According to Isaac Newton, for any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton, of course, was talking about physics, yet any experienced historian will tell you that this concept applies to their field as well: one action — no matter how small — can literally change the world. These figures may not have realized it in the moment, but their last-minute decisions singlehandedly altered the course of history.
One of the leading faces of the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. is fondly remembered for his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Unbelievably, MLK improvised the speech on the spot, completely abandoning his notes after one gospel singer asked him to tell the audience about his “dream.”
Astonishingly, the tragedy of the Titanic could have been avoided if not for one change in staff. When Second Officer David Blair was removed from the crew, he forgot to hand in his key to the locker that housed the lookout binoculars. As a result, the crew relied on their own eyesight to spot danger ahead, a contingency plan that proved catastrophic.
Infamous for her ignorance, Queen Marie Antoinette was one of the main causes of the French Revolution, as her lavish lifestyle infuriated the struggling working class. Ultimately, this vanity led to the death of her family. Instead of fleeing in a regular carriage Marie demanded a fancier one for her escape, which proved to be slower and allowed the mob to catch up to them.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States vaporized the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Initially, America wanted to bomb Kokura, though a young crewman named Kermit Beahan insisted it was too cloudy to see the entire city. What turned out to be a lucky break for Kokura became a tragedy for Nagasaki, the next target on the list.
Famous for his elaborate public appearances, Theodore Roosevelt decided to make a grand speech during his reelection campaign in 1912. As he stood at his podium, someone in the crowd shot Roosevelt in the chest. Miraculously, his 50-page speech, which he’d tucked into his pocket just moments before, blocked the bullet. You better believe this gutsy president then decided to continue delivering his speech as planned!
In 1994, tensions between the United States and North Korea reached a boiling point. After discovering that North Korea had been developing nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary William Perry briefed President Bill Clinton on how to respond. While he had a plan for bombing North Korea’s nuclear facility, Perry decided to keep quiet, fearing that Clinton would greenlight the attack. A few days later, a peace settlement was reached.
Before going on vacation in the fall of 1928, Alexander Fleming forgot to clean up his lab. Once he returned, he noticed that some of his Petri dishes were contaminated with a green mold called Penicillium notatum. Following further experimentation, penicillin was born.
In April 1961, the CIA trained Cuban exiles as part of a plan to attack Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and overthrow Fidel Castro. Following a failed airstrike, President John F. Kennedy sent in six American fighter planes, only for the pilots to forget to adjust their watches to the Cuban time zone. As a result, the planes arrived an hour too early, and the operation failed miserably.
East German politician Guenter Schabowski enabled the tearing down of the Berlin Wall — and it was all due to lazy reading. When asked during a press conference about travel from East to West Berlin, Schabowski said it would be allowed immediately. Amusingly, he gave this answer because he didn’t read an update that included the official answer. Germans on both sides then demanded to have freedom of movement across the border.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was traveling in a motorcade when Bosnian militant Gavrilo Princip threw a bomb under his car. Due to a delayed explosion, the Archduke escaped unharmed, though he remained nearby to visit the victims of the attack at the hospital. Unfortunately, the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn, leading him back to the armed Princip. Ferdinand’s assassination kickstarted World War I.
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to visit the theatre with his wife Mary, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grant’s wife Julia. The outing was cancelled because the women didn’t get along, though Lincoln insisted on attending the show as people were expecting him. Needless to say, John Wilkes Booth also visited the theatre and ended Lincoln’s life not long after.
In 1955, Rosa Parks was riding on a bus when she was asked to give up her seat in the “colored” section to a white passenger. Her refusal led to her arrest. Parks’ decision was truly spontaneous, though she also knew that her local NAACP chapter was looking to protest discriminatory bussing laws. Her act of defiance sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality and made her a symbol of the American civil rights movement.
Every ’50s rock fan sorrowfully remembers the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, Jr., aka the Big Bopper. What’s particularly tragic is that if Buddy Holly had not convinced the others to take a charter plane so he could get to their next city early and do laundry, the group would’ve hopped a bus to their next show and survived.
With Cold War tensions at their peak in 1983, Stanislav Petrov was practically on the front lines as he monitored the Soviets’ early warning systems. When a sensor indicated that the US had launched missiles toward the USSR, Petrov sensed that something was wrong and decided not to alert his superiors. Petrov’s inaction likely prevented a nuclear war — especially since the warning was a false alarm!
As the American Civil War raged on, Confederate general Robert E. Lee sent his troops north in search of supplies. Once the entire Army of Northern Virginia arrived in the Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg, they were greeted by Union forces — an encounter that changed the tide of the entire war.
While calculus is an integral part of any mathematics syllabus today, advancements in the field would have been made much sooner had it not been for one 13th-century monk. Desperate for paper on which to write his prayers, the monk erased part of an ancient text written by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician. In short, he unknowingly rubbed out the foundations of calculus!
In 1888, John Dunlop’s son was struggling to ride his tricycle on a bumpy cobbled street when, suddenly, Dunlop got an idea. He cut a rubber hose and wrapped it around the wheel, thereby making it easier to ride the tricycle on such an uneven surface. Thus, the tire was born!
Carthaginian military leader Hannibal Barca nearly conquered Rome during the Second Punic War, though one poor choice he made while traversing the Alps cost him victory. To prove to his officers that the ground was still solid, Hannibal struck a snowbank — the resulting avalanche wiped out most of his troops.
The storming of Normandy on D-Day was a crucial moment in World War II that led to the Allies’ victory. It was also the day that German Field Marshall and tactical mastermind Erwin Rommel (nicknamed Desert Fox) abandoned his post. Why, you ask? Because he decided to take some time off to surprise his wife with a vacation for her birthday — a very costly mistake.
After a Russian contingent captured the Pristina Airport in 1999, NATO peacekeeping forces were called in to block the runways. At the last minute, Commander Mike Jackson refused the order from his superior, telling him, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.”
The Confederates made plenty of mistakes en route to their Civil War defeat. During the invasion of Maryland in September 1862, Robert E. Lee sent a note outlining battle plans to Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, who carelessly left it in a cigar box on the ground. Soon after, Union troops found the note and learned of all the plans the Confederates had up their sleeves.
In an attempt to eliminate Fidel Castro, the CIA once hired Marita Lorenz, one of Castro’s jaded lovers, to poison him. Lorenz traveled to Cuba and got close enough to kill Castro, though she instead revealed the entire plot to him.
Johann Rall, a German colonel whose troops aided the British during the American Revolution, was handed intelligence on George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River the night before it happened. Unfortunately, Rall was too lazy to read the note and instead decided to play poker. Had he taken more of an interest in his duties, Rall could’ve prevented the massacre that would soon follow.
Yet not everything they say about the days of Colonial America should be taken at face value. For example, Paul Revere is said to have cried, “The British are coming!” on his famous ride — in reality, he actually shouted, “The regulars are coming” because citizens of Massachusetts at the time still considered themselves British.
Although many portraits imply all the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence at the same time, it was actually signed over the course of several months by all the men. Also Nic Cage never actually stole it, but you already knew that.
Loads of kids are taught the Puritans were suffering religious persecution, and when they finally escaped to America, they preached religious freedom. However, they were actually incredibly close-minded and banished people who didn’t believe what they did.
Every year, millions of people celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. However, there’s no proof that was when it occurred in history. When the celebration started, it was a three-day harvest festival that occurred sometime in September or November.
During the Revolutionary War, it’s a common belief the British grossly underestimated the colonists before they attacked. However, Britain didn’t actually have such a confident outlook. In the end, they suffered a horrible defeat.
One bizarre myth people believe — even though it’s not necessarily written in textbooks — is that George Washington had wooden teeth. He did wear dentures, but they consisted of ivory, bits of metal, and teeth from deceased humans.
Contrary to what many teachers tell their students about the European settlers being the first group to traverse America’s wilderness when they arrived, the Native Americans were there long before them, working the land for agriculture.
The Salem Witch Trials took place in 1692 after several women in Salem, Massachusetts were accused of witchcraft. However, none were burned at the stake like movies and books lead us to believe; most were actually executed by hanging.
While many people believe when the settlers came they set up colonies completely separate from Native Americans, it was actually quite common for settlements to include both groups. Some settlers even left their own colonies to join them.
Americans are proud to celebrate July fourth as the day the country declared independence from England, but it was actually two days earlier on July second. The first printing of the Declaration of Independence was on the fourth.
During battle, soldiers would often run out of ammunition, and it’s a common belief they melted down cups and plates to make bullets. However, those items contained pewter, which was a much less effective material compared to lead.
Many historians believed there was once a special tax on mirrors because they were shipped in small pieces as a way to avoid taxes on large panes. The truth is it was simply easier to transport smaller pieces.
Shop signs that had pictures instead of words were once thought to cater to a largely illiterate settler population. However, research proved most people actually were literate, and pictures were just the trend.
The American Revolution is commonly thought of as a war between American colonies and Britain. While those groups were indeed at war, there were colonists on both sides, as well as other countries offering assistance.
There’s an odd belief floating around that pregnant women would seclude themselves from society until they gave birth. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Pregnant women led their lives as usual until the big day arrived.
Many women in the colonial era wore long skirts, which led some to believe it was forbidden for them to show their ankles. Although there were periods where that occurred, colonial times weren’t one of them.
Many colonial staircases have a top step that’s shorter than the rest. This was not to alert homeowners of stumbling intruders — it was because staircases were built from the bottom up, leaving less wood for the top step.
A huge part of colonial life was apprenticeships, but they didn’t all last 11 years like many believe. They varied from apprentice to apprentice, and some even ended at age 21 regardless of when it began.
Depending on what region continental soldiers were stationed in, not all of them were starving and worn out on a daily basis like many people think. In fact, some battalions had substantial provisions and comfortable housing.
Even though there were a few instances where guerrilla warfare tactics were used in battle, almost all of the fighting happened the same way — soldiers faced each other from across the battlefield and took turns shooting.