Outstanding mistakes of all time

Homer Simpson History's most error prone, erm, man?

After a string of newsworthy errors, a stumble through the annals of time to choose a few favourites from history.

It has been a hectic few days for news of mistakes. Well, yes, I know that to be human is to err, but we experienced connoisseurs of the bish and the blunder look out for the ones exemplifying that to be human is also often splendidly absurd. If I might quote Puck, from the Bard's timely A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Consider, for example, the German bank clerk who fell asleep in mid transfer of 62.40 euros while his finger was on the "2" key and ended up transferring 222,222,222.22 euros instead. Or the alleged mix-up at a cemetery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which saw a couple being buried apart instead of under a headstone reading "Together for Ever".

Could happen to anyone. Which couldn't be said for Flt Lt Ben Plank, of the Red Arrows display team, who pushed the wrong button over Shropshire and sent out blue smoke behind him, rather than red, thus rather ruining the usual meticulously colour-coded show of red, white and blue.

Flt Lt Plank's is my favourite of those, combining as it does maximum impact, least harm and the simplest of errors. Others over time have, of course, had more consequence: one thinks of Eve and that apple; the Trojans and that Greek gift; the smouldering baker's oven in Pudding Lane; the Light Brigade and the wrong valley; Neville Chamberlain and that piece of paper; the Decca Records executive who turned down The Beatles because "guitar groups are on the way out"; and the less well-known, such as the Canadian seeking to escape the danger of nuclear war who emigrated to the Falklands shortly before the Argentine invasion.

For sheer consistency, though, I would recommend Mr Homer Simpson of Springfield, USA, the Laurel, Hardy and Billy Bunter of our day. And while we are with moving pictures, let me salute Harry Warner, of Warner Bros, for this splendid quote from 1927: "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

Start Quote

I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly”

End Quote Peter Cook

Allow me now, then, to present my Outstanding Mistakes of All Time, not to mock but to sympathise, remembering the words of John Bradford (1510-55): "There but for the grace of God, go I."

1. Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden (1594-1632), disdained the steel armour offered by his aides at the Battle of Lützen, saying: "The Lord God is my Armour!" Yes, the Battle of Lutzen was indeed in 1632.

2. Dennis Laroux, a US tattooist, angered three members of an all-girl chapter of Hell's Angels when he tattooed Stan's Slaves on their breasts rather than Satan's Slaves.

3. Sophia Hadi drove all the way from Leeds to Washington, Tyne and Wear, after a friend there reported hearing a rare song thrush, only to find it was, in fact, the noise made by a fork lift truck reversing at the local Asda.

A plate of spinach Spinach as a health food... an error in more ways than one

4. Peter Crawford's self-defence in a New York court suffered slightly after he asked the key witness: "Did you get a good look at my face when I snatched your bag?"

5. Maj Gen John Sedgwick (1813-1864) was unimpressed by Confederate sniper fire at the Battle of Spotsylvania. "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!"

6. Rommel decided that he could go home to celebrate his wife's birthday because Normandy was so quiet in June 1944.

7. The Liverpool Echo, in a rare error, once described Violet, the mother of the Kray twins, as "Mrs Violent Kray".

8. This was Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the General Post Office, in 1876: "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

9. The popularity of spinach as a health food, which resulted in Popeye the Sailor Man and generations of children staring miserably at a plate bearing the canned product, resulted from a misplaced decimal point in calculations of the amount of iron in it.

10. In Sonning Common, near Reading, in 2003, an unidentified motorist - you know who you are - collided with and knocked down the sign reading, "Sonning Common welcomes careful drivers".

Actually, to demonstrate how easy it is to err, I should mention that the story about the spinach is itself a mistake, and that there are doubts about Rev Bradford's authorship of going but for the grace of God (although it is true that he was burnt at the stake). But, as you will have noticed, human error is notoriously difficult to eliminate (as I might well have inadvertently illustrated).

What to do? There is no shortage of advice, from Sophocles to Einstein, about learning from them: Sir William Preece soon changed his mind about the telephone, for example. My favourite comment in the field, however, remains this, from the late Peter Cook: "I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly".

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • RomeTop coffee cities

    These six places are known for their top-notch brews and caffeine-focused cultures

Programmes

  • Papers Please gameClick Watch

    Meet the ‘bedroom programmer’ whose game has sold half a million copies and won a Bafta

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.