Small Things That Changed History

11. Thirst


The Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 because the ship ran out of beer. In August 1620, the Pilgrims left Southampton, England on two ships the Speedwell and the Mayflower. Later, the former sprang a leak and the pilgrims consolidated themselves on the Mayflower. After 64 days, on November 9, 1620, the Mayflower sighted Cape Cod. Their patent from the Virginia Company of London authorized them to establish a plantation between 38 and 41 degrees north latitude but Cape Cod was just north of 42 degrees. However, the terrible weather and depleting supply of beer dissuaded the pilgrims from traveling southwards.  The colonists headed to a nearby shelter, then called “Thievish Harbor,” and settled there.

10. A sneeze


According to some historians the massacre of the boulevards after the coup d’état of Napoleon III   resulted from a mistaken command. Napoleon III is said to have been suffering from a severe cold, and to have exclaimed “Ma sacré toux!“—”My wretched cough”—which was misinterpreted by a zealous officer as “Massacrez tous,” or “Kill everybody.” There were some 1,200 prisoners of war incarcerated by the State, and they too were accordingly killed.

9. A comma


The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads: A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. Or does it? The Library of Congress’ ratified version reads thus, but the document held in the National Archives has two additional and unusual commas, one between “Militia” and “being” and another between “Arms” and “shall” –thus syntactically relating “A well regulated Militia” to “shall not be infringed”. Whether this mean the goal of the Amendment is to protect the militia against federal interference is the million-dollar question asked by the Constitutional scholars since, leading to many heated debates and even many more heated criminal court cases.
Trivia: Wife of Russian Tsar Alexander III, Princess Dagmar of Denmark once changed a place of a comma and saved a life. Her husband personally wrote the death sentences with the following words: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” The princess changed the sentence to “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

8. A nail

When Richard was preparing for a war at Bosworth Field in 1485 with Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, he sent a groom to make sure his favourite horse was ready. The groom asked the blacksmith to shoe the horse quickly with the available materials. After he had fastened three shoes, the blacksmith found he did not have enough nails for the fourth. The impatient groom took the horse anyway. However, in the thick of the battle, as Richard charged to prevent some of his men breaking line and  falling back, one of the horse’s shoes flew off. The horse stumbled and fell, and Richard was thrown to the ground and the horse galloped away. As Henry’s troops closing around him, Richard shouted futilely: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”– the lines since  immortalized by Shakespeare. But there would be no horse for him, and Richard perished on the Bosworth Field.

7. Bad Design


In 2000, Florida voters who were confused by Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballot cost Al Gore the presidency. Unlike regular ballots, the butterfly ballot uses two pages to put the presidential candidates’ name so that the county’s many elderly voters can read the print size. However the contention came when many  voters assumed that Gore and Bush are the first two choices as Florida law requires. Instead, they found Buchanan, on the opposite page, between them. In nearly 7,000 votes, voters marked more than one name on the county’s now-infamous “butterfly ballot,”–the number which is more than 10 times the winning margin George Bush received to claim Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House.

6. A Photo-Op


During 1988 elections in the U.S., the Republican nominee George H. W. Bush criticized the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for his liberal positions, especially his ‘softness’ on defense policy. Dukakis has also been under fire  for his vocal criticism of “Star Wars” defense initiative.  To refute the facts that he was soft on defense, Dukakis orchestrated what would become the key image of his campaign—a publicity shoot that went terribly wrong. In September 1988, he visited the General Dynamics plant in Michigan to take part in a photo op in an M1 Abrams tank. Dukakis’ ridiculous “tank moment” was used in television ads by the Bush campaign, as evidence that Dukakis would not make a good commander-in-chief, and “Dukakis in the tank” remains shorthand for backfired public relations outings. Bush handily beat Dukakis in the election.

5.  Haemorrhoids (Piles)


On the morning of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was too exhausted and distracted by pain from his haemorrhoids to focus or to ride out. Two days earlier, his doctors had lost the leeches used to relieve the pain of his piles and accidentally overdosed him with laudanum, from whose ill-effects he was still suffering on the morning of the battle. Napoleon rescheduled launching his assault, originally planned for 6am, to 9am and then again to midday. Marshal Ney took command in Napoleon’s absence and made some poor decisions that altered the battle’s outcome.

4. A stamp


In the late 1800s, the United States government negotiated with Nicaraguan President Jose Santos Zelaya to build a canal through Nicaragua. President McKinley nearly signed the authorization to build Nicaragua Canal before he was assassinated. However, one Philipe Bunau-Varilla was lobbying Congress to suppport a French company constructing a similar canal across Panama. In the spring of 1902, Mt. Momotombo, a volcano in Nicaragua, erupted. Bunau-Varilla sent a copy of Nicaraguan stamp depicitng the volcano to all 45 U.S. Senators, with a note saying the menacing volcano would threaten the canal route. Although the volcano is far away from the planned route, the Senate voted in the favor of the Panama route.

3. A boardgame


During World War II, the British secret service smuggled escape kits to prisoners of war inside Germany through monopoly boxes. The secret service asked the British manufacturer of Monopoly, John Waddington Ltd. , to manufacture a “special edition” Monopoly set. The manufacturing was done is a secret room in the factory, where small niches in the games’ cardboard boxes were carved. Inside the playing pieces, metal files, magnetic compasses, and maps made of silk were included. Real money was substituted in the place of monopoly money. Departing allied soldiers and pilots were told that if they were captured they should look out for the special editions, identified by a red dot in the Free Parking space. By the end of the war, it’s estimated that more than 35,000 Allied POWs had escaped from German prison camps.

2. A key


Just before HMS Titanic’s departure from England in April 1912, Second Officer David Blair was removed from the ship’s roster. In the haste of being replaced, Blair failed to pass to his replacement the key to the crow’s nest locker, which held the binoculars. After the disaster, one of the surviving lookouts, Fred Fleet, giving evidence to the US inquiry, confirmed that they did not have any binoculars. Had they done so, he testified, they could have seen the iceberg earlier. When the inquiry chairman asked, “How much earlier?” the lookout replied, “Well, enough to get out of the way.” The key was later auctioned off.

1. A Translation


At the end of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Allies issued an ultimatum demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. Although she was nearing the breaking point, Japan wanted to negotiate for peace, rather than to unconditionally surrender. So, the Japanese Council of War issued a press statement saying it offer “no comment” on the ultimatum. The Japanese word used – mokusatsu – has several meaning: to ignore or to refrain from comment, its literally meaning being ‘to kill by silence’. The Japanese and American interpreters used “ignore”. The national pride and diplomacy prevented the Council of War from recanting the statement or correcting it. With the Japanese ‘refusal’ in mind, the Americans continued to fight in the Pacific until two atom bombs were dropped in August 1945 and Japan unconditionally surrendered.


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