, hydrogen is an extremely flammable and dangerous substance, and using it to fill airships perhaps wasn’t the smartest idea.Roald Amundsen FactsWikipedia

33. Fire And Blood

A Hunter was responsible for starting the biggest fire in California’s history back in 2003. He lost a lit signal flare near the San Diego County Estates, and the fire spread. Close to 300,000 acres and 2,322 homes were destroyed. 14 people also lost their lives.Creeped Out in Daylight FactsShutterstock

34. Who Left The Gate Open?

Forgetting to close a gate isn’t normally that big a deal--unless you’re the unfortunate Roman who forgot to close the Kerkoporta Gate at Constantinople. That unfortunate soul single handily lost a siege.

You see, the walls of Constantinople were generally regarded to be impregnable, which contributed to a sense of confidence and security for the Roman defenders, who were under siege by a much larger Ottoman force.

So when one Roman guard managed to leave the gate open at night, a group of 50 Ottoman army man was able to sneak in under cover of night, slaughtering the Roman guards and raising their flag on the walls. This caused panic in the Roman ranks, who were left with the impression that the city had somehow been conquered overnight. The resulting loss of morale helped the Ottomans to actually conquer and loot the city with a subsequent invasion.


35. Abandoning The Navy

500 or so years ago, China had one of the greatest seafaring fleets in the world. They boasted 5 times the size of those being built in Europe.

By 1525, the entire fleet had been destroyed. Chinese elites urged the government to destroy their own fleet, concerned about the rising status of the middle class who had benefited from the international trade that the "Treasure Fleet" enabled. The vessels were either set aflame, or left to rot at port. Economists believe this act crippled China's economy and drastically reduced their world influence.



36. Serial Infidelity

Mining Magnate Dmitri Rybolovlev allegedly slept with other women on his yacht, leading his wife to accuse him of "serial infidelity." The divorce battle that ensued forced him to sell assets to raise cash for the settlement.

AS Monaco v Manchester City FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg.

37. A Fatal Wrong Turn

Who would have imagined that a wrong turn could start a world battle. That’s what happened on June 14, 1914, when the Archduke Ferdiand’s driver made a wrong turn. He turned down the road where the assassin Gavrilo Princip was enjoying a sandwich. The driver, realizing his mistake, slammed on the breaks and caused the car to stall, which gave Princip the opportunity to fire into the car at close range.


38.  Great Ideas That Didn’t Work

In 1957, Ford introduced the Edsel.

The car was a massive gamble. For a year before its release, Ford spent millions on a teaser campaign, which billed the as-yet-unseen Edsel as the car of the future.

Turns out, it wasn't.

The car was introduced with fanfare and excitement... but Ford would stop production in 1959, just two years after the initial sale. Unfortunately for Ford, it failed to live up to the hype created by their advertising campaign. The whole debacle cost them an estimated $250 million.

Max Pixel

39. A Strategical Error

The U.S. had three aircraft carriers assigned to Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack, but they had been displaced on missions on the day of the blast. The Japanese had received intelligence that the carriers weren’t there, but decided that it wasn’t important. This turned out to be the wrong decision, as those aircraft carriers later helped the U.S. win the battle against Japan.


40. A Flaw In The Design

On 26th April 1986, engineers at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, a Soviet facility, were testing a new cooling system designed to reduce the risk of a meltdown. Their test caused a meltdown, and the resulting explosion destroyed Chernobyl’s reactor 4. The Chernobyl Forum predicts that the eventual deceased toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation. That said, what many people don't know is that the plant actually remained a fully-functioning power plant for years after the disaster. The disaster destroyed reactor 4, but reactors 1-3 remained open for business. Due to high levels of radiation, plant employees could no longer live beside the facility, but many continued to commute to work to supply power in Europe. The final reactor only ceased operating in 2000.

Chernobyl Disaster FactsWikimedia Commons, IAEA Imagebank

41. Lost His Hard Drive

In 2009, James Howells bought 7500 bitcoins when they weren’t worth anything, and by 2013, they had risen to a value of 613 British pounds, giving him a multi-million dollar portfolio. The only problem was that he’d thrown away the hard drive where the bitcoins were stored. When he realized his mistake, he went to the landfill to try and recover it, but he was unable to locate it.

Wild Office DramaFlickr, Nenad Stojkovic

42. A Costly Spelling Mistake

The British government was sued for £9 million after a clerical error resulted in the wrong company being recorded as in liquidation. Companies House mistakenly mistook a 124-year-old Welsh company called “Taylor and Sons” for a bankrupt company “Taylor and Son” due to a clerical error that inserted an extra ‘s’ onto a liquidation notice. The mistake cost 250 people their jobs.

Wikimedia Commons

43. Too Easy To Copy

When Quaker purchased Snapple for $1.4 billion in 1994, their goal was to sell it in every grocery store in the country. But Snapple was so successful in the smaller brand-name grocery stores that companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola made their own copycat brands. Quaker sold Snapple after just three years for significantly less than what they paid.


44. A Fat Finger Trade

A Japanese trader cost his company nearly $2 million when he accidentally sold 610,000 shares for 1 yen, instead of 1 share at 610,000 yen. It was a “fat-finger keyboard error”, a mistake in which a trader places a buy/sell order at a far greater size than intended.Stressed business man crypto trader broker investor analyzing stock exchange marketGround Picture, Shutterstock

45. You Can’t Dock Here!

When a storm caused one of the 12 oil tanks on the MV Prestige to burst, the captain called for help from Spanish rescue workers, expecting to bring the vessel into harbor before it sank. Because the Spanish, French, and Portuguese governments refused to allow the ship to dock in their ports, the ship eventually split in half and sank, releasing over 20 million gallons of oil into the sea.Oil Tanker In New York HarbourPaul Harrison, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

46. No Heir, no Empire

Alexander the Great succeeded in forging the largest Western empire of the ancient world-- only for it to fall apart because he never named an heir.

Shortly before his end, Alexander was asked who should succeed him. He responded simply, “the strongest"... as though that was a helpful answer.

As it turns out, men who've spent their lives conquering much of the known world tend to be a little competitive. Upon his passing, Alexander's generals immediately vied to fill the power vaccuum... leaving his carefully crafted empire to crumble.


47. Houston We Have A Mistake

Approximately 17% of  Americans were watching on the morning of January 28, 1986, as the Space Shuttle Challenger launched toward space. On-board were 6 NASA astronauts, as well as Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, who was set to become the first teacher in space.

Tragedy struck just 72 seconds after liftoff. Gasses in the external fuel tank mixed, exploded, and tore the shuttle apart, ending all 7 crew members.

Prior to the disaster, the builder of the solid-rocket boosters, advised NASA that they believed the O-ring seals in the solid-rocket boosters could fail at extremely low temperatures. On the day of the launch, the temperature was 15 degrees colder than any previous launch in history.Sally Ride factsPicryl

48. Rejected Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling’s literary agency received 12 rejections for Harry Potter. When the 8-year-old daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury demanded to read the rest of the book, Bloomsbury finally agreed to publish it... but also advised Rowling to "get a day job" as there was little chance of making any money with children’s books.

'Harry Potter And The Cursed Child' Opening Day. J. K. Rowling.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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