5 Stupid Bets That Changed the World

Random betting is one of mankind's most popular (and usually most pointless) habits. But while most people are making drunken dares to see who can fart the loudest while doing a keg stand, a select few are making wagers that change the world.

You'll never believe some of the amazing feats that were accomplished simply because someone looked someone else in the eye and said, "Betcha can't ..."

#5. Establish the Entire Field of Nanotechnology


If you had to pick one profession that's rife with gamblers, the last group of people that would come to mind would probably be scientists. But actually, it turns out that the people we trust with our cancer research and Earth-splitting death lasers are also the most likely to embark on research projects on a bet: Scientists wager all the goddamn time (so much that there's an entire Wikipedia page devoted to their gambling exploits).

"10-to-1 odds this thing kills us all. Any takers?"

Which brings us to the birth of nanotechnology, the science of making microscopic machines that is already being used to improve everything from skin cream to pants.

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman held a talk in which he described a magical future where scientists could shrink computers, medical equipment and all sorts of then-huge things to the size of those mites that live in your eyelashes. Considering that this was an era when computers were the size of a house and ran on whale oil, the predictions sounded somewhat ridiculous. So, Feynman decided to throw down the scientific gauntlet: He bet a cool grand ($8,000 in today's dollars) that nobody could build a working motor that measured no more than 1/64 of an inch on a side. Just so you don't have to break out your ruler, that's about the size of a grain of salt.

About six months passed with no one managing to construct the sweet-ass minuscule motor Feynman had described, despite the prospect of being able to finally afford an awesome new dirt bike. But then along came a guy named Bill McLellan, who -- using such sophisticated scientific equipment as goddamn tweezers and toothpicks -- totally built Feynman's motor. The thing packed 2,000 rpm, weighed 250 micrograms, was smaller than the head of a pin and consisted of 13 parts.

Just big enough to create a buzzing sound in your ear, and just small enough that you'd never find it.

Feynman made good on his wager, but was disappointed with the outcome. You see, he had expected the construction of the motor to necessitate an entirely new technological breakthrough, but the guy who built it did so using only amateur radio skills and some seriously steady hands. Still, the bet inspired countless scientists to start thinking small, and when K. Eric Drexler popularized the concept of nanotechnology and founded the field of molecular nanotechnology in the 1980s, he credited Feynman as his inspiration.

#4. Write World-Famous Stories


We've told you before how some of the world's greatest stories were written for stupid or trivial reasons (often involving a writer needing a quick paycheck). Well, it turns out there are even stupider reasons that all-time classics have been created, as there are authors out there who wrote enduring works simply because someone bet them they couldn't.

Take the case of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who became famous after earning his Ph.D. in Children's Rhymeology and becoming Dr. Seuss. He was already a resounding success by the late 1950s, having written a few touching children's stories, such as the tale of a stylistically challenged feline and the poignant story of a goblin who comes down with a terminal case of heart gigantism. Then one day in 1960, Seuss was shooting the shit with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, when Cerf decided to lay down a challenge. He bet 50 bucks that Dr. Seuss couldn't write a decent story using 50 different words or fewer.

Seuss, presumably realizing he could knock out this project in half an hour, slapped together a story that could fit into a few Twitter updates. The result was a book that, by now, pretty much every person in the English-speaking world can say they read as a kid: Green Eggs and Ham.

"Seriously, Sam, please do fuck off with your green eggs and ham."

And we're not kidding about how many people have read it: As of 2001, the lexiconically challenged tale of a kid learning to eat rotten food was not only Dr. Seuss' most popular book, but also the fourth best-selling children's book of all freaking time.

But that's just kiddie stuff, right? Well fine then, let's talk about someone a bit more grown up: Ernest Hemingway. The guy is famous for two things: writing incredible stories using an economy of words and drinking alcohol as if he had a blood vendetta against his liver. So one day, Hemingway was in a bar (drinking), when some guy bet him 10 dollars that he couldn't write a story using six measly words.

"This guy bet me money. Dumbass."

Whereas most people would have come up with a riveting tale of said guy fucking himself sideways, Hemingway instead accepted the bet and wrote:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

He then collected his 10 bucks, which he presumably blew right then and there on another round, and proceeded to call that story his best work. And today the story is still inspiring others to write captivating tales using fewer words than you would use during your typical fast food drive-through transaction.

"My order was too brief? Who am I, John Steinbeck?"

#3. Make a Fortune from a Movie You Had Nothing to Do With


We've told you before how the original Star Wars trilogy wasn't exactly all that well planned out, and how a lot of Lucas' original (insane) ideas were shelved in favor of the awesomeness you saw. Well, according to one of Lucas' friends, Steven Spielberg, this caused him to complain to just, like, everybody about how his pet movie project wasn't turning out like he'd envisioned. This actually led Lucas to propose a bet with Spielberg hinging on the failure of Star Wars -- a bet that we're willing to wager he now regrets.

According to an interview with Spielberg, Lucas visited the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, due to come out around the same time as Lucas' film, and marveled at the scope and splendor of Spielberg's as-yet-unfinished movie. At the same time, he was whining about how Star Wars was going to take a steaming dump at the box office because it didn't "live up to the vision that he originally had."

Floatin' Zoetropes
"I can only make, like, four of these things into toys."

Then Lucas had a flash-bulb moment: Since he was so sure that Star Wars would bomb, why not take advantage of Spielberg and make a friendly bet with him? If this half-assed Star Wars thing made more money, Spielberg would get 2.5 percent of Lucas' movie's profits, and vice versa, for all eternity.

Care to guess how that one turned out? No need to guess, we'll tell you: Close Encounters of the Third Kind raked in a not-too-shabby $337 million. But that little film called Star Wars? Well, let's just say that it spawned a franchise that made that amount of money 65 times over. And it's still raking in obscene piles of cash today. Spielberg says he still gets begrudging checks in the mail from ol' George.

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