The butterfly theory suggests that the tiniest event can have massive implications as the effects ripple outwards causing a domino effect as one event influences the next.
For example, if Hitler had been accepted into art school, he might never have gone on to become the dictator of Germany and start World War Two. That small event changed history and that’s not even one of the events we look at on this list.
Number Seven: The Sinking of the RMS Titanic
David Blair had just been offered the opportunity of a lifetime – to be the Second Officer on the greatest ship the world had ever seen; the RMS Titanic. Unfortunately his excitement was short-lived. At the last moment a decision was made to replace him with a more experienced officer who was more accustomed to working on large passenger liners.
David Blair, probably upset at his usurpation, left the ship not realising that in his pocket he still held the key to locker in the crow’s nest, where the binoculars were held. Presumably upon realising this, he shrugged good-naturedly and thought ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ and jovially went on his way not realising he may have just doomed 1,522 people.
A surviving lookout named Fred Fleet later told the official inquiry that if they had the binoculars, they would have seen the iceberg sooner, and in his opinion soon “enough to get out of the way.”
How This Changed History:
Putting aside the fact that the sinking of the Titanic is still to this day, arguably the worst shipping disaster of all time; it also had a direct effect on the popularisation of wireless radio.
The disaster prompted the Radio Act of 1912. Radio communications on ships had to be operated 24 hours a day and have secondary power supplies to ensure distress calls weren’t missed.
This encouraged the introduction of the wireless radio on ships. Once the crew realised how much people enjoyed listening to the radio, more were brought on board for passengers to listen to at their leisure. This helped boom the wireless radio industry, increasing its popularity across the globe.
Number Six: The Collapse of the Berlin Wall
Once upon a time a high-ranking Politburo (communist party) member, Gunter Schabowski, changed history just because he panicked at a press conference and gave the first answer that came into his head.
This isn’t a joke, that is actually how the Berlin Wall came down. Schabowski was on his way to a press conference and he hadn’t read the speech beforehand, because, after so many he figured he was quite adept at going with the flow.
It turns out that maybe he should have checked his notes after all. Schabowski got up at the press conference 9th November 1989 holding a note he had been given a few moments earlier, turned to the half-asleep audience and promptly caused uproar by misreading the message and saying that the wall was coming down; right now.
In reality, they were just trying to allow East Germans below retirement age to visit the West without going through a lengthy justification process.
Schabowski unintentionally blew this plan out of the water and within hours East Berliners were outnumbering guards at the border demanding to be let through. Finally, at 11:30pm officials realised there was no fixing this mistake and began letting people through. The demolition of the Berlin Wall began later that night.
How This Changed History:
The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised the end of the Cold War more than any other single event and pretty much put an end to communism in Western Europe. This alone would have been highly significant, but did you also know that it helped end apartheid?
Turns out Ronald Reagan was a supporter of South African President Botha, and also, unfortunately, of apartheid (definitely puts a different spin on the actor-turned-President). His government protected Pretoria (the South African capital) from sanctions and actively campaigned against ending apartheid because they had been a Cold War ally. By contrast, Mandela’s ANC (African National Congress),was seen as a friend of Moscow.
But with the end of the Cold War, and the introduction of a new President, in both South Africa and the US, Washington didn’t need Pretoria anymore. Newly appointed President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa saw the growing discontent with apartheid across South Africa and the world, and realised that if he campaigned from a position of relative strength, he just might stay President for a bit longer. Thus the wheels were set in motion to end apartheid.
Number Five: The Death of Ogedei Khan
In the 13th century the Mongol army had conquered a large portion of the world, led by the infamous Genghis Khan’s son – Ogedei Khan. In 1241, they were heading towards Western Europe to expand their territory when Ogedei Khan died. This halted the advance on Vienna and forcing the army to follow tradition and return home to conduct Ikh kurultai. This was basically a corrupt vote in which a new Khan was elected, despite everyone knowing who would really be chosen.
The army was forced to return home and five years later – after the regency of Ogedei’s widow – a new Khan ascended. Only, by then there were many internal power struggles in the Mongolian Empire and the invasion force basically sorta just didn’t happen.
So Ogedei chose a fairly inconvenient time to kick the bucket, stopping the Mongol Empire on its quest for world domination pretty much permanently.
How This Changed History:
It might be the only reason we’re not all currently speaking Mongolian right now. We have no way of knowing how far the Empire would have stretched, or for how long it would have survived. Ogedei chose a pretty terrible time to die from their point of view.
We also might not have capitalism (although not everyone would thank them for that), or the modern banking system still used today if not for Khan kicking it when he did. At the time, Austria was developing the earliest concepts of these ideas. If the Mongolian invasion had succeeded, they could have done away with what’s now the most prominent economic system worldwide.
Number Four: The Indian Freedom Movement
In 1857, India was under British command thanks to the expansion of the East India Trading Company. Tension was rife amongst Indian soldiers – they wanted an escape from the heavy hand of the British; all they needed was a catalyst.
This catalyst came in the form of Mangal Pandey, who is now considered a modern Indian hero. Pandey was a solider whose regiment was in Barrackpore when he decided to rebel against the British regime. He loaded his musket and prepared to attack Lieutenant Baugh, but missed, hitting his horse instead. Undeterred, he then took his sword, slashing towards Baugh and succeeding in injuring him in the neck and shoulder.
When commanding officer, General Hearsey heard of this, he ordered another Indian solider to arrest Pandey but he refused; condemning himself and Pandey to death as the two soldiers were then arrested and later hanged by the British; their actions claimed to be treason.
It was this that triggered a rebellion that was the start of the Indian Freedom Movement against the occupying British.
How This Changed History:
If Pandey hadn’t been feeling particularly ballsy that day then there’s no telling how much longer it would have been before Indians revolted against British rule. This revolt was the start of the Indian Freedom Movement. May 10th, 1857, Indian troops broke ranks, freeing soldiers of the third regiment to which Pandey had belonged and moving towards Delhi; persuading the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to become the leader of the rebellion.
In the months that followed the revolt spread throughout Northern India, with leaders of royal families joining in the rebellion against the British.
The movement totally changed Britain’s control of India. The heavy hand became lighter, and although the Brits still hung around, they passed more control over to Indian royalty and stopped nicking land for themselves. Their relationship with India might be totally different today if not for one man and his sword.
Number Three: Lincoln Thwarts Assassin
Everyone knows Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth; but like any self-respecting President, by that point he already had dealt with quite a few attempts on his life. For example, just before his inauguration as President, an attempt was made on his life. Growing dissidents began to realise the effect he may have in office and felt like they should bump him off before he had a chance to challenge those pesky moral issues behind keeping people as slaves.
In 1861, Lincoln was due to start a whistle-stop tour of the U.S, culminating in Washington where he would be appointed President. Pinkerton, a man hired to creep around uncovering suspicious activity unsurprisingly found suspicious activity lurking on Honest Abe’s intended route; he believed he had uncovered an assassination plot due to take place in Baltimore. Pinkerton tried to convince Lincoln to proceed straight through Baltimore. He knew the crowd would contain several assassins prepared to strike the moment the President got close; but good old Lincoln refused. Instead he arrived secretly in the National Capital in the middle of the night, thwarting the would-be assassin’s and going on to be one of the USA’s finest Presidents.
How This Changed History:
If Lincoln had been assassinated, he would never have been President, which has massive implications for African Americans. The Civil War would never have happened, and slavery could have continued for a much longer period, which means that race relations in America today would be even stickier than they are already.
This is of course ignoring the whole moral point that slavery should never have continued for that long in the first place – or at all.
Number Two: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Tensions were already rife in Europe when Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb decided to take matters into his own hands and assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the heir presumptive (basically the heir) to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Princip was a Yugoslav Nationalist who wanted to break off Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces in order to combine them to create Yugoslavia.
Franz Ferdinand (the Archduke not the band), survived the first assassination attempt as the bomb the nationalists chucked at them managed to roll off the back of the vehicle and injure other people instead. It’s amazing the assassins managed to get anywhere at all considering how well thought out their plans seemed to be.
Later that day Princip saw the car exactly where it wasn’t meant to be. Seizing the opportunity he fired at point blank range, fatally wounding Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.
How This Changed History:
Every student who is forced to sit through the history of WW1 knows that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is essentially to blame for starting the war. Before anyone knew it the peace between Europe’s superpowers collapsed. It only took a week for the countries to line up and start firing at each other, all because of the death of one Archduke.
If it hadn’t happened:
Europe may have managed to retain the peace long enough to come to an agreement that didn’t result in the deaths of thousands of people. A young Adolf Hitler would never have gained massive resentment for the Jewish people in his regiment, and WW2 and the Holocaust might never have happened.
The last part might be a bit of a stretch; but still, Princip has a lot to answer for.
Number One: The Cuban Missile Crisis
If you haven’t heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, think of it as a game of nuclear war chicken played between the world’s biggest superpowers – Russia and the USA. The crisis was a result of Soviet Union deploying ballistic missiles to Cuba, right next to the USA. Of course the US immediately took this as an aggressive threat from the Russians.
It’s possibly the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear war. We might have crossed that line into actual nuclear war if it wasn’t for one ballsy individual named Vasili Arkhipov; who is one of the few men who can actually say that he saved the world.
On 27th October 1962, the USA did something monumentally stupid and started dropping “practice” depth charges in international waters without warning anyone. The Soviet submarine that recorded the charges hadn’t heard from Moscow in days. With this new development they had no way of knowing if war had broken out on the surface.
A response was quickly discussed. They had nuclear weapons aboard and had been prepped for the eventuality of a war with the US – all they needed was the Captain’s order to strike back. Except for on this submarine. This sub was carrying a guy named Arkhipov who was commander of the entire submarine flotilla and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky.
Savitsky was all ready to launch the weapon and catapult the world into WW3; all he needed was Arkhipov to agree, which he completely refused to do.
How it Changed History:
The most likely outcome of nuclear war is total global destruction. In fact, this guy might be the only reason we’re all still alive and kicking right now.
In other words, Arkhipov didn’t just prevent World War III, he totally saved the planet.