May 10, 2024 | Carl Wyndham

33 Of History's Most Unbelievable Screwups

"Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be" —John Wooden

We’ve done some dumb things over the years. Here are some of the biggest fails in history.

1. Challenger Mistake

When the Challenger shuttle blew up in 1986, only 73 seconds after its launch, all seven astronauts aboard were tragically incinerated, and the American public became traumatized by the televised tragedy. What went wrong? The O-ring seal in the joint of its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff due the low temperatures. The O-ring was known to fail at low temperatures, but the managers of the launch ignored the warnings of the engineers about the low temperatures.

History's Most Unbelievable Screwups

2. Who Let the Bees Out

The Africanized bee that has spread across the American continents isn’t a naturally occurring bee, and was actually cross-bred in Brazil during the 1950s. These highly aggressive and territorial bees escaped from quarantine and have since continued their way North into the United States, first showing up in North America 1985.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

3. Muddy Assault

One of the most important English victories during the Hundred Years War with France was the Battle of Agincourt, when King Henry V led his army into France and came up head to head with a larger army. However, the commander of the French army really screwed up his advantage. He went at the English army in a very muddy field, so the heavily-armored French became sitting ducks for the famed English archers, who picked off the slipping and sliding French with ease.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

4. Just Don’t Go There

Sometimes the obvious ones are obvious for a reason. But the ego of individuals in power can often grow too big to control. Such is the case of attempting to invade Russia in the winter. Charles XII, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler all pushed their luck too far and made the calamitous misstep of bringing their army into Russia during the winter. Never a good idea. Unless you're a Mongol.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikipedia

5. Burning Books

The burning of books and knowledge centers such as libraries is an ancient form of cultural cleansing that is still practiced today. Two notable examples are the Library of Serapeum and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Unfortunately, this tactic is still in practice, with ISIS burning books throughout Iraq.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

6. Mission to Mars

The Mars Climate Orbiter was sent to Mars to survey our red neighbor in 1998. Everything was going well, and the space probe entered the orbit of the planet in 1999, only to be lost and possibly disintegrated. The failure is attributed to the fact that NASA was using metric-newtons, but manufacturer Lockheed Martin had equipped the bot with British pound-seconds instead. So, that was somewhere around $300 million down the drain.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

7. Don’t Mess With Genghis

Don't tick off Genghis Khan. Khan sent a convoy to the Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad for negotiations, but instead received the severed head of his diplomat in return. Yeah, wrong move guy. The Khan responded by sending a massive swarm of troopers to annihilate the Shah's empire.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

8. Who Left the Gate Open

In 1453, the Ottomans besieged Constantinople in an attempt to topple the Byzantine Empire. Though many thought the siege would fail, they underestimated good old human forgetfulness. In this case, according to a contemporary account, the Byzantines forgot to close one of their gates to Constantinople, allowing the Ottomans to waltz right in and raise their flags on the city walls. This caused widespread panic among the Byzantine troopers and the Ottomans managed to take the rest of the city with relative ease.

Unbelievable Screwups factsFlickr, dmytrok

9. Titanic Failure

You would think that the technological marvel of the Titanic would have spent a little of the money used on the ship for safety precautions. Wrong. Instead, because of ridiculously outdated safety regulations, the Titanic was severally understocked in lifeboats, which doomed many aboard the ship during its meeting with an iceberg.

Oceans factsWikipedia

10. Start The Conflict 

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand is known as the kickoff of WWI, but it only occurred due to a mistake Ferdinand’s driver made. Earlier in the day, there was an attempt to take Ferdinand out with an explosive. Later, as the driver was taking the Archduke to visit the hospital where the victims of the explosion were being treated, he made a wrong turn and wound up in front of one of the original assassins, who realized the golden opportunity and took it.

Assassinations factsWikimedia Commons

11. Draw the Line

The Maginot line was built by the French along their border prior to WWII in order to divert the German army through Belgium. The project cost billions adjusted for inflation, and was an intricate system of fortifications and military strong points that was supposed to be impenetrable. The only problem? The Germans simply went around it, entering a different part of Belgium the French weren't expecting.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

12. Be Careful of What You Bake

Distraction isn’t a thing that happens only because of cell phones. In fact, humans are always getting distracted. The Great Fire of London was started accidentally by a baker when he got sidetracked and forgot rake out his oven of the days crumblings. The baker denied it until he passed on, but we see you dude.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

13. Forest Fires Kill

In 2003, the largest fire at that point in California history took place after a lost hunter shot off a flare in an attempt to be found. Somewhere outside of San Diego, the hunter’s flare started a fire that rapidly grew out of control and devastated the entire region.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

14. Cats in the City

While Britain was suffering through The Great Plague of London, many people believed that cats were spreading the plague, and they started to kill off the city’s felines. Bad idea. As it turns out, rats were responsible for the spread, and by killing off the cats, people allowed the disease to get even further of control as the rat population boomed without as much predator competition.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wallpaper flare

15. No Place Here

In 1962, Decca Records was under the belief that guitar groups would not have a place in the future, and turned down the opportunity to sign a little-known band called The Beatles.

The Beatles FactsWikimedia Commons

16. Emu Battle

Emus, the massive flightless birds who can eat a farmer’s entire harvest in one sitting, invaded Australian farmland in 1932 and set about to doing damage to their stock. In need of help, the army was called in to drive the emus away. What might seem like a problem easily solved by army troopers and machine guns, however, is actually not. Apparently immune to bullets, the emus could not be corralled, and eventually the Australian army was forced to admit defeat for the time being.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

17. Iraqi Invasion

The War in Iraq is largely seen as one of the biggest failures in American history, with even George W. Bush lamenting it as his “biggest regret.” The decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein was a confluence of intelligence and policy failures, as the Bush administration embarked on a propaganda campaign to convince the world of an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Flickr, The U.S. National Archives

18. Communication Breakdown

Relations between Cuba and the United States have been poisoned ever since the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion attempt went horribly wrong. The attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime and supplant it with a shadow government failed disastrously; their attack unit didn't receive proper support and were butchered on the southern beaches of Cuba.

Embarrassing Moments In History factsWikipedia

19. Inept Intelligence Sharing

The attack on Pearl Harbor can be seen as a failure of the American intelligence community, which was then lacking a centralized agency. The United States had cracked a Japanese code and warned Washington of the potential attack on Hawaii, but inadequate intelligence sharing among government agencies led to a neglect of information, and no preparations were made in case of attack.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

20. Patriarchal Failure

This one is a good kind of failure. Elizabeth Blackwell was rejected from every medical school she applied to, 29 in total, until Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) accidentally accepted her. Despite the fact that many MDs refused to work with her, she would persevere to become the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. She would go on to establish the first medical college for women.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

21. Their Own Explosives Lead to Their Demise

Adolf H had promised a victory on Soviet soil, but a failure to keep a mobile strategic reserve by his Generals led to their defeat and a turning point in WWII. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the entire German Sixth Army was surrounded by Soviet troopers. The Fuhrer's tanks, however, were unable to enter the city because of the mass amount of rubble left by the Germans' own explosion.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikipedia

22. Siesta Surprise

There’s no sleeping in battle. On April 21st, 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto in the Texas Revolution went down when General Santa Anna allowed his army to take an afternoon siesta in order to get some rest, even though he was aware of the close proximity of the Texian army. General Sam Houston seized this opportunity and led a surprise attack in broad daylight, slaughtering 630 of Santa Anna's 1,400 troopers.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

23. Antioch Embarrassment

Roman Emperor Julian embarked on a Persian campaign in the year 363 that would prove to be one of Rome’s largest failures. In an attempt to invade the Sassanian Empire, Julian led his army into the interior of the region and became trapped. He would soon perish, and his successor, Emperor Jovian, had sign one of the more humiliating peace treaties in history in order to save what was left of the Roman army.

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

24. Betamax Bust

Ever wonder how VHS became synonymous with home video? Well, when video was released in the 1970s it was released by many different companies, Sony released the Betamax, a superior home video format. While VHS flooded the market and became ubiquitous, Sony retained Betamax as propriety, not allowing the technology to be produced by other companies, thus stunting its growth and allowing VHS to not simply dominate the market but fully dictate it.

Mötley Crüe factsPixabay

25. Civil Conflict Blunder

The Battle of Gettysburg is seen as the turning point for the American Civil conflict, and Pickett’s Charge is one of its big failures. On the last day of the battle, the South embarked on a combative advance directly onto open fields, subsequently suffering a 50% causality rate from which they were never able to recover, materially or psychologically.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

26. Mayoral Failure

252 people lost their lives in 1992 when the city of Guadalajara underwent a series of tragic explosions due to inept local governance. Days before the explosions, the city saw gas leaking into its sewers and water supply, but the mayor found it no cause for concern and left everything as is, only to see it literally explode in his face.

Unbelievable Screwups factsPixabay

27. Mississippi River Collapse

The I-35W Mississippi River bridge on collapsed in 2007, leading to the deaths of 13 people and leaving 145 injured. The bridge was simply a poor design that was never fixed, and given the date of its collapse, it could have been prevented with modern technology.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikipedia

28. When The Levees Broke

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, some damage was expected, but the destruction that occurred led to an incredible unprecedented emergency. New Orleans saw the most damage, as the failure of their levees caused flooding in 80% of the city. The cause of failure for their levees was inadequate design and construction, which proved disastrous for the highly vulnerable area.

Nicolas Cage factsWikipedia

29. Mutual Loss

During the financial crisis of 2008, Washington Mutual was the largest bank to fail, as they had $307 billion in total assets and $188 billion in deposits when they were seized.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

30. Texas Not Too Big To Fail

In the 1980s, the US went through a massive savings and loan crisis that saw many banks fail. The largest was First Republic Bank, who went down in 1988 with $33.4 billion.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

31. Deadly Dam Break

The deadliest dam collapse in US history occurred in 1889, when the South Fork Dam broke and flooded Johnstown, Pennsylvania with 20 million gallons of water. The failure of the dam resulted in 2,209 deaths.

Unbelievable Screwups factsFlickr, daveynin

32. Dam Instability

Considered one of the worst engineering disasters of the 20th century, the failure of the Saint Francis Dam in Los Angeles County in 1928 occurred after only 2 years of unstable operation. 12.4 billion gallons of water surged in waves as high as 120 feet, cutting the power and killing over 430 people. The remains of victims kept being found well into the 1950s.

Unbelievable Screwups facts Wikimedia Commons

33. Self Defeat

The Austrian army once suffered a terrible defeat due to their own ludicrous incompetence: At the Battle of Karánsebes they managed to destroy most of their own army when they attacked... themselves. The scouting unit for two separate divisions of the Austrian army mistook the other for the Ottomans and they decimated each other. The best part is, the Ottomans hadn't even showed up yet!

Unbelievable Screwups factsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22


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