Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Interesting

Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell created the first color photograph in history, entitled “Tartan Ribbon”; ca. 1861


Best known for his development of electromagnetic theory, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell dabbled in color theory throughout his life, eventually producing the first color photograph in 1861. Maxwell created the image of the tartan ribbon shown here by photographing it three times through red, blue, and yellow filters, then recombining the images into one color composite.

Prokudin-Gorsky photography



Signal tower in the village of Burkovo

These are actually not colorized photographs, they’re color photographs by a man named Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He’s a Russian who really pioneered in, and made the field of color photography something worth funding. He was given funding by Tsar Nicholas II to take 2 trips through Russia photographing everything that came to mind. He went on 2 trips, one in 1909, and one a bit later in 1915.

Gorsky was one of the later photographers in this medium, but he certainly wasn’t someone who fades in comparison. The earlier individuals are people who were experimenting with different methods, cameras, exposures, and emulsions (The light-sensitive coating that was smeared on the glass plate to permanently imprint the image after the exposure). Individuals like Adolf Miethe (who was active in 1902 onwards), and Edward Raymond Turner (The Englishman who filmed the first color photographs in 1902) have one thing in common –They all used the same three-color process of photographing three individual glass plates in red, green, and blue, and then combining them in one channel.

The three-color process was first theorized by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, and put in to practice by a man named Thomas Sutton in a photograph captured in 1861, a very famous one nonetheless! It was a simple tartan ribbon, but it reproduced permanent color. There’s been earlier examples of possible color photographs, like the Hillotypes (Named for the inventor, a minister by the name of Levi Hill), but this is an entirely different story altogether, and one with which I’m not familiar enough to comfortably answer.

All in all, after Maxwell’s successful ‘experiment’ conducted by Sutton, a man named Louis Ducos du Hauron caught an interest in the medium. Before 1877, he had patented several processes related to color photography, and finally in ’77, he took the first confirmed color photograph. There’s been rumors of this photograph being from 1869, but others put it at 1879. It’s currently disputed enough to really not make the running, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, Hauron is my favorite person of this era.

Moving along to the late 19th century, the Lumière brothers come in to play. Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière (Lumière meaning Light in French!) held a little get together in 1895, screening early motion pictures. The 2 brothers also invented the dry-plate, which was necessary for commercially viable color photography, but that’s for later! They theorized that a plate, with a single exposure, could produce viable color photographs, instead of the previously tiring 3 exposures for a single photograph. So, they set about trying for the different ways of achieving this. They didn’t actually receive any success until 1903, when they filed the following patent for an Autochrome Lumière (A small excerpt):

  • The colored particles are grains of starch, ferments, leavens, bacilli, pulverized enamels, or other pulberulent and transparent materials. They are colored by means of colors also transparent in orange, green, and violet, or else in red, yellow, and blue, or even in any number of colors, such that the grains of these different colors being mixed as intimately as possible in the state of dry powder and in suitable proportions and then applied to the glass they do not communicate to the surface of the plate any appreciate coloration.

So essentially, in 1907, they launched the Autochrome Lumière to great success. It was affordable (Not compared to B/W photography though!), it was simple, and it was user friendly. Pop in a plate, expose, color photography! Quite simple, really. However, Gorsky, used the three-color method to great success. He achieved unprecedented results and a stunning quality compared to his colleagues, mostly due to something called ‘digichromatography’. Gorsky’s camera is also unknown as he likely designed it himself, but a fun fact is he might’ve drawn inspiration from Adolf Miethe who he met while traveling through Germany, Miethe having had his camera designed by a cabinet maker while in Berlin.

In the later years, more pioneers entered the field. People with inventions that were brilliant, but not commercially viable, and inventions that were quite funky, but, well, ingenious. All in all, a quick wrap is easy.

Here’s a video covering this subject quite nicely, from the annals of the craft to the modern 20th century:


German soldier lighting his cigarette with a flamethrower; ca. 1940s.

I don't always say nice things about Nazis, but that's about the most badass way to light a cigarette. Although, I'm sure it was a pretty common way for people with flamethrowers to light a cigarette.

I don’t always say nice things about Nazis, but that’s about the most badass way to light a cigarette. Although, I’m sure it was a pretty common way for people with flamethrowers to light a cigarette.

Flamethrowers had two fuel lines. The line he is lighting is cigarette with is sort of like a pilot line. It is a smaller fuel line that stays lit and can produce a bit of a larger flame when its trigger is pressed. The second line is for the big fire. This contains a thicker gelatinous type of fuel. So the flamer will pull the first trigger making the pilot flame larger, then pulls the second trigger emitting the thicker fuel which gets lit by the pilot flame raining hellfire upon anyone in its path. So technically its not really a blowtorch, but just a little pilot flame.

A computer programming classroom in the Soviet Union; a poster on the wall reads ‘Train BASIC Everyday!’; ca. 1985

Top line says: "Programming - the second grammar. The first grants knowledge. The second enables realization of knowledge in earnest"

Top line says: “Programming – the second grammar. The first grants knowledge. The second enables realization of knowledge in earnest”

The Soviets had a very diverse and powerful set of computational hardware and languages, and having developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world (*They had to wait for it to be released, reverse engineer it, and then attempt to reproduce it), they’ve built some pretty unique stuff.

There are websites out there dedicated to documenting this fascinating subject.

A trained photo pigeon during WWI; date unknown.

Go-Pro 1.0

Go-Pro 1.0

Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.



The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.

Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.

In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.

The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.

McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.


So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.

The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?

So, what could the ships tell us?

When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.

Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.

More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.


[*History got a little breaking news this morning that one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition has been discovered in the Canadian arctic.]

British ship found

Napoleon’s Exile.

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau

The first abdication was originally conditional. Tsar Alexander had then proposed that Napoleon be exiled to Elba. Even after the unconditional abdication, the marquis de Caulaincourt convinced Alexander to keep the proposition open. Napoleon wasn’t seen as a criminal, an upstart perhaps, but his rule was legitimate and the wars were often declared by the Coalition.

There wasn’t widespread support for Elba, and most diplomats and politicians had their own ideas on where to send him. The United States, Corsica, Sardinia, and the British fort of St. George on Beauly Firth were other possibilities. Alexander insisted on Elba as it would put him at an advantage to Austrian interests, and the other nations went along with it due to the other choices not being entirely pleasing — along with some threats from Alexander that were Napoleon not sent to Elba he would rescind his support for the Bourbons.

When Napoleon escaped, he was declared as much as an enemy of humanity and that he would banished from Europe if captured. He could, in theory, be executed. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Prussians stated that he would be executed if captured by them. For personal reasons, Napoleon refused to surrender to the Austrians and Russians — though they were unlikely to execute him. Napoleon made his way to Rochefort where he planned on embarking to the United States, though he delayed in doing so and the British blockaded the port in the meantime. Napoleon sent his aides to the captain of the HMS Bellerophon to see what terms he might get for surrendering to them. Captain Maitland suggested that asylum in England may be possible, but would have to clear it.

After some deliberation, Napoleon decided to surrender himself to the Bellerophon. When it arrived at Torbay, Napoleon was kept on board — an amusement for sight seers to come and see. The British government debated what to do with him. The three main figures (being the Prince Regent, Prime Minister, and Secretary of War) all hated him and previously instructed the Bourbons that they should execute him. They declared Napoleon a prisoner of war, which put Bonaparte in a grey area of legality. He couldn’t technically be a prisoner of war since Britain and France were no longer at war. Napoleon was no longer considered to even be a citizen of France. The possibility of him being tried and executed as an outlaw or pirate was raised, but then he couldn’t have been detained as a prisoner of war.

The government’s response to this scenario was to exile Napoleon to St. Helena as a retired general on half pay. Napoleon’s response to this was bewilderment and confusion, stating that if his coming aboard the Bellerophon was simply a trick to make him a prisoner, Britain had shamed itself. One of his remarks was, “They may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the Church as well as the army.” The Allies approved of the action, though the British Parliament later admitted that the government had no legal basis for Napoleon’s exile.

So, specifically as for why Napoleon wasn’t executed basically comes down to the unique position he was in. The concept of war criminals wasn’t yet around, and Napoleon was neither a figure that could simply be executed nor given asylum. If Napoleon had been given a *writ of habeus corpus, he could have been put on trial. However, the British government didn’t want the possibility for Napoleon to be let off, so they quickly decided to exile him. Even that was outside of their legal jurisdiction, but it caused a lot less fallout than an execution would have.

[*Napoleon technically had received a writ of habeus corpus. A sympathetic former judge came up with an excuse (an admiral failing to perform his duties) to have Napoleon appear as a witness in a trial. The writ was obtained, but Napoleon was whisked away before he could set foot on land.]


Finland: The Swedish Period.


The earliest period of Swedish colonization of Finland proper (in the area around the city of Turku) occurred at the end of the 12th century, and could be considered a part of the religious and political movement known as the Northern Crusade. The Swedish monarchs and nobles would have had numerous reasons for the effort including

•suppression of piracy in the Gulf of Finland and Aaland archipelago.
•conversion of Finnic tribes to Catholic Christianity.
•creation of markets, establishment of feifs, and access to raw materials.
•to check the influence of Novgorod, and counter the spread of the “heretical” Orthodox creed.

Indeed, the spread of Swedish language and construction of fortresses goes hand in hand with the construction of Catholic churches and cathedrals in the early period.

Skipping ahead from the 1200s up to the 1400s, Sweden joined Denmark and Norway in a union of the skandinavian kingdoms called the Union of Kalmar, which was dominated by Denmark. Under Gustav Erikson, later King Gustav I Vasa, Sweden (and Finland) left the Kalmar Union in 1523. Gustav Vasa profoundly changed the Swedish monarchy, weakening the power of the nobility and church to enhance his own power. Following a dispute with the Pope about the appointment of Bishops, Gustav allowed the spread of the Lutheran church in his kingdom. This period also saw the administration of the provinces in Finland come under the supervision of royally appointed bailiffs, rather than being administered by local Bishoprics and noble families (who tended to be Germans appointed by pre-Kalmar kings).

Following Gustav I, his sons Eric XIV and John III ruled. John originally ruled as Duke of Finland during his brother’s reign, and used his power base in Finland to depose his mentally unstable brother. John had strong catholic sympathies, and under his reign and that of his son Sigismund, Sweden would see the reintroduction of many Catholic ceremonies and the drift back towards Catholicism being the state religion.

Sigismund was troubled in that his Catholicism as well as his duties as King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth put him at odds with his Swedish nobles, and he was deposed in turn in favor of Gustav I’s youngest son Charles IX. During this conflict in Sweden proper, the provinces of Finland saw what has been called the Cudgel War, where peasants rebelled against burdensome and exploitative nobles and military garrisons. Charles IX expressed support for the peasantry, but his forces were engaged fighting Sigismund in Sweden.

The period of Charles IX reign would see the lessening of the old rivalry with the Russian principalities (Muscovy was descending into the Time of Troubles) and a heightening of rivalry with Poland-Lithuania ruled by the disgruntled Sigismund who never relinquished his claim to the crown of Sweden. In fact, this period would see Russia as the playground for Polish and Swedish invasions and puppet Czars (something never mentioned in discussions of Charles XII/Napoleon/Hitler).

Charles IX was succeeded by his illustrious son Gustav Adolph, also known by his latinized name Gustavus Adolphus. Gustav Adolph’s reign saw the conquest of Skane from the Danes by the young monarch, an extended war against his cousin, Sigismund, in Prussia, and eventually Swedish intervention in the 40 years war. During this long period of war, Finnish cavalry regiments known as Hakkapeliitas made a name for themselves for their endurance and savagery. Actually, Jean Sibelius wrote a concerto about them known as the Hakkapeliita March.

At the end of Gustav Adolph’s reign, Sweden could be considered one of the “great powers” of Europe to come out of the 40 years war, along with France.

However, Swedish strength would ebb away with the reforms of Peter the Great of Russia. King Christian XII fought the Russian Czar to a standstill in the early phases of the Great Northern War in 1700, but the Swedish monarch made the drastic mistake of engaging in a long and inconclusive war with Poland while the Russians recouped their strength. The result was Russia took over the territory of Estonia, gained access to the Gulf of Finland including the site on which St Petersburg was constructed, as well as the loss of Viipuri/Vyborg, the lynchpin of the eastern defenses of Finland.

Finally, Sweden would lose the entirety of Finland in the 1808-09 Finnish War.

American intervention in the Russian Civil War:

DDD0918489TAmerican involvement in Russia was part of an Allied Intervention into Russia rather than an actual invasion. President Wilson authorized limited military force in Russia but no formal declaration of war was ever authorized by the American Congress. Wilson ordered 5,000 men to occupy Arkhangelsk and around 8,000 to Vladivostok, a port city on the far eastern reaches of Russia. The American “expeditionary” forces were not part of a concerted American war effort but rather an American commitment made out of the emerging European debates that followed the First World War. Wilson was also known to use limited occupational forces to achieve political goals. One example is his 1914 occupation of the Mexican port city Veracruz to influence the success of a U.S. friendly Mexican government, obviously Veracruz is a different story but it demonstrates that Wilson used Executive power to authorize military occupations that were not necessarily outright invasions or declarations of war.

Importantly the number of around 13,000 thousand American soldiers was considerably less than the commitments of Czechoslovakia’s (50,000), France’s (12,000) and Britain’s (40,000). Moreover the strategic importance of the areas occupied by America were also minor in comparison to other zones of conflict and the role of America was manifestly less significant than the contributions of her Allies. General Graves who commanded the American contingent present in Siberia (American Expeditionary Force Siberia) had the aim of protecting American military equipment and American capital investment that was still in Russia after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Graves’ other objectives included safe guarding the exit of the Czech legion from Russian territory and to assist the reorganization of the new Russian government.

You have to take into account that Russia in 1918 was vastly different from the Communist state that we understand it to have been throughout the twentieth century. In 1918 it was not clear that the Bolsheviks would emerge as victors, the Red Army faced opponents on four fronts to control a comparatively small area compared to the huge country we know Russia is today. The map I’ve linked at the bottom shows the extent of Bolshevik control in 1919, Archangelsk is just at the top, Vladivostok where most of the Americans were stationed is located thousands of kilometers to the east and Americans stationed there engaged in a limited role against Russian Cossacks, a group separate to the Revolutionary Bolsheviks.

Wilson’s motivations for sending American troops were numerous but stemmed from his willingness to see through his own vision for a post war peace process. He was pressured by allies to commit to Russian intervention and he likely did so in a diplomatic measure to ensure he had some leverage in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Undoubtedly Wilson was more concerned with fostering a democratic environment in Europe (and protecting physical American interests in Russia) rather than in participating in a huge mobilization against Russia after the toll of the First World War. The intervention was certainly no secret, Congressmen, Newspapers and Citizens were alert to the experiences of American soldiers stationed in the frozen port cities and campaigned for the men to be returned. Generally Americans opposed intervention and largely felt that their commitment in the First World War had been sufficient enough in aiding allied European nations. Additionally many Americans did not share the international spirit that Wilson pushed in the post-war peace conferences. President Warren Harding who followed Wilson’s administration condemned the intervention as a complete mistake.

Here are a couple of good sources if you want to develop some of the ideas that I’ve written here:

(It wasn’t an invasion, it was an intervention authorized by the President and not Congress and the American people knew about it.)


*Maybe the best quick read to get the bet settled that isn’t a wikipedia article.

*The introduction here will help you get a better idea on some of the context surrounding the intervention.


Man posing with dead shark caught during Jersey Shore shark attack frenzy; ca. July 1916


Montparnasse derailment, Paris; ca. 1895


“This incredible photo of the wreck at Gare Montparnasse in Paris shows a very dramatic scene of a train that has crashed through the wall and partially tumbled to the street. The cause? Both mechanical failure and human error. The train was late, so the driver had it pull into the station at a high speed. It had two different types of braking systems: handbrakes and an air brake known as a Westinghouse brake. The conductor realised that the train was going too fast and applied the Westinghouse brake, however it didn’t work. He then waited too long to use the handbrakes, which weren’t sufficient due to the weight and speed of the train. The locomotive crashed through a wall and the first few cars fell towards the street below. Amazingly, only a few passengers and train employees were injured, though one pedestrian on the road below was killed.”

[More Information]

Recording an episode of “Gang Busters”, true crime radio show, New York; ca.1930’s.

Back in the day when 85% of men had mustaches.

Back in the day when 85% of men had mustaches.

If you listen carefully to a clear transcription, you can (very rarely) hear the script paper fall to the ground, which is what most radio actors did as the show progressed instead of move the paper to the back–the fact that papers aren’t on the ground suggests that either this was the beginning of the show, or it was a staged shot for promotional purposes. Often, you’d have more than one microphone for actors to use. The Shadow used 3 microphones for its show. I have a book on producing radio shows which has a diagram of the Shadow studio. I’ll have to pull the book out of storage to take a photo of that page sometime.

Each script page had about 1 minute of audio typed on it. Usually a show would be about 25 minutes long, giving 5 minutes of time for station breaks and commercials, unless the show was “sustained,” meaning that it was bankrolled by the network instead of an advertiser. As television gained in popularity, many shows were sustained.

The end of the golden age of old-time radio was 1962, when Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar broadcast their last shows. However, 12 years later, Himan Brown would convince CBS to broadcast an anthology series called the CBS Mystery Theater, which broadcast weeknights from 1974 until 1982.

 (More: Gangbusters– Archived Episodes.)


An early hair perming machine dating from 1923 .


P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb; ca. 1850.


Just for those who thought this picture seemed a little off and possibly some of Barnum’s, shall we say, “showmanship”, Tom Thumb is indeed a child in this photo… a 10 year-old child. He stopped growing at about 6 months old and didn’t start growing again until he was in his late teens when he “shot up” (by which I mean never stopped growing for the next 25 years) from about 2’5″ to 3’3″

Nikola Tesla in his laboratory; ca.1899.

Publicity photo created by double exposure.

Publicity photo created by using double exposure.

Publicity photo of Nikola Tesla sitting in his laboratory in Colorado Springs in December 1899. Photo was taken by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines. The laboratory was built in 1899. Tesla sent a copy of this photograph to Sir William Crookes in England in 1901. This image was created using “trick photography” via a double exposure. The electrical bolts were photographed in a darkened room. The photographic plate was exposed a second time with the equipment off and Tesla sitting in the chair. Tesla’s Colorado Springs notes identify the photo as a double exposure. (Source)

To give an idea of the magnitude of the discharge the experimenter is sitting slightly behind the “extra coil”. I did not like this idea but some people find such photographs interesting. Of course, the discharge was not playing when the experimenter was photographed, as might be imagined!



The last pair of St John’s Water Dogs, a now-extinct breed; ca. 1980



An Aboriginal woman carrying a pet possom, Northern Territory, Australia; ca.1922



Harris P. Mosher lecturing at Harvard Medical School in 1929. The giant skull was made in the 1890’s.


Mongolian shaman, ca. 1909

This gentleman has the particular expression of one who has claimed the regional fields of pastoral greenery as his lawn and is of the mind that everyone present should get off it.

This gentleman has the particular expression of one who has claimed the regional fields of pastoral greenery as his lawn and is of the mind that everyone present should get off it.


Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar takes a test flight in California in November 1947.


The handling dynamics in the air would be interesting to say the least…

“The Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar (also known as the Hall Flying Automobile) was a prototype flying car of which two were built. Intended for mainstream consumers, two prototypes were built and flown. The first prototype was lost after a safe, but damaging, low fuel incident. Subsequently, the second prototype was rebuilt from the damaged aircraft and flown. By that time, little enthusiasm remained for the project and the program ended shortly thereafter.” (Source)

Anatomical machine by Giuseppe Salerno

An early anatomical machine made by Giuseppe Salerno, built a on real human skeleton. This fleshless body represents the veins, arteries and musculature in amazing detail. Long thought to be made by an early form of plastination, it was recently discovered to be made – with the exception of the human skeletons – of beeswax, iron wire, and silk.

Bad Military Decisions:

The effective prosecution of any war requires a load of decisions at all junctures. Many times, commanders will blunder through misinformation, faulty intelligence, or a misreading of the tactical or strategic situation. These are some of the dumbest decisions anyone ever made. Each of these decisions either resulted in tremendously unnecessary loss of men and materiel or it resulted in the ultimate loss or needless prolonging of the war in which it took place.
10.) Invading Russia: Napoleon Bonaparte (June 1812)


The only motivation I can fathom behind this idiotic blunder by a military genius is sheer boredom. To this point in his military career, Napoleon has known nothing but victory after victory. He’s conquered pretty much all of Europe that refused to ally with him and suddenly he was sitting around with the largest army ever gathered in Europe up until then with nothing to do. So Napoleon looks west, to Mother Russia.

We all know how it turned out but you have to think someone in that huge army knew it was a bad idea. In any event, he didn’t say anything and the rest is history. Napoleon invaded Russia with three quarters of a million men and didn’t fight much of a battle. The Russian retreated into the vastness of their country and burned everything in their wake. Result? Napoleon gets to Moscow only to find smoking ruins. Dejected at not getting to move his toy soldiers around on his big map, he turns the Grand Armee around and begins for home.

But then the real trouble began. Constant harassment by tiny, mobile Russian units. Constant hunger because the supply lines are cut in more places than Danish lace and, worst of all, winter sets in and the soldiers start freezing to death in droves. Three quarters of a million went in, but less than one in three would made it out.

9.) The Alamo: Gen. Santa Anna (February 1836)


All the Alamo consisted of was a tiny adobe walled mission in the middle of a prairie. Basically, Santa Anna, aka Napoleon of the West, decided the tiny garrison in the tiny fort had to be taught a lesson about Mexican politics by his great big army.

One just has to think that someone, some hard campaigning Sergeant in the Mexican force had to look around at the wide open prairie on both sides of the Alamo and think to himself, “Why don’t we just go around? We can even shoot at them as we go by, but let’s get to the rebel capital and put down the rebellion.”

Instead, mainly as a result of Santa Anna’s pride, the main Mexican army spends days and days held up attacking this insignificant little outpost. This needless delay gives the Texas government time to get organized, gives people time to flee, and gives the main Texan army time to get reinforced and into better position. The end result was the Battle of San Jacinto where old Santa Anna got caught napping – literally – and the Republic of Texas was born.

8.) Add Lard to Rifles: Some British Bureaucrat (May 1857)

Auxiliary Rs

This one will be a little obscure to some, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a world-changing event. The cartridge in question was for the new Pattern 3 Enfield rifle that was to be issued to all the Empire’s troops and replace the older, less efficient models. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a big deal and to us, it probably wouldn’t be. However, in 1857, cartridges weren’t brass, they were paper, and to load them, one had to first BITE the end off the cartridge and pour the contained powder down the barrel of the muzzle loaded weapon. Again, no big deal, until one realizes one singularly important fact. The lubricating lard smeared on the cartridges was made from animal fat. This fat could be obtained from either pigs or cows. In and of itself, that doesn’t present a problem until one realizes that the vast majority of foreign troops in the British Empire were either Muslim or Hindu, especially in India. Now, pigs are unclean to Muslims and cows are sacred to the Hindus so the thought of putting a cartridge with lard into their mouths was anathema to both parties. It didn’t help matters much that the political climate in India was becoming a powder keg, but the lard cartridges proved the final straw – the match that blew the keg, so to speak.

What resulted is known to history as the Sepoy Rebellion or the Sepoy Mutiny. Basically, without going into the very involved, tense and delicate political situation, the Sepoys or Indian soldiers, refused to touch the cartridges which constitutes mutiny. When the first few were seen being punished by the British colonial overlords, the rest rose up and began a bloody rebellion that lasted 13 months and saw tremendous bloodshed and cruelty on both sides. The British severity in putting down the revolt – many leaders were tied to the mouths of cannon and blasted to bloody vapor — remained in the minds of the Indian people through the rest of the 19th century and through two world wars in the 20th. In many ways, the Indian Independence Movement lead by Gandhi can trace its roots to this one monumentally boneheaded decision.

7.) Losing Your Battle Plans: Unknown CSA Officer (September 1862)


During the American Civil War, one of the qualities that made General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy so effective was the mysteriousness with which he moved and operated. His troops seemed to appear, fight, and melt away with uncanny speed. Now in reality, this was nothing more supernatural than very detailed and well-executed battle plans. Imagine what the Union generals could have done if they had only possessed a copy of one of Lee’s battle plans. In a wildly providential moment, that is exactly what happened on the eve of the Battle of Sharpsburg in September of 1862.

Union General George McClellan’s 90,000-man Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee, and occupied a campsite the Confederates had vacated just a few days before. While setting up their tent, two Union soldiers discovered a copy of Lee’s detailed battle plans wrapped around three cigars. The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions, intending to bring battle near Antietam Creek. Everything was there in writing. It was a colossal blunder by some Confederate officer.

The outcome would have been even more disastrous for the Confederates had not McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and reposition his forces. As it was, the Battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam) would be the single bloodiest day of combat in American history with 23,000 killed and countless wounded before the sun set.

All that saved Lee was McClellan’s indecision. Still, the battle sapped numbers of soldiers that the Confederacy could ill afford to lose. More importantly, though, was the fact that England had been teetering on the fence of coming into the war to aid their cotton supplying Confederates, but with the outcome of Antietam, they decided to sit back for a little while longer, thus robbing the Confederacy of help it desperately needed. A different choice of wrapping paper could have made all the difference in the world to the history of North America.

6.) Not Following the Enemy: Gen. George Meade (July 1863)


It sometimes looks like Lee did have some sort of guardian angel; either that or the Northern generals before Grant were all monumentally stupid. The former is more romantic, but the latter is easier to prove. In any event, Meade’s decision to let Lee slip back to Virginia is another example of Lee’s luck and an opposing general’s horrendous decision making ability.

The Army of Northern Virginia was done. Three days at Gettysburg had reduced the proud rebels to a shell of their former strength. Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and, at the last, Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge had produced the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. With all his reserves spent, Lee was gathering his badly mauled forces and trying mightily to make it back to the relative safety of Ol’ Virginy.

In his way was the rain swollen Potomac River. On his flanks were the persistent if largely ineffectual Union cavalry pickets. The roads were a quagmire of mud. In all, the stage was set for the final crushing blow to be delivered by the Army of the Potomac, which had several reserves that had seen little if any fighting. They would sweep down on the defeated boys in grey like an avenging blue tide. The Army of Northern Virginia would be crushed and the Civil War would be all but over. All that remained was for General Meade to give the order to attack.

Well, the order never came. For reasons that, to this day, are unclear Meade was reluctant to follow Lee. Instead, he gathered his forces in strength and waited. No one is quite sure what he was waiting for, but when President Lincoln found out that Meade had literally allowed the end of the war to slip through his hands, Honest Abe was incensed. It was largely Meade’s indecision that resulted in General Grant being called east from Vicksburg and placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Had Meade attacked the defeated rebels at that opportune moment, the Civil War probably would not have drug on in a morass of attrition for nearly two more years. Countless lives, Union and Confederate alike, could have been spared and the Reconstruction Period would likely have looked much different.

5.) Ignoring the Gatling: George A. Custer (June 1876)


It is generally held to be a good idea among most military men that, when the latest and greatest weapons are available, they should be used. The newly patented Gatling Gun was the earliest machine gun and had completed its trials. Custer had two to four of the guns and abundant ammunition available when he set out to uproot a “small Indian village” on the bank of the Little Bighorn River. Custer’s reasoning behind not using them was that the Gatling guns would impede his march and hamper his mobility. More importantly, he also is said to have believed that the use of so devastating a weapon would “cause him to lose face with the Indians.” Considering reports of Custer’s vanity, this is not hard to believe.

These problems do not change the fact that the Gatling guns would have been a decided equalizer in the face of what turned out to be overwhelming Indian superiority, and that elsewhere in the Indian wars, the Indians often reacted to new army weapons by breaking off the fight. Instead, Custer led more than 250 doomed men of the famous 7th Cavalry into the Montana hill country. If he had taken the then greatly improved machine guns with him the outcome of the much-discussed Last Stand would surely have been very different.

What could have been going through Custer’s mind as he stood, the breeze whipping his famous golden hair behind him, his loyal men dead all about him, and several hundred Sioux warriors galloping towards him intent on making him a human pincushion? Could it possibly have been, “I really could use those Gatling guns right about now.”

4.) Invade Gallipoli: Winston Churchill (April 1915)


By the start of 1915, the Great War had ground to a halt. The trench lines stretched from Belgium through Italy and neither side was making progress. The war had devolved into mad suicide rushes across no man’s land into the teeth of the new Maxim guns. Predictably, casualties were mounting daily and the war that “will be over by Christmas” seemed to have no end in sight. To make matters worse, Russia was getting their mess kits handed to them all up and down the Eastern Front and the tsardom was beginning to look shaky. The German navy had cut all the usual supply lines to accessible ports and any port safe from the German fleet was either icebound or entirely too far away to be of any practical use. Something had to be done and quickly.

Enter Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Now Churchill is well know for his personal bravery as well as his usually keen mind. He is also known for being a fan of a good stiff drink and apparently, he’d had several when he thought of this plan. Churchill proposed that a third front be opened up in the western Mediterranean. Specifically, he planned an attack on the Ottoman Empire held Dardanelles. The attack on what he termed the “soft underbelly of the Central Powers” would open up a warm water resupply depot for Russia and effectively turn the flank of the vast trench network. It was a great idea in theory and on paper.

The Gallipoli Campaign took place at Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916. The intent was for a joint amphibian attack by British Empire and French forces up the peninsula to capture the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. To put it mildly, the attempt failed miserably with heavy casualties on both sides. The whole operation was botched from the beginning. The planned invasion was tipped off to the Turks who reinforced the peninsula with heavy guns and additional troops. Once the invasion began, it quickly stalled on the beachhead, thwarted by the Turkish occupation of the high ground.

To make a very detailed and long story short, the allied forces, the bulk of which were Australians and New Zealanders (who ultimately had the highest number of dead per capita of all nations in the war), were essentially trapped on the beaches in the open for months. No real progress was ever made inland despite several dogged attempts all around the peninsula. Promised naval artillery support was cut short as soon as the Admiralty found out – by the sinking of two battleships – that German U-boats were in the waters. The whole event was an unmitigated disaster. Conditions were unreal. In the summer, the heat was atrocious, which in conjunction with bad sanitation, led to so many flies that eating became extremely difficult. Corpses, left in the open, became bloated and stank. The precarious Allied bases were poorly situated and caused supply and shelter problems. A dysentery epidemic spread through the Allied trenches. Autumn and winter brought relief from the heat, but also led to gales, flooding and frostbite.

In the end, Churchill was sacked as Lord of the Admiralty, several generals saw their careers ended but most of all; tens of thousands of men on both sides were killed for absolutely no gain whatsoever. To this day, Gallipoli is remembered as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand in honor of all the brave ANZACs who gave their lives for a stupid decision.

3.) Soviet Invasion: Adolf Hitler, (September 1941)


Honestly? See item 10. Replace “Napoleon” with “Hitler”, “Russia” with “Soviet Union”, and “Le Grand Armee” with “Wermacht” and you have the gist of the story. Operation Barbarossa was, without a doubt, the worst case of someone who failed to learn from history being doomed to repeat it. Adolf Hitler proved that it’s not only teenagers who think, “It can’t happen to me.”

2.) Micromanaging the War: Lyndon B. Johnson (August 1964)


Wars are best run by the professionals. Lyndon B. Johnson was President, but he was not a professional soldier by any means during the Vietnam War. That did not stop him from blowing what was a small insurgency with American “advisors” into an all out “police action” that would claim the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen before it ended two Presidents later.

Johnson expanded American involvement on the ground in Vietnam as soon as he took office after JFK’s assassination. Unfortunately for the troops, LBJ watched opinion polls and it is hard to fight a war if you watch opinion polls. Basically, field commanders couldn’t attack certain high value targets without Johnson’s say-so and, given the distances and the time it would take to brief the President on each given situation, the men were fighting one step behind at all times. He also took fire from the press who said he was too cozy with the defense businessmen and the war was justification for increased defense spending to make these businesses rich. That speculation, like Johnson’s supposed involvement in JFK’s assassination, is better left to the conspiracy theorists.

What is a fact, however, is LBJ’s insistence on being a hands-on Commander-in-Chief seriously handicapped American efforts in the jungles of Vietnam. Ultimately, his decision to try running a war based on opinion polls proved his undoing and he dropped out of the 1968 Presidential elections.

1.) Invading Afghanistan: Yuri Andropov (December 1979)


For centuries, countries outside of Afghanistan – from the Indian Mughals, to the British Empire, to the Islamic fundamentalists – have tried to impose their will upon the Afghan people. As a result, the Afghans are a hardy bunch and they can fight like devils. The are experts at guerilla warfare and it is always a safe bet to assume that whoever is invading them has enemies all to willing to supply the natives with effective weaponry. That is over 1200 years of history totally lost on the Soviets in 1979 when they sent in a massive number of troops to prop up the unpopular communist government in Kabul.

What followed was a ten year blood bath of death among the rocks. For years, Soviet Hind helicopters would hunt in the valleys for any of the Afghan fighters. Upon finding them, the guerillas would be mown down by cannon fire from the craft they called “The Crocodile”. Then the CIA saw a chance to return the favor the Soviets had played on the United States during its involvement in Vietnam and began supplying the Afghan fighters with Stinger surface to air missiles. So much for Soviet air superiority. Stingers shot down 333 Soviet helicopters in the course of the ten year war.

The saddest part is the Soviets had just witnessed the USA’s horrific ten year quagmire in Vietnam, but, like other groups in history, they figured it couldn’t happen to them. They were wrong. The Soviets lost 15,000 men and billions of rubles worth of equipment to Afghanistan and they got nothing in return. For the Afghans, the country was left devastated and ripe for a group called the Taliban to take over.