The definition of misunderstanding, (as per dictionary) describes it as such:
- An incorrect interpretation of a certain point of view, situation, argument or piece of information.
- A conflict or disagreement between two or more parties.
It’s safe to say that any human that has ever lived has been in such a situation. But some misunderstandings are bigger than others and history is peppered with some hilarious examples
Without further ado, here are history’s strangest cases:
NASA once lost a Martian orbiter satellite because two teams didn’t know measurement system to use
During the 90’, NASA launched a mission to mars called the Martian Climate Orbiter (MCO for short). As part of the mission, the Orbiter would also deploy a Martian Polar Lander on the surface of the planet for scientific measurements.
The lander and orbiter would then communicate with each other, and send any information back to Earth.
The Misunderstanding: Unfortunately, the Orbiter team and Lander team worked with different measurement systems.
Orbiter team used metric, while Lander was on imperial. This caused measurement problems from the very start of months long space voyage. Over time, several errors accumulated and these brought the MCO over 100 miles closer to Mars than was originally anticipated.
When it came time to land the probe, NASA lost contact with the MCO. We don’t really know what happened to it after that. It either went kaboom on the surface of the planet, or shot straight through the atmosphere and went off into the solar system, entering an orbit around the sun.
The time when a United States destroyer nearly killed the President
During World War 2, President Roosevelt was onboard the battleship USS Iowa on a long voyage to North Africa.
Attached to the Iowa was a protective convoy, and one of the member ships was the destroyer USS William D. Porter. To put it mildly, the William D. Porter was flawed in more ways than one. During the voyage it accidently detonated an antisubmarine depth charge and lagged behind the convoy when it lost power in one of its boilers.
But those were not the missteps that would place it in the history book of big goofs.
The Misunderstanding: At one point, President Roosevelt requested an anti-aircraft drill by shooting at balloons. During the exercise, the William D. Porter wanted to clear its shameful name and perform admirably, but accidentally fired a ready and armed torpedo right at the Iowa.
To make matters even worse, the captain of the William D. Porter didn’t even radio the Iowa about the torpedo and used light signals to tell them a torpedo was on its way, since they wanted to stick to the rules of the drill.
When they realized the Iowa didn’t understand their signaling, they broke radio silence and warned the battleship of the incoming torpedo. Fortunately, they managed to avoid the torpedo.
Fearing the firing was actually a part of an assassination attempt, the Iowa then pointed all of its guns at the William D. Porter until the situation was cleared up.
Afterwards, the William D. Porter was always greeted with “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!”
A French scientist used reverse psychology to convince Parisians to eat potatoes
Back in the 18th century, potatoes were banned for human consumption in France for a variety of reasons, such as the misguided belief that they caused leprosy. Their most common usage was for animal feed.
But one man, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, decided to change that and used some unusual methods to do so.
The Misunderstanding: The French monarchy gave Parmentier a plot of land very close to Paris, which he used to grow potatoes. To give this plantation an air of importance, Parmentier kept the contents of the plot of land a secret and assigned guards to protect the crop.
This intrigued the populace, so they started to bribe the guards and steal some of the crop, believing that potatoes were very important and valuable.
Of course, this was carefully controlled by Parmentier, who instructed the guards to take the bribes and turn a blind eye to the stealing that took place.
British understatement leads to a heroic but pointless last stand
During the Korean War, a British army unit was tasked with holding a hill that overlooked a strategically important river which the opposing Chinese forces attempted to cross.
The situation however was desperate, since the British unit was outnumbered at least 8 to 1 and surrounded on all sides.
The Misunderstanding: The commander of the British unit reported to his American superior that “Things are a bit sticky, sir”, which really meant “Things are desperate, sir”.
Unfortunately, the American superior misinterpreted this so-very-British understatement and thought the situation was difficult, but manageable. He told the British commander to hold the line, and promised no reinforcements and ordered no retreat.
After four days, the British position was overrun. 500 out of the 600 soldiers were taken prisoner, with the rest either dead or managed to escape.
The time when an army fought against itself
It’s the year 1788, and the Austrian Empire is at war with the Ottoman Empire. The Austrians had a sizeable army, commanded by the Emperor Joseph II himself, stationed at Karansebes, a strategically important town that guarded a vital mountain pass.
The Misunderstanding: While camped near the town, the Emperor sent a contingent of hussar cavalry to scout out the surroundings for any Ottoman forces. They didn’t find any, but they did come across some Romani that sold them schnapps (a hard liquor). Soon, the hussars were drunk and partying around the barrels.
Later, an infantry contingent from the same army arrived at the scene and demanded they be given schnapps too. The hussars refused, the infantry didn’t like that, and soon a fight broke out, gun shots and all.
During the heat of the fight, soldiers started shouting “Turks, turks!”. Everybody panicked, and the hussars fled the scene and rushed to the main camp, yelling “Turks, turks!”
The panic spreads, and thinking they are caught in an ambush, the army quickly retreats and leaves Karansebes defenseless. The Ottomans happily occupy it a few days later.
The name of the Yucatan Peninsula quite literally came from a misunderstanding
The Yucatan Peninsula is on the southern end of Mexico, and is the ancestral home of the Maya people, that inhabited the land long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers.
The Misunderstanding: When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the area, they tried to get a feel for the area and know the name of the place he had just arrived.
Unfortunately for them, there were no interpreters available that could translate from the native languages to Spanish, so they had to play it by ear.
When the Spanish kept asking what the country was called, the natives kept responded with a word / phrase that sounded very similar to Yucatan, which in the native language meant “I don’t understand you”.
And so the name stuck.
The Berlin Wall fell because the Berlin Communist Party leader didn’t know when to open up the border crossings
In late 1989, Germany was still split in two, the democratic West and communist East. That year wasn’t too kind for the East Germany communist regime, since it was rocked by major protests and civil disobedience.
A constant fixture of the protesting east Germans the freedom to travel to West Germany, and not have their movement impeded or restricted.
Eventually, the Communist Party leadership decided to cave in to these demands, and came up with a set of regulations designed to ease the process of travelling in between the two Germany’s.
The Misunderstanding: The Communist Party agreed on the form of the regulations early on the 9th of November. The plan was for the regulations to come into effect the following day, on the 10th. This would give the border guards enough time for an orderly application of the new regulations.
Later during the day of 9th of November, the Berlin Communist Party leader was due to hold a press conference. Shortly before the conference, he was given a note that detailed how the new regulations would work. What the note didn’t contain however, was the exact time when they would come into effect.
After he announced the changes at the press conference, the journalists asked when they would come into effect.
Caught unprepared, and with no obvious future date, he responded with “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay”.
Immediately after, throngs of people stormed the Berlin Wall border crossings, demanding to cross into West Berlin.
Vastly outnumbered, confused and with no clear orders, the East German border guards eventually gave in. Soon after, order broke down and no form of regulation that restricted movement was capable of being enforced. Within the next few hours and days, the process of destroying the Berlin Wall was in full swing.
Americans and Canadians invade an empty island during WW2, suffer casualties doing so
During World War 2, Japanese forces invaded and occupied Kiska Island, a United States territory.
Because of its location, Allied forces had to recover it before advancing further east towards the main theatre of war, so they planned an invasion of Kiska island, with Canadian forces landing on the Northern side of the island, and US forces on the south side.
The misunderstanding: What the Allies didn’t know was that the Japanese had abandoned the island two weeks earlier, after they realized it was too far away from their supply lines and thus impossible to defend.
During the invasion, the Allied forces were on edge the entire time expecting a fierce fight to break out at any moment.
More than once, the American and Canadian forces mistook each other for enemies and engaged in the occasional bout of friendly fire. These episodes were made worse by the fact that the Japanese had booby trapped and mined the island, which increased the confusion.
By the time the invasion was over, 92 Allied soldiers were killed fighting an absent enemy.
The United States accidentally builds a military fort in Canada
During the early 19th century, relations between the USA and British Empire weren’t all too good. As a result, the USA decided to improve its border defenses, and one of these measures was to build a fort right at the edge of the US border with Canada.
The Misunderstanding: Construction was going according to plan, until a more careful land survey discovered that the fort was actually being built on Canadian soil.
At once, construction was halted and any remaining materials were sent back to the US, where a new fort was to be built, this time within the country’s borders.
Soon afterwards, the remains of the fort were aptly named “Fort Blunder”