The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught In History Class

High school was hard enough, what with all the video games and boobies to distract us from our homework. What makes it even harder is having to unlearn all of the stuff they taught us in elementary school that turned out to be utter bullshit.

To this day you can even hear some adults repeating these "amazing" historical tales that, years ago, somebody just pulled out of their ass:

#5. Columbus Discovered the Earth is Round

The story we heard:
In 1492, an Italian ponce by the name of Christopher Columbus won his long-standing feud with the monarchy and the Catholic church to get funding for a voyage to East Asia. They were afraid that he would fail spectacularly, because everybody knew that the Earth was a flat disc, and the direction Columbus was sailing in would cause him to fall off the edge and into the mouth of the giant turtle that supported it.

Columbus, as we were told, did fail to reach his destination, but not because the world was flat--it was because he crashed into the future greatest nation on Earth, baby! Thus, Columbus proved the world was round, discovered America, and a national holiday was born.

The truth:
In the 1400s, the flat-earth theory was taken about as seriously as the Time Cube theory is today, if not less so. The shape of the world has been pretty much settled since the orb theory was first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, around 2,000 years before the existence of Spain.

In fact, the navigational techniques of Columbus' time were actually based on the fact that the Earth was a sphere. Trying to navigate the globe as if it was a flat plane would have fucked up the trip even more than it was.


Artists' representation

The Spanish government's reluctance to pay for Columbus' expeditions didn't have anything to do with their misconceptions about the shape of the world. Ironically, it was because Columbus himself severely underestimated the size of the Earth and everybody knew it. The distance he planned to travel wouldn't have taken him anywhere near Asia. Nevertheless, he eventually scraped together enough funds to embark on his ridiculous adventure, and the clusterfuck that was the Columbus voyage has been celebrated annually in the Americas and in Spain ever since.

So where did the myth come from? It began with author and historical charlatan Washington Irving, who wrote a novel about Columbus in 1838. The novel was fiction, but some elements managed to creep into our history textbooks anyway, probably by some editors who wanted to spice it up a bit. Who's going to read a history book that's just filled with a bunch of boring shit anyway?

#4. Einstein Flunked Math

The story we heard:
Motivational speakers love to tell this tale, inspiring underachievers with the story of this German kid who was just like you! Despite his sincerest efforts he could never manage to do well in his math exams, and struggled desperately with physics while working as a lowly patent clerk.

That muddled kid grew up to be Albert Fucking Einstein! And if he can do it, then so can you!

The truth:
Well, no you can't. As it turns out, Einstein was a mathematical prodigy, and before he was 12, he was already better at arithmetic and calculus than you are now. Einstein was in fact so fucking smart that he believed school was holding him back, and his parents purchased advanced textbooks for him to study from. Not only did he pass math with flying colors, it's entirely possible that he was actually teaching the class by the end of semester.

The idea that Einstein did badly at school is thought to have originated with a a 1935 Ripley's Believe it or Not! trivia column.


Not the actual column

There's actually a good reason why it's a bad idea to include Robert Ripley among the references in your advanced university thesis. The famous bizarre trivia "expert" never cited his sources, and the various "facts" he presented throughout his career were an amalgamation of things he thought he read somewhere, heard from somebody, or pulled out of his ass. The feature's title probably should have been: Believe it or Not! I Get Paid Either Way, Assholes.

When he was first shown this supposed expose of his early life, Einstein allegedly just laughed, and probably went on to solve another 12 mysteries of quantum physics before dinner. By the time he finally kicked the bucket in 1955, it's entirely possible that "failure" was the one concept that Albert Einstein had never managed to master.

Of course, this just reaffirms what we have always suspected, deep down: success really is decided at birth, and your life will never be better than it is right now. Sorry about that.

#3. Newton and the Apple

The story we heard:
You've probably heard of Isaac Newton. He's pretty much the Jesus of physics. In the late 17th century, Newton practically fucking invented science. The discoveries we can thank him for include the laws of motion, the visible spectrum, the speed of sound, the law of cooling, and calculus. Yes, all of goddamn calculus. One wonders if anybody in history ever had a thought before Newton.

Probably his most famous discovery, however, is the law of gravity. The story goes that Newton, a modest mathematician and professor of physics, was sitting under the shade of an apple tree one sunny day, when an apple dropped from a branch and bopped him right on the head.

While most people would merely think "Ouch! Son of a bitch!" and stare warily upward for 10 minutes, Newton's first instinct was to formulate the entire set of universal laws governing the motion of gravitating bodies, a theory so sound that it went unchallenged and unmodified for over 200 years.

The truth:
Newton never mentioned the thing with the apple, and in fact it was another guy named John Conduitt who first told the story some 60 years after it supposedly happened. Even then, he was decisively vague about whether Newton actually saw an apple, or whether the apple is a metaphor that he used to illustrate the idea of gravity for people less intelligent than he was (read: everybody):

"Whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further."

You'll notice that even then we don't get the thing with the apple actually hitting Newton in the head, it got added somewhere along the line to add the element of cartoonish slapstick to his genius life.


Future versions will say that Newton then vomited in agony.

We like to think complex discoveries happen this way, with a sudden light bulb popping on over our head. Kind of makes it seem like it could happen to us one day, the next great idea will just occur to us while we're wasting the afternoon on a park bench. In reality, Newton spent the best part of his life formulating and perfecting his theories.

When we have kids, we're going to tell them the truth, dammit. Just Newton, hunched over his piles of papers covered with clouds of tiny numbers. Just months and years of tedious, grinding, silent, lonely work, until he had a nervous breakdown and finally died years later, insane from Mercury poisoning. Welcome to the real world, Timmy.

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