5 Times in History Somebody Seriously Snoozed and Losed
The idea that you need to “strike while the iron is hot” has morphed from a straightforward explanation of blacksmithing into an endlessly repeated cliche. It, or some more unwieldy modern rejiggering, is plastered over everything from horoscopes to aviator stock photos on hustle culture Instagram accounts. As eye-rolling as it may have become in modern times, there’s a reason these kinds of euphemisms stick around, and that’s because there is a legitimate nugget of wisdom buried at the bottom of bad motivational posters or regrettable tattoos.
Plenty of people throughout history have filled their metaphorical blade with microfractures by waiting too long, while others have snapped the sword in half entirely because of ill-advised hesitation — losing a couple million dollars or an entire city in the process. We don’t usually criticize leaders for things like “caution” and “foresight,” but there have been at least a few times in the past when people would have been better off with the cocaine-fueled optimism of a tech bro bleeding VC money. Such as…
Greeks Almost Inventing The Steam Engine
An aeolipile might sound like one of those weird little bugs that looks terrifying under a microscope, but it’s actually a Greek invention that was remarkably ahead of its time. It was designed by a man named Heron around 70 A.D., a man who was a remarkable engineer with a love for making, for lack of a better word, cool little doodads. One of these doodads was the aeolipile, which was a fun toy that heated water in a kettle, causing steam to head up two tubes to a hollow sphere mounted on an axis with two exhaust pipes facing opposite directions. Heat up the water and the steam would shoot out of the pipes, spinning the ball quickly, and everyone would clap and dance to the joyous songs of their eunuchs or whatever.
The engineering-minded among you might have just had the thought that apparently no one in the first century managed, which is: That sounds a whole lot like a steam engine. Well, they wouldn’t know those words, but hey, maybe if they’d realized that their spin-y toy would be the impetus for an industrial revolution, they could have gotten to name it. Sure, his version wasn’t capable of doing much of anything, but you’d think it would have taken less than 1,500 years for people to make the aeolipile 2.0, one that had a little more oomph.
Not Signing The Beatles
In the history of entertainment, everyone loves to feel the delicious secondhand “doy” of whatever unfortunate fat cat said “no” to something that turned out to be huge. Nobody wants to be left watching in their cold, wet board shorts as somebody else rides the world’s newest, hottest wave to adulation. Following that same analogy, if there’s one wave that you don’t want to miss out on, it’s the massive, beach-village demolishing tsunami that was the Beatles. To pull a comparison from John Lennon’s book, it would be like a publisher telling Jesus that they don’t see the Bible going anywhere.
In 1962, Decca Records did just that when they heard demos from the Beatles, and decided to pass. There’s lots of cloudy details and retellings upon retellings of how exactly they told the four fellows to fuck off to a half-decent barber. Given the scale of this whoopsie, though, I think we can agree that the fact is if your pants are full of piss, nobody really cares how it got there. Now, Decca Records weathered the blunder and has still been plenty successful in their own right. They managed to nab many other notable, famous artists, including The Rolling Stones, but then again, they’re not the fucking Beatles, are they?
Passing on the Patent for the Telephone
Sure, the Beatles changed the world, but in a wishy-washy, emotional way. Hearts and minds and the development of music, all hugely important in human history, but it’s not like they were an invention that would later have roots in the entire daily existence of humanity. I mean, if someone offered to sell you that, and you didn’t take it, you’d be an all-time doofus, right? Let me introduce you to William Orton, head of Western Union, and all-time doofus.
Orton and Western Union were offered the patent to a newfangled communication device invented by Alexander Graham Bell, one we know as “the telephone.” Sure, the asking price was high at $100,000, but you’d like to think the head of a communications company might see the value in the fucking telephone. Instead, he balked, apparently not seeing a future in the device that would, you know, literally define the future.
The Byzantine Empire Not Buying A Huge Cannon
The next entry here is another of a leader greatly regretting a lack of investment in new technology, particularly one gigantic bronze cannon. This was a little further back: The man in question was Emperor Constantine XI of the Byzantine Empire. The Big Man of Byzantium was hit up on a cold-call from an engineer named Orban, who told him that he would love to help him create a couple absolutely massive cannons, perfect for blowing away any enemy that decided to breathe wrong on Constantinople’s walls.
To be fair, Constantine was very interested, but he didn’t at the time have the resources, so although he tried to pay money to keep Orban around, eventually he took his cannon drawings elsewhere. In retrospect, Constantine might have wanted to make a little more effort to move some funds around, or, and I only say this out of the coldest, most brutal logic, kill or imprison the guy who knows how to make massive cannons. If somebody tries to sell you the medieval equivalent of a nuclear warhead, don’t just say, “Wish I could!” and send him off with a bag lunch directly into neighboring empires — specifically, the extremely rich Ottomans, who asked Orban, “Could these things fuck up Constantinople?” To which Orban replied, “Dude, I just came from there, and absolutely.”
Unfortunately for Constantine and company, it turned out Orban made really good cannons. In a turn as irritating as it was brutal, the same cannons they’d just been pitched were used to conquer the city.
Not Letting Hitler Drown
The last entry is one in which the whole world could have used a little bit of hesitation, and a little bit less heroism. In 1894 in Germany, a man named Johann Kuehberger saw a drowning boy in a river and, without a second thought, strode in to save his life. Incredible, awe-inspiring, medals all around, right? At the time, sure.
Unfortunately for millions of people, the boy he pulled out of that river was a young Adolf Hitler. Where's an innocent bystander when you need one?