In most cases, it is true to say that the course of history is driven by the great movements of peoples and nations. But sometimes the smallest action of an individual or element can see an effect completely out of proportion to its significance at first glance. Whether it is a missing key, a small, dirty dish or an itsy-bitsy spider in a cave, little things that happen or don’t happen can have huge and unpredictable outcomes. We look at 20 instances where a seemingly insignificant factor caused a seismic shift in history.
20. The key to survival for passengers of the Titanic
Could an absent key have saved the lives of more than 1,500 people who perished when the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912? One man seems to have believed so. During the inquiry into the sinking, which occurred after the ship hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, crewman Fred Fleet gave testimony. He stated that if the ship’s watch had been issued with binoculars, they would have seen the icy obstacle in time to avoid it. But they were without these optical aids because of a last-minute posting. Apparently, Second Officer David Blair was reassigned shortly before the ship embarked. Inadvertently, he left the Titanic with the key to the locker holding the binoculars in his pocket.
19. What if William the Duke of Normandy hadn’t played patience in 1066?
Harold was crowned King of England in January 1066. Meanwhile, over in Normandy, North France, William the Bastard wasn’t in a mood to congratulate Harold. The Duke of Normandy believed that he had a stronger claim to the English throne and decided to get physical about it by invading England from his native France. Crucially, however, he did not act in the heat of the moment. By September 1066, Harold’s forces were seriously depleted after many of his troops left to gather in the harvest. Then on September 20, the English army had to repel Norwegian invaders who had landed in the north of England. So when William attacked in the south a week later, he was met by a seriously weakened English force. If William had invaded earlier in 1066, instead of late September, Harold might well have defeated him. Instead, the patient William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.
18. The American teenager who couldn’t take out Castro
The CIA came up with a variety of bizarre plots to get rid of Fidel Castro during the early days of his presidency of Cuba. One plan involved recruiting the American teenager Marita Lorenz, a lover of Castro’s, to kill him. Lorenzo was just 19 when she met the 33-year-old Castro in 1959. She later told the magazine Vanity Fair, “He was the sweetest, tenderest. I guess nobody ever forgets their first lover.” Despite these feelings, Lorenzo was ordered by the CIA to assassinate the dictator. In 1960, she was tasked with putting a couple of poisonous pills in Castro’s drink. But the president sensed danger, and in the heat of the moment Lorenz’s nerve failed. Instead of killing Castro, she ended up making love with him. If Lorenzo had killed Castro then his presidency of almost five decades would have been cut rather short, and the Cuban missile crisis might never have happened.
17. Lincoln dodges a bullet by taking the night train
Abraham Lincoln had reached the pinnacle of his political career in November 1816 when he was elected President. Honest Abe had decided to tour the country by train, stopping at more than 70 towns and cities and culminating in Washington DC for his inauguration in March 1861. But Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln’s security man, got wind of a plot to assassinate the President-elect as he passed through Baltimore, Maryland. Pinkerton persuaded Lincoln to travel through the city in the dead of night, avoiding the plotters. If the Great Emancipator had been killed, the course of U.S. politics, and perhaps the Civil War – which started a mere month after Lincoln was sworn in – might have been very different. As it was, Lincoln would have a date with destiny down the barrel of a gun four years later, ending his presidency and his life.
16. What if Hitler had not baited the Russian Bear?
In a move that stunned the world, in August 1939, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin formed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This was an agreement that neither power would attack the other. But Hitler went back on his word in 1941 by launching Operation Barbarossa, the mass invasion of the Soviet Union. In fact, some of Hitler’s advisors had counseled that invading Russia was likely to be a disastrous drain on German resources, but the dictator was unswayed. Eventually, the Russian invasion turned into a debacle for the Nazis and was arguably the single biggest factor in their ultimate defeat. Had Hitler not invaded, he might have conquered Britain and held on to Western Europe in World War II.
15. Why didn’t the Führer set his Sea Lion on the British Bulldog in 1941?
In May 1940, after the defeat of the British Army in Europe and the beginning of the Dunkirk evacuation, it seemed that Blighty was at Hitler’s mercy. Indeed, the Nazi dictator’s strategy to invade the U.K. – Operation Sea Lion – was ready to roll. However, these plans were rocked by the aerial Battle of Britain in June to October of 1940. This denied the Germans air superiority over southern England and was a major setback. Nevertheless, Hitler could still have pushed ahead with Operation Sea Lion but decided against, postponing it indefinitely in September 1941. Had he successfully invaded Britain, the outcome of World War II would surely have been very different.
14. Suppose Caesar had succumbed to a storm on his way to Britain
The English Channel, the stretch of sea that separates the British Isles from France, has often acted as a protection against foreign invasion. But Julius Caesar managed to cross the Channel twice, in 55 and 54 BC, successfully landing on England’s south coast. His crossings were uneventful by all accounts, but the English Channel is notorious for its turbulent weather. In the Great Storm of 1703, for example, some 1,500 mariners were killed. If Caesar’s ships had been caught in such a storm, they might well have failed to reach the English coast. If the Romans had never made it to Britain, the islands would have been radically different without the following centuries of Roman occupation.
13. What if Hitler had not been shown a small act of mercy in 1918?
Englishman Henry Tandey was born in 1891 and joined the British Army in 1910. He fought in some of the major battles of World War I, including Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme. Wounded twice, the brave soldier was highly decorated and was awarded Britain’s highest honor, the Victoria Cross. On 28 September, 1918, the war was near its end and Tandey found himself in a French village. He saw a wounded German soldier who was too exhausted to even lift his rifle. Tandey decided not to fire and the enemy acknowledged this act of mercy with a nod. Many, including Adolf Hitler himself, believed that German infantry man was the future Führer. Who knows if World War II would have taken place if Hitler had not survived World War I?
12. How 13 was a lucky number for the Führer
Johann Georg Elser was a blue collar German who decided to do humanity a favor and eliminate Hitler and his inner circle. In an elaborately detailed plot, Elser planted explosives in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich. He knew that Hitler was due to give a speech in the beer hall on the evening of November 8, 1939, to celebrate an important Nazi anniversary. Elser equipped his bomb with a timer so that it would go off at 9:20 p.m. But Hitler left the meeting earlier than planned at 9:07 p.m., avoiding the explosion which killed eight people and injured scores more by 13 minutes. Elser was subsequently captured and executed. Hitler went on to devastate large swathes of the world.
11. The most disastrous wrong turn in history
The causes of the outbreak of World War I are still being debated, but most historians agree that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was key. A group of six would-be assassins were in the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, to make an attempt on Ferdinand’s life. After surviving a botched bombing of his car that day, Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turning. By sheer chance one of the plotters, Gavilo Princip, was standing in the street the car now entered. Princip drew his revolver and shot Franz Ferdinand twice, killing him outright. A cascade of events now followed, culminating in the brutal horrors of World War I.
10. How a lack of pounds, shillings and pence put paid to Britain’s attempts to win the space race
At the end of World War II, only one country had advanced rocket technology – Nazi Germany. The Third Reich’s terrifying V2 rockets had caused terror for civilians in the south of England and elsewhere in the later stages of the war, although they had no significant military impact. When the war ended, the Allied forces all rushed to secure this German technology for themselves. The British initially made good progress with test launches and even developed feasible plans for a rocket adapted to carry a pilot. But Britain was broke after the war and abandoned the project, leaving the space race to the Americans and Soviets.
9. That time a dirty dish helped humankind clean up
Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scot who was Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, arrived back from a vacation in September 1928. He came across a Petri dish that had not been closed properly and left near an open window. Fleming noticed that a bluish-green mold had appeared in the dish where Staphylococcus bacteria were being intentionally cultivated. The professor noted that the bacteria were dead around the mold, but thriving elsewhere in the dish. The mold had killed the germs and after much further work, penicillin in a useable form was developed. Penicillin, of course, revolutionized medicine. In fact many reading this now might not be doing so were it not for modern antibiotics.
8. How a crisis of conscience cost almost 3,000 American lives
Osama Bin Laden was finally killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, but unfortunately that was ten years after he had masterminded the bombing of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. However, according to President Bill Clinton, there was actually a chance for the U.S. to take out Bin Laden in 1998, before his terror attack on 9/11. Sky News Australia reported Clinton as saying, “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have [had] to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.” If he had, almost 3,000 fatalities in America might have been avoided in September 2001.
7. When FDR was just a few inches from anarchist assassination
Giuseppe Zangara was an American anarchist who’s severe physical health problems are thought to have led to mental instability. Some believe his intense pain even made Zangara delusional. In 1933, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was speaking from the back of a car in the Bayfront Park neighborhood of Miami. Zangara, armed with a pistol, saw his opportunity but as he was only five feet tall he couldn’t get a good view of FDR. So he stood on a chair which turned out to be almost as unsteady as he was. He shot five times, hitting a handful of people, but completely missed FDR. If Zangara had been taller, or the chair more stable, things might have been different. And who knows how different American history in the 1930s and ’40s would have been without FDR at the helm?
6. How fine art could have saved millions
In 1907, Adolf Hitler was in his late teens and consumed with a burning ambition. He wanted to train as an artist. So he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but his application was turned down. He applied a second time, again unsuccessfully. The academy’s director apparently thought that young Adolf’s portfolio displayed an “unfitness for painting.” If Hitler had been successful as an artist, would he have become involved in extremist politics? Of course, it is impossible to say. But it would certainly have been a better outcome for the millions who died because of his fanatical barbarity as Nazi dictator, if Hitler had pursued art instead of politics.
5. A small slip of the tongue topples the Berlin Wall
It was 1961 when the communist regime in East Germany erected the Berlin Wall, bisecting the former German capital. The claim was that this structure was put up to protect its citizens from the capitalist West. But most observers saw it as a barrier to prevent East Germans from defecting. Some 28 years later, Germans on both sides of the wall began to stream across it and even tear it down. This happened after a senior East German communist, Guenther Schabowski, held a blundering press conference on November 9, 1989. Schabowski mistakenly said that a planned gradual loosening of travel restrictions for East Germans would start immediately and they could now cross the border into West Germany. Journalists pounced on Schabowski’s slip up and East Germans began to pour unopposed through exits in the wall. Within a year, Germany was reunited.
4. The spinning spider that helped to free Scotland
In 1306 the nobleman warrior Robert the Bruce claimed the Scottish Crown but was then defeated by the invading English army of Edward I. Bruce was forced to flee and, according to legend, at one point hid out in a cave on an island off the coast of northern Ireland. This was a low point for Bruce who must have wondered if he would ever see a free Scotland again. But then he noticed a spider building its web. Twice it tried to link its web across the cave’s roof and failed. But on the third attempt the spider succeeded and this gave Bruce the belief that he must try again. Returning to Scotland, he defeated the English at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn and Scotland regained its independence.
3. When weathermen failed to forecast the fall of Nazism
In the summer of 1945, the Allied armies in southern England were finally prepared for an assault on the French coast at Normandy. But the weather was a key factor in the calculation of when to launch the operation. Allied meteorologists correctly forecast that the conditions would be good on June 6 and a successful landing went ahead. But German meteorologists got it badly wrong, complacent in their belief that stormy weather during June would make invasion impossible. As a result, many senior Nazi staff and troops took leave, including the German’s best tactician, Field-marshal Rommel. This left the Nazis ill-prepared to defend the French coastline, leading to an Allied victory in the war.
2. How the power of words blocked a presidential assassination bid
Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1901 to 1909, was on the presidential election campaign trail in 1912. He was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when a would-be assassin, saloonkeeper John Flammang Schrank, shot him in the chest. Roosevelt had two things in his pocket that slowed the bullet enough to stop it penetrating his body – a steel glasses case and a 50-page speech. After he was shot, Roosevelt declined medical assistance and delivered his 90-minute speech, It opened with the immortal lines, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
1. When something fishy almost sank Isaac Newton’s natural best seller
In 1686, the venerable Royal Society in London published a scientific tome about the history of fish – Historia Piscium. Expensively illustrated, the book was a publishing flop and this pushed the Royal Society to the brink of bankruptcy. This meant the organization lacked the funds to publish Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work which laid the foundations of much of modern math and mechanics. Fortunately, the Royal Society’s Clerk, Edmond Halley – of comet fame – recognized the gravity of the situation. Halley stepped in and found the money to publish Newton’s book, personally providing a substantial chunk of the funding himself.