There are some things that everyone agrees are awful, like paper cuts, or cancer, or paper cuts from the hospital bills you receive after getting cancer. But not everything in life is that certain. It turns out that a lot of the things you've been using as synonyms for "terrible" are actually not that bad. Like ...
#5. Snake Oil
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If you were sick back in 19th century America, your options were limited. The germ theory of disease hadn't caught on yet, and the ACA website was even slower than it is now. So it wasn't uncommon for salesmen to travel the country selling bottled "miracle tonics," which they touted as a cure for everything from muscle aches to syphilis. A common ingredient in these tonics was snake oil, because apparently grinding up rattlesnakes was less work than just filling the bottles with morphine or something. Unsurprisingly, these snake-based tonics were less useful than the bottles they were sold in, and the term "snake-oil salesman" soon caught on as a name for anyone selling a phony product.
At least they ended up with a better reputation than the kitten-oil salesmen.
The tonic pushers didn't just dream up the concept while cleaning out their grill after a snake barbecue: They got the idea from Chinese immigrants to America in the 1800s, who at the time were using their own version of snake oil. So in other words, the deathly reach of Big Snake Oil was global.
Well, that's what everyone assumed until someone finally got around to testing the original version of the oil, which is still in use in China. The tests showed it to be incredibly high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and can help with pain. So when Chinese workers told Americans that their magic snake oil was the bee's knees, they were telling the truth.
"Good for termite tendons, beetle's elbow, and roly-poly dick."
But if that's the case, why was American snake oil so fucking useless? Well, the Chinese version was made from Chinese water snakes, which as the name implies are not easily found on the American continent. American snake-oil producers either used rattlesnakes, which have much lower omega-3 levels, or simply substituted cow fat. So the next time you call someone a snake-oil salesman for trying to sell you a homeopathic herpes remedy, remember that a more accurate insult would be "19th century entrepreneur without access to a wildlife import license."
#4. American Space Pens
If you have ever stepped into a gift or novelty store in search of a good souvenir from the local Pirate Sex Museum, you've probably seen one of these:
In case you're on a phone and can't read the small text, the story is this: During America's space race with the Soviets, NASA spent a million dollars designing a pen that could work in a zero-gravity environment, while the crafty Soviets simply used a pencil. Other common versions of the tale have NASA spending $12 billion and researching space pens for a full decade (because apparently the American side of the space race was held up for 10 years by crucial pen research), and nobody noticed. Hell, if we'd all just been smart enough to use pencils, we could have reached the moon in 1959 and communism would have died of despair. Whatever the details, Americans love the space-pen story because it's a clear example of out-of-control government spending being defeated by simple common sense.
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"And then the Soviet guy said, Why don't you just swim across the river? Demolition starts Thursday."
Angry taxpayers everywhere can put down their Ron Paul stickers, because the space-pen story is bullshit. The reason NASA didn't like using pencils in space wasn't that they were a bunch of money-eating bureaucrats, but because pencils in space are dangerous. Ever have the tip of a pencil break off while you're drawing Hitler mustaches on the people in pharmaceutical advertisements? In a zero-gravity environment, surrounded by sensitive instruments that are the only thing protecting you from a horrible Battlestar Galactica-airlock-scene death, those little pencil bits suddenly become a big problem. Pencils are also flammable, which didn't endear them to astronauts living in fire-happy high-oxygen environments.
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Above: more dangerous to an astronaut than poisonous helmet spiders.
But did NASA really have to spend a million dollars on the pen? Couldn't they have been doing something more useful with the money, like building us a goddamn city on the moon? Apparently not, because the pen was developed by the Fisher Pen Company, which funded it with its own money. NASA then bought the pens at $6 apiece, and within a few years the Soviets were using them as well.
Then America decided that the pens were communist and started using crayons.
#3. The Ford Pinto
The Pinto, a car produced by Ford throughout most of the 1970s, is famous for the badly designed gas tank that made it burst into flames after rear-end collisions. Even more notorious is the fact that Ford apparently knew the car was a hellish death trap and neglected to take it off the market: In a leaked memo, they calculated that paying out "you barbecued our relatives" lawsuits was cheaper than recalling the car (a human life was valued at $200,000). If this piece of corporate evil sounds familiar, it's because it formed the basis of Edward Norton's existential angst in Fight Club.
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"Actually, the first rule of Fight Club is don't mention Ford, because they spent our legal budget on my wardrobe."
Outcry over both the safety issues and the memo caused a Pinto recall in the late '70s, and since then "Pinto" has come to refer to super-explodable cars in general. Exploding Pintos have become so seared into our consciousness that at some point Hollywood decided to apply explosions to any car hit by anything ever, and we've been dealing with the fallout ever since.
On the plus side, it gave us fodder for about 12 MythBusters episodes.
Although media coverage at the time made it seem like the Pinto was littering America's highways with burned corpses, the car was actually no more dangerous than other similar cars of that era. And the notorious "$200,000 per life" figure was calculated not by greedy Ford execs, but by the National Highway Transit Safety Authority. In fact, the "memo" was actually part of a letter from Ford to the NHTSA that discussed the risks of all Ford vehicles (not just Pintos) during rollover crashes (not rear-end collisions), which is perhaps why it was ruled inadmissible in the biggest anti-Pinto lawsuit. Which is not to say that you should plan on driving a Pinto in your next local Burning Racetrack competition, but when it came to driving small cars in the '70s, you were about as safe as average in a Pinto.
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Mirror ball accidents took a greater toll.