7 Famous Mistakes That Changed The Course Of History

To err is human, but sometimes mistakes are so big that they end up making history.
Berühmte lustige Schreibfehler repräsentiert durch ein Denkmal von James Joyce auf einem Friedhof

No matter who makes them or when, mistakes can be incredibly embarrassing for everyone. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. For example, when someone is learning a language, making mistakes is a normal and essential part of the learning process. Another interesting thing about making mistakes is that everyone makes them, but oftentimes nobody even notices. When we understand that nobody is infallible, it makes it easier to accept our own mistakes because it becomes a fundamental part of the learning process.

That’s why we created this list of seven famous historical mistakes to reassure you that we’re all human. Our list has some pretty colossal mistakes that have led to major upsets. Sometimes they’re been funny errors, while other times they’ve affected space missions.

Seven Famous Historical Mistakes And Their Consequences

The Adulterers’ Bible

Imagine that you’re a printer, and the King of England has just commissioned you to print the Bible. Now imagine that you’re the same printer, and you just realized that you forgot to add a “not” in front of one of the commandments. More specifically, you forgot to add a “not” in front of the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That’s how “Thou shalt not commit adultery” became “Thou shalt commit adultery.” It was a pretty big mistake that led to the removal and destruction of all the misprinted Bibles later on. A few of these Bibles survived, however: 16 copies are kept in different libraries, including the New York Public Library and the British Library, while others sometimes appear seemingly out of nowhere. In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned off a copy of the so-called “Wicked Bible” for a little over $50,000 USD.

Subliminal Massages

Speaking of written mistakes, one of the most famous historical mistakes in modern literarature involves a famous quote from Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message” which was included in his fundamental 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. A few years later, McLuhan wrote an experimental book that was supposed to use his famous phrase as the title, but due to a typo, the title became The Medium is the Massage. The most interesting part about the mishap is that McLuhan found the typo particularly fitting for the piece. According to the sociologist, his phrase, “The medium is the message” would’ve become so popular that it would’ve bordered on becoming a cliché. In any case, the typo was a mistake, but it still ended up being a success. It was even more proof that happy accidents do exist.

Extremely Expensive Coins

In 2010, Chilean Mint director Gregorio Iniguez made a name for himself around the world for a mistake that would eventually go down in history. While minting 1.5 million 50-peso coins, the Mint made a spelling mistake while engraving the coins, and that’s how the country got stuck with a mountain of coins that were spelled “Chiie” instead of “Chile.”

Mission, Interrupted

At the peak of the Space Race in 1962, NASA was preparing for a mission to gather more information on Venus. The mission, called Mariner 1, should’ve officially launched on July 22 of that year. The launch did in fact take place, but the duration of the Mariner 1 voyage to Venus was much shorter than expected. Due to a minor yet critical error, NASA was forced to blow the spacecraft up. A programmer forgot to add a hyphen on top of a variable which caused the rocket to behave in an unexpected manner. And that’s how $19 million USD spent on the mission went up in smoke — all because of an itty-bitty hyphen.

The Words That Never Were

And here you thought that dictionaries were an infallible authority on language…on the contrary; they can be full of big mistakes! For several years, Merriam-Webster, one of the most popular and prestigious English language dictionaries had an entry for a word that didn’t actually exist: dord. According to lexicographers at the time, the term meant “density.” After a few years, an eagle-eyed reader noticed that the word didn’t have any etymological references, and soon the word that never was fell into obscurity. What happened was that the  writer in charge of chemical terminology made a note on the letter D and wrote “D or d, cont./density.” In other words, the capital or lowercase letter “d” is shorthand for density among other things. But someone who read the note misunderstood and interpreted ‘dord’ as another word for density.

The Horns Of Moses

If you’ve been to Rome, you may have visited the San Pietro in Vincoli church, which is home to one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, Moses. If you have an eye for detail, you might’ve spotted two horns on Moses’ head. Did Michelangelo intend to give the prophet an evil side? Not at all! The horns are actually an integral part of the prophet’s iconography. The depiction is deliberate, but it was caused by a mistranslation. Because the Hebrew language doesn’t write out vowels, St. Jerome — who translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin in the second century — mistranslated the term qāran, meaning “horn,” though the term qâran originally was intended to mean emanating light. For centuries, Moses was believed to have been given horns when he received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai instead of emanating light. By the time that Michelangelo began his sculpture, the mistake was widely known and acknowledged, but clearly the iconography hadn’t been adapted to the updated interpretation.

James Joyce, Samuel Beckett And Finnegans Wake

At the end of the day, what is an error, anyway? You’d have to ask James Joyce, the author of Finnegans Wake. Joyce used the stream of consciousness technique in his final novel. This is one reason why Finnegans Wake is considered to be one of the most difficult if not impossible books to translate. To give you just one example of its complexity, one day, while Joyce was dictating to Samuel Beckett, someone knocked at the door, and the Irish writer said, “Come in.” Beckett didn’t realize that the phrase wasn’t part of the dictation, and so he added it accordingly to Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Later on, Joyce realized the unexpected addition and decided to keep the mistake in. It’s unclear if the story is true or not, but Beckett recounted the incident in an interview as another way of saying that mistakes, invented or otherwise, are worthy of a story and can always teach us something.

We hope this list of famous historical mistakes gives you a little bit of reassurance. Next time you’re trying to speak in a foreign language and you freeze in fear of making a mistake, try to keep in mind that flubbing is a normal part of the learning process. Nobody is immune to making mistakes. Not even us!

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