Thomas Nuttall (1786 - 1859) was a pioneer botanist whose main field of
study was the flora and fauna of remote parts of North - west America. As an
explorer, however, his work was characterised by the fact that he was almost
permanently lost. During his expedition of 1812 his colleagues frequently
had to light beacons in the evening to help him find his way back to camp.
One night he completely failed to return and a search party was sent out. As
it approached him in the darkness Nuttall assumed they were Indians and
tried to escape. The annoyed rescuers pursued him for three days through
bush and river until he accidentally wandered back into the camp. On another
occasion Nuttall was lost again and lay down exhausted. He looked so
pathetic that a passing Indian, instead of scalping him, picked him up,
carried him three miles to the river and paddled him home in a canoe.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL CONTORTION ACT:
As part of his act while appearing in Roberts Brothers circus at Southend in
August 1978, Janos the Incredible Rubber Man was lowered to the floor while
hanging from a trapeze, with his legs wrapped somewhere behind his head.
Normally he rolls around for a spell to the applause of amazed audiences,
before reverting to a more conventional human posture. On this occasion he
just sat there. ‘I couldn’t move,’ he said later, by way of explanation. The
situation was resolved by a circus official, Mr. Kenneth Julian. ‘We put
Janos in the back of my van and took him to hospital.’ Doctors wrestled with
the problem for thirty minutes and ordered the Incredible Rubber Man to lie
flat for a week.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL WEATHER REPORT:
After severe flooding in Jeddah in January 1979, The Arab News gave the
following bulletin: ‘We regret that we are unable to give you the weather.
We rely on weather reports from the airport, which is closed because of the
weather. Whether we are able to give you the weather tomorrow depends on the
THE GREATEST MATHEMATICAL ERROR:
The Mariner I space probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on 28 July 1962
towards Venus. After 13 minutes flight a booster engine would give
acceleration up to 25,820 mph; after 44 minutes 9,800 solar cells would
unfold; after 80 days a computer would calculate the final course
corrections and after 100 days the craft would circle the unknown planet,
scanning the mysterious cloud in which it is bathed. However, with an
efficiency that is truly heartening, Mariner I plunged into the Atlantic
Ocean only four minutes after takeoff. Inquiries later revealed that a minus
sign had been omitted from the instructions fed to the computer. ‘It was
human error’, a launch spokesman said.
This minus sign cost £428,000,000.
THE WORST SHIP:
Between 1953, when it was built, and 1976 when it sank, the Argo Merchant
suffered every known form of maritime disaster. In 1967 the ship took eight
months to sail from Japan to America. It collided with a Japanese ship,
caught fire three times and had to stop for repairs five times.
In 1968 there was a mutiny and in 1969 she went aground off Borneo for
thirty-four hours. In the next five years she was laid up in Curaçao,
grounded off Sicily and towed to New York. In 1976 her boilers broke down
six times and she once had to travel with two red lights displayed,
indicating that the crew could no longer control the ship’s movement because
the steering and engine had failed. She was banned from Philadelphia, Boston
and the Panama Canal.
To round off a perfect year she ran aground and sank off Cape Cod depositing
the country’s largest oil slick on the doorstep of Massachusetts. At the
time of the final grounding the ship had been ‘lost’ for fifteen hours. The
crew was eighteen miles off course and navigating by the stars, because all
the modern equipment had broken down. What is more, the West Indian helmsman
could not read the Greek handwriting showing the course to be steered.
A naval expert afterwards described the ship as ‘a disaster looking for
somewhere to happen’.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL SAFETY FILM:
In 1976 the British Aircraft Corporation showed a film on the dangers of not
wearing protective goggles to employees at its Preston factory. It was so
horrific that thirteen employees had to be helped out by workmates and State
One scene was so realistic that a welder fell off his chair in fright and
had to have seven stitches. During the same scene another worker fainted and
had to be carried out. In one full-colour close-up a group of machine
operators had to be led out feeling sick and faint.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL ANIMAL RESCUE:
The fireman’s strike of 1978 made possible one of the great animal rescue
attempts of all time. Valiantly, the British Army had taken over emergency
firefighting and on 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady in
South London to retrieve her cat which had become trapped up a tree. They
arrived with impressive haste and soon discharged their duty. So grateful
was the lady that she invited them all in for tea. Driving off later, with
fond farewells completed, they ran over the cat and killed it.
THE VET WHO SURPRISED A COW:
In the course of his duties in August 1977, a Dutch veterinary surgeon was
required to treat an ailing cow. To investigate its internal gasses he
inserted a tube into that end of the animal not capable of facial expression
and struck a match. The jet of flame set fire first to some bales of hay and
then to the whole farm, causing damage estimated at £45,000. The vet was
later fined £140 for starting a fire in a manner surprising to the
magistrates. The cow escaped with shock.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL DEMOLITION:
Margate Pier was declared dangerous in 1978 after violent gales had lashed
the Kent coast. It was thought best to pull the pier down before it
In January 1979 the demolition team arrived and detonated an immense charge
of gelignite. The explosion sent water hundreds of feet into the air, but
left the pier’s essential character unchanged. After a second ‘demolition’ a
rivet was found embedded in the wall of a seafront pub and police insisted
that all future attempts should be made at high tide. The result was that
explosion number four took place at midnight and woke up all Margate’s sea
The demolition team made six further attempts before a Margate councillor
suggested that, in view of the large crowds they attracted, the unsuccessful
explosions should be made a weekly tourist attraction.
After the fourteenth attempt, the demolition team was retired and a
replacement company employed. After attempt number fifteen, the lifeboat
house on the pier was seen to be at a slight angle.
THE WORST VOYAGE:
Mr. William Smith of Norfolk sailed in his small yacht from Scotland to
Great Yarmouth. Showing great independence of mind en route, he missed
Bridlington Harbour by 400 yards and rammed a jetty; at Yarmouth he overshot
by 90 miles and ran aground off Kent.
A full-scale search for the boat was hampered by the change in its
appearance. When it left Scotland it was black with one mast. When rescued,
it had two masts and was painted green. ‘I passed the time while I was
aground redecorating’, Mr. Smith explained.
Entering Yarmouth Harbour, he scraped a floating museum, collided with a
small coaster and hit an entrant for the Tall Ships yacht race. He also
knocked several guardrails off a trimaran and got the ropes of the cargo
vessel Grippen wrapped around his mast.
Describing the voyage as ‘pleasant with no hassle or worries’, Mr. Smith
said he planned sailing to Australia next.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL ATTEMPT TO LIGHT A COAL FIRE:
In 1972 Derek Langborne, a scientist from Upton, built a fire in his grate
and lit it. He then popped outside to fill the coal scuttle. When he
returned, he observed that, in its enthusiasm to heat the room, one log had
rolled out of the grate and set fire to the log box. He picked it up and
carried it out into the garden. On the way out he brushed against a curtain
covering the front door. By the time he returned the curtain and the door
were both in flames.
While telephoning Didcot Fire Brigade, he noticed that the log box, which he
had deposited in the garden, had now set fire to his car.
He then put on his overcoat and approached the car with a bucket of water.
In the process he tripped over a partly filled petrol can.
Seeing that Mr. Langborne was in good form, his neighbour called the fire
brigade. By the time the fire brigade arrived, Mr. Langborne himself was on
fire with flames now leaping freely from his overcoat.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL FRAUD:
A Nigerian labourer explored new areas of fraudulent endeavour in March
1967. While working on a building site in Lagos, he altered his pay cheque
from £9.40 to £697,000,009.40. The fraud was entirely successful right up to
the moment he tried to cash it.
THE WORST BURGLAR:
The history of crime offers few figures less suited to undetected burglary
than Mr. Phillip McVutcheon. He was arrested for the twentieth time when,
after his latest robbery, he drove his getaway car into two parked vans.
During the man’s appearance at York Crown Court in 1971, the judge gave a
rare display of career advice from the bench.
Giving our man a conditional discharge, Mr. Rodney Percy, the Recorder,
said: ‘I think you should give burglary up. You have a withered hand, an
artificial leg and only one eye. You have been caught in Otley, Leeds,
Harrogate, Norwich, Beverley, Hull and York. How can you hope to succeed?
You are a rotten burglar. You are always being caught.’
THE WORST TACTICIAN:
During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) General Antonio Lopez De Santa
Anna lost every battle he fought, despite having modelled himself closely on
At the age of twenty he attended lectures on his hero and for some years
adopted Napoleon’s hairstyle, combing it from the back towards his forehead.
In fact, he looked nothing whatsoever like Napoleon, who was short and fat.
Santa Anna was tall, skinny and had only one leg (he had lost the other in
1838 fighting the French and later held a special burial service for it at
Santa Paula cemetery which was attended by a large number wishing to pay
Furthermore, he lacked almost all of Napoleon’s strategic gifts. In one
inspired ‘surprise attack’ he dressed all his troops in enemy uniforms. The
chaos was indescribable and the plan a total failure.
During skirmishes with the Texans in the 1830s he was once taken prisoner by
them, but, in a move of tactical brilliance, they released him. On 20 April
1836, showing the calmness of a great commander, he set up camp at the San
Jacinto River overlooking a wood where Texans were known to be hiding and
ordered his troops to take a siesta. At half past three in the afternoon his
entire army was wiped out in only eighteen minutes. Santa Anna himself was
enjoying a deep and refreshing sleep from which he was only roused by the
continuing noise of marauding Texans. Realising that his entire army was
being routed, Santa Anna didn’t help matters by shouting ‘The enemy is upon
us’ and leaving on a horse.
THE MOST UNSUCCESSFUL HIGHJACKING:
We shall never know the identity of the man who in 1976 made the most
unsuccessful hijack attempt ever. On a flight across America, he rose from
his seat, drew a gun and took the stewardess hostage.
‘Take me to Detroit,’ he ordered.
‘We’re already going to Detroit,’ she replied.
‘Oh....good,’ he said, and sat down again.
Few other cases come anywhere near this. In 1967 a drunk Arab hijacked a
plane and demanded that he be taken to Jerusalem. For his own safety, the
crew explained that there was a war on there and, being an Arab, he would
probably get shot on sight. ‘He was so drunk he had to be protected,’ the
captain said afterwards.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL NATIONAL MOURNING:
India was swept with grief on 22 March 1979 when the Indian Prime Minister,
Mr. Moraji Desai, informed Parliament that Jayaprakash Narayan, the patriot
elder statesman, had died in a Bombay hospital.
The Prime Minister delivered a moving eulogy and Parliament was adjourned.
Flags were lowered to half-mast. The news was flashed all over the
sub-continent. Funeral music was broadcast on All-India Radio. Schools and
shops closed down throughout the land. The entire nation plunged into
mourning for over an hour.
Everyone was shaken by the news, none more than Mr. Jayaprakash Narayan who
was in bed convalescing.
‘I’m sorry about that’, said the Prime Minister afterwards. The information
had apparently come from the director of the Intelligence Bureau, one of
whose staff had seen a body being carried out of the hospital.
THE BURGLAR WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS VICTIM:
One of the great romantic encounters occurred in November 1978 between a
Streatham burglar and a blonde lady into whose house he had broken.
As soon as he saw the lady he changed his tack entirely, choosing this, of
all unlikely moments to woo her. After thirty minutes he was getting on so
famously that he tried to kiss her. To his horror, she not only refused, but
also felled him with a right-hand punch, a left jab and a half-nelson.
In this state she frog-marched him to the porter’s lodge, while hitting him
on the head with a spare shoe.
‘She was no ordinary helpless female,’ the burglar commented, on discovering
that prior to a sex change she had been employed as a bricklayer.
Two motorists had
an all too literal head on collision in heavy fog near the small town of
Guetersloh, Germany. Each was guiding his car at a snail's pace near the
middle of the road because of the thick fog. At the moment of impact their
heads were both out of the windows when they smacked together. Both men were
hospitalised with severe head injuries. Their cars weren't damaged at all
and didn't have a mark on them.
A man walked into a little corner shop with a shotgun and demanded all of
the cash from the cash drawer. After the shopkeeper had put the cash in a
bag, the robber saw a bottle of Scotch that he wanted behind the counter on
the shelf. He told the shopkeeper to put it in the bag as well, but the
cashier refused and said, 'It's because I don't believe you are over 18. The
robber said that he was, but the shop's owner still refused to give it to
him because he didn't believe him.
At this point, the robber took his driving licence out of his wallet and
handed it to the shopkeeper who looked it over and agreed that the man was
in fact over 18 and he put the Scotch in the bag. The robber then ran from
the store with his swag. The shopkeeper immediately called the police and
gave the name and address of the robber that he had seen on the licence.
Police arrested the robber two hours later.
Early this year,
two employees at an airfield near Prestwick, Scotland, apparently decided to
steal a life raft from one of the planes. They were successful in getting it
out of the plane and home. Some days later they took it for a sail on the
river. Presently they noticed a RAF rescue helicopter coming towards them.
It turned out that
the chopper was homing in on the emergency locator beacon that activated
when the raft was inflated. They are no longer employed at the airfield.
Response to a
woodland fire in the south of France's Cote d' Azur was billed as a marvel
of modern fire-fighting technology in the newspaper Le Monde. Two
specially-built flying boats zoomed in, skimmed the waters of the
Mediterranean, scooping vast amounts of water into their belly tanks, and
then dropped the water on the hillside fire extinguishing all the flames.
All was jolly and the wine flowed freely until a body was found in the ashes
of the fire.' The coroner found that the gentleman had apparently fallen
from a great height, suffering serious injuries before being burned to
death. The report further noted that the victim was wearing a bathing suit,
snorkel, and flippers.'
THE WORST HOMING PIGEON
This historic bird was released in Pembrokeshire in June 1953 and was
expected to reach its base that evening. It was returned by post, dead, in
a cardboard box eleven years later from Brazil.
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