Historical Moments When Small Mistakes Changed the World: Discovery of Australia, selling of Alaska, Fleming's mistake

Fareeha Arshad

Crimean WarWikimedia Commons

Mistakes are everywhere — some more glaring than the others. I am sure that you made a dozen mistakes in the past week, even if insignificant or small. However, most of our mistakes do not change our life. Only a few rarely manage to make a massive impact on our personal lives. However, there were a few mistakes in history that changed the world as we see it today.

1. The time when the Dutch did not declare that they discovered Australia

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No, the Englishman Captain James Cook was not the first person to discover Australia. A century before him, in 1606, the Dutch Captain Willem Janszoon set out on his vessel Duyfken and explored over 200 miles of the western side of the Cape York Peninsula, and became the first person to discover Australia.

Many other Dutch explored the west and south coasts of the same area and named it the New Holland. However, they did not make any efforts to colonize the area or settle there. And therefore, their discovery remained long forgotten until Captain Cook staked his claim in 1770.

2. The Habsburg farcical friendly fire incident

When the Austro-Turkish War broke out in 1788 between the Ottomans and the Habsburg, a farcical friendly fire followed. This incident gave the Ottomans an unexpected upper hand.

In September that year, the Austrian hussars crossed a river to spy on the Turkish side. However, they could not spot anybody from the enemy side; and instead spotted a few locals who were selling wine. A few members of the Austrian army purchased the alcoholic drink and got drunk. On the other end of the river, the Austrian commander patiently waited for them at the camp to return with essential bits of information about their enemy.

When the hussars did not return, the commander sent a few officers to look out for them. Not much later, the drunken soldiers were discovered, and chaos ensued. As it turns out, the two groups of soldiers believed the other group to be from the enemy’s side. An artillery officer observed the fight from a distance and thought that the Austrian camp was under attack, so he ordered his soldiers to open fire — killing over 1000 soldiers.

Finally, when the Ottomans arrived at the place, they found several casualties from the Austrian army and took over the Karansebes without any fight.

3. The time when Russia sold Alaska to the U.S.

When the Crimean War broke out, Turkey, Britain, and France stood against their common enemy — Russia. During this period, things became complicated for Russia, and they could no longer support their Alaskan region. So, their only strong support, the US, came to Russia’s aid. The two countries decided that Russia would ‘sell’ Alaska to the US.

Despite the criticisms this decision brought across the world, an agreement was signed in March of 1867, according to which Russia sold Alaska to the US for 7.2 million dollars. Little did the Russians know the intensity of their deal. Not much later, during the 1880s and 1890s, gold mining in the region brought in millions of dollars to the US, boosting the American economy.

4. The time when Alexander Fleming could not keep his lab clean 

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Since the unprecedented discovery of benzylpenicillin, an antibiotic, by Alexander Fleming in 1928, the field of science and medicine has not been the same. Even though the scientists look up to this revolutionary man, what was supposed to be a significant discovery was actually a mistake — an excellent one, though.

After Fleming returned from his short vacation, he observed that one of his Petri dishes with staphylococci bacteria initially also showed signs of fungal growth. As the fungus spread, it annihilated the bacteria in the petri dish. Curious by this strange observation, Fleming grew the fungus in a pure culture that confirmed his initial discovery.

Fleming named the substance that the fungus produced the ‘mould juice’ — that acted as the antibiotic against the bacterial culture. This ‘mould juice’ was widely used during World War II and helped save the lives of countless wounded soldiers and civilians.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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