5 Huge Mistakes Nobody Noticed for a Shockingly Long Time
Everyone makes mistakes. You misspell a word on an important assignment, you forget to put the gas cap back on before driving home from the Shell station, and Frank Langella agrees to play Skeletor in the Masters of the Universe movie. However, sometimes people make enormous errors that go undetected for decades, centuries, or nearly an entire millennium before anyone picks up on them, despite the fact that they're painfully obvious. We're not sure what exactly the following stories say about mankind, other than that none of us really know what we're doing.
The Spanish Mistake California for an Island for 200 Years
Yep, for a couple of centuries, maps looked like this:
California is a fairly large landmass, big enough that you'd think no one could ever possibly confuse it with an island. Standard procedure for charting an island presumably includes "drive your boat all the way around the damn thing to make sure it isn't landlocked," and any explorer trying to mark that item off on their California checklist would notice that the Golden State is connected to the entirety of North and South America. Heck, you could stand on the coast looking east with a telescope and figure out that the Pacific Ocean doesn't make another appearance at any point in that direction.
However, during the early days of the European explorers, nobody bothered to do any of those things, because there were native peoples to rob and murder, and proper cartography simply would've taken too much time. After all, priceless religious artifacts don't melt themselves down into Spanish doubloons. Consequently, California was incorrectly drawn as an independent landmass for over 200 years.
You see, California was first charted in 1533 by Fortun Ximenez, a mutineer who broke off from Hernan Cortes' original Aztec-busting fleet. Ximenez took his stolen ship north along the Pacific coast of Mexico, and wound up landing in Baja. He decided that he and his rebellious shipmates had just discovered the Island of California, despite the fact that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that the land he'd just stumbled upon was actually an island. Also, the Island of California was a fictional place from a famous Spanish novel, which by definition would make it difficult to locate in a hijacked galleon. At any rate, Ximenez had no time to retract or amend any part of his declaration, because he was promptly killed by natives.
After receiving word from the survivors of Ximenez's crew, Cortes took some ships up to Baja himself and backed up the mutinous lunatic's claim that California was indeed an island separate from the continent they had just beaten the ancient shit out of, most likely because Cortes wanted to establish a new colony he could call dibs on governing.
The Spanish government supported Cortes (as it usually did) and had a ton of maps drawn up with this hilariously flagrant error. As a result, maps all over Europe showed California as an island, including those four random and completely nonexistent lesser islands in between California and the mainland that somebody threw in there for no conceivable reason. Other explorers, such as Juan de Fuca, continued visiting California, but they kept finding inlets they didn't want to travel down. Rather than waste their time doing any actual exploring, they would all simply announce "Yep, it's totally still an island" and go on their merry way.
California kept getting copied and pasted into new maps this way for decades, until finally, in 1776, a Spanish explorer named Juan de Anza decided to literally walk from Texas to California to prove everyone wrong and correct the mistake, because it wasn't like there was anything else particularly important going on in North America at the time.
Des Moines Is Accidentally Named After a Native American Poop Joke
Des Moines, currently the capital of Iowa, takes its name from the nearby Des Moines River, which was christened by the French explorers Marquette and Joliet specifically because they liked how French the name sounded. You see, during their travels, Marquette and Joliet encountered the Peoria tribe and asked them what the name of the river was. The Peoria told them "Moingoana," which kind of sounds like "moines," the French word for "monks." So they took to calling the river "les Moines," which eventually became "Des Moines," which eventually became the capital of Iowa.
The problem is, "Moingoana" means "shitface." And nobody bothered to check up on that, ever, at any point. Considering how the colonization of America went down in general, it isn't too surprising that deciphering the meaning behind a Native American phrase wasn't high on anyone's list of priorities, but you'd think somebody would've at least thumbed through a pocket translator before slapping the name on their capital city.
You see, the Peorians misunderstood Marquette and Joliet's question. They thought the two Frenchmen were asking who else lived in the river valley, not the name of the river itself. The Peoria tribe had a good trading relationship with France at that point and didn't want to be replaced by a neighboring tribe, so the Peoria chief cunningly told the two explorers that the only other tribes who lived in the area were total shitfaces.
Despite the fact that by all accounts Marquette understood the Peoria language, he didn't seem to notice, and so the mighty Shitface River flowed through middle America until the 1800s, when the bustling metropolis of Shitface sprang up along its banks. Incredibly, no one properly translated the name until 2003, but by that point it was a little late to change it.
Paris Is Unwittingly Built Above Flimsy Mining Tunnels
If you've ever studied the skyline of Paris, like maybe during that scene where it gets destroyed by an asteroid in Armageddon, you might have noticed that the central part of the city has virtually no tall buildings. Seems odd for a bustling European metropolis, right? Well, that's because nobody can build much of anything in Paris without the city collapsing into the earth, thanks to a chaotic maze of unmapped tunnels dug underneath it.
Gypsum and limestone had been mined beneath Paris since the 13th century. As the city grew, so did the tunnels, but nobody bothered to keep track of how many were being dug or how far they extended in any particular direction, because civil engineering is more fun that way. A handful of Parisian suburbs were swallowed up by subterranean mine shafts over the next few centuries, and by the 1700s entire sections of Paris were dropping through the ground like the Name of God challenge from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
City officials were appropriately baffled, as none of them had any idea that Paris was essentially sitting on top of a giant ant farm full of unrefined minerals and the skeletons of the poor.
King Louis XIV sent some men to investigate why the earth was eating their city, and they discovered that pretty much all of Paris was in danger of collapsing, as it was built atop miles and miles of fragile quarries that, once again, nobody had bothered to keep track of. Improvements to the tunnels were immediately begun, but despite the numerous catastrophes, France continued boring dangerous holes beneath its capital city until the late 1800s.
The French government finally got wise to the fact that they were essentially digging Paris a giant grave in the 1950s, and since then almost all of the tunnels have been declared off-limits. The city has weight restrictions imposed on buildings to keep from putting too much strain on the threadbare mine shafts beneath them, hence Paris' lack of skyscrapers. However, with sections of the tunnels still regularly collapsing, all it will take is a small tremor or a medium-sized Luc Besson-produced explosion to bury the whole city like S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
Isaac Newton Makes an Obvious Calculus Mistake That Nobody Notices for 300 Years
Sir Isaac Newton dropped a series of game-changing books about physics, math, science, and astronomy that have influenced scientific thought for generations, sort of like the Tupac of theoretical equations. His most famous and important work, the Principia, is a three-volume series of mathematical proofs about his laws of gravity and motion. People based calculus on the stuff Newton wrote in Principia, which is why it came as such a shock to the academic community when an undergrad at the University of Chicago discovered a big fat mistake in one of the equations that had somehow gone unnoticed by legions of scientists, mathematicians, and professors for 300 years.
Robert Garisto was working on a paper for a history of science class (because school subjects based entirely on the discussion of painful minutia are best when they are combined) when he noticed that Newton had mistakenly plugged the wrong number into an equation to find the mass of the Earth -- Newton had used 10.5 seconds in his write-up, but 11 in the actual problem.
Garisto didn't think much of the error when he found it -- he assumed it had been put in there intentionally by his instructor, and that spotting it was part of the assignment. However, not only was the botched equation taken verbatim from Newton's book, but no other scholar in history had ever realized it was there. We're talking about 300 years of meticulous study and discussion, and not one person had ever noticed that Newton had put the wrong fucking number into his own equation.
To be fair, this mistake doesn't disprove any of Newton's theories, and the equation itself is still correct (when you have the presence of mind to use the right numbers). It's just insane that with the amount of attention paid to Newton's writings (and to the Principia in particular) and the level of influence they've had on the entire world, that boneheaded slip-up didn't catch anyone's eye until some 23-year-old nobody turned in a homework assignment in 1987.
Scholars Mistake Random Cracks in a Rock for an Epic Poem
In the 12th century, a rock bearing what appeared to be slowly fading runic symbols was discovered in Blekinge, Sweden, because ancient Norsemen just wrote shit down wherever they could. The king of Denmark sent a team of skilled translators to figure out what it said, but they were all stumped, claiming that the Runamo Inscription (as it would come to be called) was written in a form of Viking that was just too obscure for them to read. The actual reason they were unable to decipher the inscription is because it isn't an inscription at all -- it's just a bunch of random fissures in the surface of the rock.
However, this fact eluded people for the next 700 years.
Although nobody attempted another translation until the 17th century, the Runamo Inscription was still accepted as being an authentic but illegible piece of Nordic antiquity. The next person who stepped up to crack the nonexistent code was a leading Danish collector hilariously named Ole Worm, and he claimed to be able to make out a single word -- "Lund," the name of a city in southern Sweden. Presumably the Vikings were planning on meeting up with somebody later and were simply leaving directions.
Then, in the early 1800s, an Icelandic scholar named Finnur Magnusson, who would eventually become famous for habitually identifying meaningless naturally occurring bullshit as authentic runic writing, translated the Runamo Inscription as an epic poem about warrior chieftain Harald Wartooth defeating the Swedish king in the eighth century. This was a potentially huge discovery, because at the time little was known about the famous battle, and the rock would serve as a genuine historical record. That is, if it actually had any writing on it and wasn't just a goddamned rock. Naturally, some people were skeptical, because Magnusson was claiming to have read this ...
... from an alleged inscription that scholars 700 years prior (only four centuries removed from the actual event) had determined to be written in a form too obsolete to read. So, Sweden sent its own scientists to verify Magnusson's story, which they determined to be categorically false, much to the chagrin of hopeful historians and terrible Icelandic rune experts everywhere.
They made the salient point that nobody would've carved an epic poem on some random dumbass rock in the ground when there were plenty of giant upright flat stones in the immediate vicinity, and beyond that, the "inscription" in question had been carved by geologic events, not by a Viking king. It's the sort of thing that probably seemed obvious in retrospect, but it's better to get it right 700 years late than never.
Evan V. Symon is a moderator in the Cracked Workshop. When he isn't poring over the encyclopedia trying to find errors, he can be found on Facebook, and be sure to bookshelf and vote for his new book, The End of the Line.
For more mistakes nobody noticed, check out 7 Famous Works of Art With Bizarre Mistakes You Can't Unsee and The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Reasons People Think The NBA Is as Rigged as Wrestling.
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