The butterfly theory suggests even the tiniest event can have major consequences. Effects ripple outwards, causing a domino effect where one event influences the next.
Take Hitler, for example. If he’d been accepted into art school, the whole trajectory of his life would have been different and World War Two may never have happened. That one event changed history, and it’s not even one we look at on this list.
Number Seven: The Sinking of the RMS Titanic
David Blair was the Second Officer on the greatest ship the world has ever seen; the RMS Titanic. Unfortunately, his excitement was short-lived. At the last moment, he was replaced with a more experienced officer, accustomed to working on large passenger liners.
David Blair, probably upset at his usurpation, left the ship, not realising he had something very important still in his pocket. The key to the 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?’ 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:
The sinking of the Titanic is still the worst shipping disaster of all time; but I bet you didn’t know it also had a direct effect on the popularisation of wireless radio.
It prompted the Radio Act of 1912. Radio communications on ships had to operate 24 hours a day and have secondary power supplies to ensure they didn’t miss distress calls. 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 simply by panicking at a press conference.
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.
It turns out 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 ruined this plan 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. Plus, it pretty much put an end to communism in Western Europe. This alone would have been significant, but did you also know that it helped end apartheid?
Apartheid was the legal segregation of non-white citizens in South Africa and continued until 1993.
During the Cold War President P.W. Botha of South Africa and US President Ronald Reagan were allies with pro-apartheid leanings. As thanks for Botha’s support, Reagan protected the capital Pretoria from sanctions, and helped campaign against ending apartheid in South Africa.
With the end of the Cold War, there was also an end to both Botha and Reagans presidencies. Newly appointed, President F.W de Klerk of South Africa recognised growing discontent with apartheid, both in his own country and across the world. Heavy US sanctions imposed by George Bush added increased pressure, and de Klerk eventually caved to mounting public sentiment. Thus the wheels were set in motion to end apartheid – and all because a wall collapsed in Germany.
Number Five: The Death of Ogedei Khan
We’ve all heard of Genghis Khan and his exploits; but what of his son, Ogedei?
In the 13th century, the Mongol army had conquered a large chunk of the world and Ogedei had replaced his father as leader. Ogedei, described as a pragmatic and charismatic man, sought to expand Genghis’ empire.
Before he could however, tragedy struck. In 1241 Ogedei died; halting their approach on Western Europe. The army never reached Vienna as intended; tradition dictating they return home to conduct Ikh Kurultai. This was a corrupt vote in which a new Khan was “elected” (despite everyone knowing who would be chosen).
Forced home, five years passed before a new Khan ascended. By then there were many internal power struggles in the Mongolian Empire and the invasion of Western Europe, sort of 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 forever.
How This Changed History:
It might be the only reason we’re not all 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. At the time, Austria was developing the earliest concepts of these ideas. If the Mongolian invasion had succeeded, they could have erased what is now the most prominent economic system in the world.
Number Four: The Indian Freedom Movement
In 1857 India had been under British command for 100 years, thanks to the power and expansion of the East India Trading Company. The company accounted for half the world’s trade and imposed rule over large areas of India. Tension was rife, all that was needed to tip the unsteady balance of peace was one discontented Indian soldier.
That soldier was Mangal Pandey, who is now considered a modern Indian hero. Pandey, a soldier in Barrackpore, rebelled against the regime by attempting to assassinate British Lieutenant Baugh.
Unfortunately for him, he missed hitting Baugh’s horse instead. But undeterred, he took up his sword, charging the Lieutenant and injuring his neck and shoulder.
Upon learning of Pandey’s treason, commanding officer General Hearsey ordered another soldier to arrest him. He refused, condemning himself and Pandey to death, as both were arrested and later hanged.
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. His actions started the Indian Freedom Movement. On May 10th, 1857, Indian troops broke ranks, freeing soldiers of the third regiment to which Pandey had belonged and moving towards Delhi. At their head was Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, who they had persuaded to lead 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 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
John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865; 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 realised the effect he may have in office and felt like they should bump him off before he challenged 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. But one of his key security advisors, Allan Pinkerton, found suspicious activty lurking on Honest Abe’s intended route. He believed he had uncovered an assassination plot that would take place in Baltimore, Maryland.
Pinkerton tried to convince Lincoln to proceed straight through Baltimore. He thought 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 assassins and becoming one of the USA’s finest Presidents.
How This Changed History:
If Lincoln was assassinated, he would never have been President, which has massive implications for African Americans. The Civil War wouldn’t have happened, and slavery could have continued for a much longer period. Thousands more would have suffered and 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, assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand—the heir presumptive (basically the heir) to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Princip was a Yugoslav Nationalist wanted to break off Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces in order to combine them to create Yugoslavia. All that was standing in his way was one Archduke.
Franz Ferdinand survived the first assassination attempt. The bomb the nationalists simply threw rolled off the back of his vehicle and injured other people instead. Really, it’s amazing the assassins got 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 kept 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 fought in the War and 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 resulted from the 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; 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 were prepared for the eventuality of a war with the US—all they needed was the Captain’s order to strike back. Except 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.