The Art of the Fail: The 11 Worst Failures in History

Newspaper boy Ned Parfett sells copies of the Evening News telling of the Titanic maritime disaster
Newspaper boy Ned Parfett sells copies of the Evening News telling of the Titanic maritime disaster Archive Holdings Inc. / Getty Images

You’re gonna screw up from time to time—drop the ball, lose the girl, blow the deal. Y’know what’ll make you feel better? Taking a look at the most spectacular flops in the history of the world.



1453: During the siege of Constantinople, the entrenched Byzantines leave a gate unlocked, allowing the invading Turks to pour in and crush their empire.

1527: A 600-man Spanish expedition tries to colonize Florida, loses its ships, finds no gold, and gets routed by natives. Four survivors are left wandering naked.

1912: On the Titanic’s maiden voyage, a lookout neglects to bring binoculars to the crow’s nest to spot icebergs—and, well, you know the rest.

1964: A grad student unwittingly kills the oldest-known tree, a bristlecone pine dating back 5,000 years, when he chops it down to free a stuck tool.

1971: Ford unveils the Pinto, an affordable subcompact sedan that bursts into flames when rear-ended; 1.5 million are recalled.

1977: When lightning strikes NYC’s electric grid, an operator fails to flip some switches in time, resulting in one of the largest blackouts in city history.

1990: NASA spends $1.5 billion to build and launch the Hubble Space Telescope only to realize, once it’s in space, that it takes blurry photos.

1993: Super Bowl, fourth quarter: Cowboy Leon Lett showboats in front of the end zone, giving Buffalo’s Don Beebe a chance to come from behind and strip the ball.

2000: Rental king Blockbuster passes on buying DVD-by-mail upstart Netflix for $50 million. Netflix’s 2018 market value: more than $150 billion.

2013: IT worker James Howells mistakenly throws away an old hard drive containing 7,500 Bitcoins, worth $1,000 when he bought them—and $50 million today.

2014: The French government buys 2,000 new trains that are too big for 1,300 stations. It then spends $60 million to widen the platforms. 

This essay is part of our Art of the Fail series.

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