Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage

Khalid Elhassan - July 11, 2020

Throughout history, many an idea seemed brilliant when first introduced, but turned out to be not so bright in hindsight. For example, there was a decades-long stretch in the twentieth century, when millions of shoe shoppers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from shoe-store X-ray machines. Or the time when an earlier iteration of Exxon bragged about its ability to melt millions of tons of glaciers per day. Following are forty fascinating things about seemingly great ideas that aged like garbage.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
An olden days shoe store. Pinterest

40. The Idea to Use X-Ray Machines in Shoe Stores

Finding out if a shoe fits one’s foot is pretty straight-forward. The idea and execution are pretty basic: put the shoes on your feet, then walk up and down the store aisle for a bit to see how they feel. However, back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and into the 70s, things were different in many shoe stores across America and Europe.

For about five decades in the twentieth century, many shoe stores overthought the simple concept of trying on shoes, and decided to get overly fancy and science-y with it. Instead of sticking to the tried and true practice of just letting people try on shoes, shoe stores decided to use radiation machines to blast their customers’ feet with unshielded X-rays.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
An X-Ray Shoe Fitter device. Wired Magazine

39. The Idea Behind X-Ray Shoe Fitters

In the early 1920s, Dr. Jacob Lowe demonstrated a modified medical device at shoe retailer conventions in Boston and Milwaukee, that X-rayed people’s feet. Other inventors in the same period had the same idea, and came up with similar devices. Known as Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscopes, and also sold under the names X-Ray Shoe Fitters, Pedoscopes, and Foot-O-Scopes, the devices were metal constructions covered in wood, about four feet high.

Installed in shoe stores, child or adult customers would don a pair of shoes in which they were interested, stick their feet into the device while standing, then look down through a porthole at an X-ray view of their feet in the shoes. The bones and the shoe outline were clearly visible. A pair of other viewing portholes on the machine’s sides allowed the shoe salesman and anybody else accompanying the customer to look at the toes wiggling, to get an idea of how much space there was in the shoes.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
An X-Ray Shoe Fitter in action. Amusing Planet

38. A Bad Idea

On its face, the basic idea behind X-Ray Shoe Fitters was brilliant. The drawback was that nobody paid attention to the dangers inherent in using unshielded X-rays around people. Especially when done frequently. Even more especially when blasted directly up at the customers’ genitals, which were located directly above the device as they stood over it while the machine X-rayed their feet.

Back then, people were either ignorant of the risks of radiation exposure, or did not take them seriously. The X-Ray Shoe Fitter devices were supposed to be shielded, but the shield was usually removed to improve the image quality or to make the device lighter. As a result, a significant amount of radiation was scattered in all directions, bathing the bodies of the customers and shoe salespeople in harmful X-rays. Unsurprisingly, there were severe downsides and side effects.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
X-ray of a shoe-clad foot. Imgur

37. X-Ray Shoe Fitters Bathed Everybody in the Vicinity With Dangerous Radiation

A typical X-Ray Shoe Fitter viewing lasted about 20 seconds, during which the machine delivered about half the radiation of a chest CT scan. Many customers tried on more than one pair of shoes, and thus ended up getting exposed to additional X-ray doses with each pair. Even people sitting in the waiting room got exposed to radiation.

Many shoe stores did not think that saving money by skimping on machine maintenance was a bad idea. As a result, many X-Ray Shoe Fitters emitted significantly more radiation. Some devices blasted out as much as 300 times more radiation than the maximum safe limit. Most exposed were the shoe salespeople: they got hit with stray radiation dozens of times a day, each and every day they went to work.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
An X-Ray Shoe Fitter machine in action. Reddit

36. A Seemingly Brilliant Idea That Inflicted Serious Damage

Many of those exposed to radiation from X-Ray Shoe Fitters suffered adverse health consequences – some quite serious. Unfortunately, medical monitoring and product safety investigation back then was not what it is today. As a result, accurate figures for just how severe and widespread was the damage are lacking. However, while we do not have an idea about the actual extent of the damage, damage there undoubtedly was.

The first serious alarms were raised in 1957, when The British Medical Journal ran an article about a middle-aged woman with skin damage and pain consistent with radiation burns. She had worked in a shoe store for ten years, where she operated an X-Ray Shoe Fitter 15 to 20 times a day, often demonstrating how it worked by inserting her own foot into the device. Worse still was the fate of an unfortunate shoe model, who received so much radiation her leg had to be amputated.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Side view of an X-rayed foot. European Society of Radiology

35. Regulating and Getting Rid of X-Ray Shoe Fitters

There were no safety or health regulations in place when X-Ray Shoe Fitters were first invented, and for decades, few paid attention to their dangers. For example, an estimated 10,000 devices were sold in America, about 3000 in Britain, 1500 in Switzerland, and 1000 in Canada before the authorities stepped in and began discouraging their use.

As awareness grew of the long-term adverse health effects of radiation, the notion that the widespread use of X-ray machines in shoe stores might be a bad idea gained popularity. Accordingly, voices were raised to regulate the devices, and eventually, prohibit their use. In 1958, Britain mandated warning signs on the devices, and the following year, Switzerland prohibited their use. By 1970, the devices had been banned in 33 American states, and by the end of the decade, the last recorded sighting of an X-ray shoe Fitter occurred in Boston.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Melting glaciers. New Atlas

34. Exxon’s Predecessor Bragged About How Much Glacier Cap It Could Melt

When poring through advertisements from decades and generations past, we frequently come across ads that were totally innocuous and non-controversial for their era, but that have aged like garbage. Due to social, political, or technological advances and changes, things that seemed like a good idea and that were perfectly acceptable in one era, can be seen today as silly, ridiculous, or outright offensive.

An example of that dynamic can be seen in an advertisement run in 1962 by Humble Oil & Refining Company – which eventually rebranded as Exxon – for its Esso brand gasoline. The company – contra its name – bragged about its size and technical efficiency by boasting that it could melt millions of tons of glaciers every single day of the year.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Humble Oil’s glacier-melting ad. Bill Moyers

33. When Bragging About Destroying the Environment Sounded Like a Good Idea

As the text of Humble Oil’s ad put it: “EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER! This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has supplied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company.

Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation, and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Esso Extra gasoline, and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The breaking up of melting glaciers. Smithsonian Magazine

32. An Idea That Aged Like Garbage

Needless to say, Humble Oil’s non-humble boast that it produced enough energy to melt seven million tons of glaciers every day did not age well. A few decades later on down the road, scientists began sounding the alarm about the dangers of global warming – a growing menace caused in large part by fossil fuels such as those produced by Humble Oil.

Back in 1962, the ad’s copywriters thought they had come up with a clever idea, and were blissfully unaware of that what the future would bring. They certainly had not anticipated that melting glaciers would become a major symbol of the risks of global warming.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Polar bear in the Arctic Circle. YouTube

31. Setting Out to Actually Melt the Arctic

Humble Oil only boasted about its ability to melt the Polar ice caps, but did not actually propose an idea to deliberately melt them. Not so the Soviet Union, which actively sought to get rid of the Arctic in the name of progress. Today, melting polar ice caps are a major concern, seeing as how the resultant rise in sea levels threatens low-lying coastal plains around the world where billions live. However, in the 1950s, when most people had never even heard of “global warming”, let alone understood its ramifications, things were pretty different.

Back then, polar ice was seen by many not as something positive worth preserving, but as a negative that should be gotten rid of, the sooner, the better. The idea of getting rid of the polar ice cap was especially popular in the USSR, a huge chunk of which lay under permafrost. The frozen conditions held up many economic development projects, so authorities explored plans to warm up the country. The idea that got the most traction was to melt the entire Arctic ice cap.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The proposed Bering Strait dam. Reddit

30. A Dam Across the Bering Strait

Soviet scientist Petr Mikhailovich Borisov came up with the idea of building a 55 mile dam across the entire Bering Strait between the USSR and Alaska. Doing so would block cold Pacific Ocean currents from reaching the Arctic, while allowing the Atlantic Ocean’s warm Gulf Stream currents to circulate more freely. That would gradually melt the Arctic ice cap, until the North Pole was completely ice-free.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Cold (blue) and warm (red) currents circulating in the Arctic Ocean. Motherboard

The Soviet government found Borisov’s concept intriguing, and his idea even made waves in the West, where JFK called it “certainly worth exploring“. However, the plan fizzled out – not due to environmental concerns, but cost concerns, and the difficulty of securing the US-Soviet cooperation necessary to carry out such an ambitious geo-engineering project.

Also Read: Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The British Raj in India. YouTube

29. A Giant Customs Barrier

Northern India has relatively few sources of salt, and throughout most of history, the region had to import it from elsewhere in the subcontinent. When the British conquered India, they hit upon the idea of cashing in on that by monopolizing salt production, then gouging the natives for all they could get out of them via stringent salt taxes.

The salt tax proved hugely unpopular with the Indian public. Protests over its collection helped fuel the rise of Indian nationalism and sowed the seeds of India’s independence movement. More immediately, however, the British had to contend with rampant salt smuggling from southern India, where salt was abundant and salt taxes were low, to northern India, where the opposite was true. So came up with the idea of growing a giant hedge of thorn bushes, stretching across India for thousands of miles.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The Inland Customs Line, incorporating the Great Hedge of India. Wikimedia

28. The Great Hedge of India

Known as “The Great Hedge of India”, the customs barrier was supposed to stretch for 2500 miles, 14 feet wide, 12 feet high, and bristling with thorns. By 1878, the Great Hedge stretched for 1100 miles, but the idea hit a snag when the thorn bushes refused to grow properly: most of the hedge ended up consisting of dead branches. Still, the British persisted with their idea, and eventually grew 500 miles of proper hedge, that was patrolled by 12,000 customs officers. That army of officials had to contend with brush fires, storms, parasitic vines, and pests.

The barrier did little to stop smugglers, who easily circumvented the Hedge by hacking a way through it, or by simply tossing bags of salt over the barrier to accomplices on the other side. The Great Hedge was abandoned in 1879, when the authorities decided to simply impose and collect the salt tax at the point of manufacture, then have the manufacturers pass it on to buyers.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Juan Peron and wife, Eva. Biography

27. Investing in a Crazy Nazi Scientist’s Plans

In the spring of 1951, newspapers around the globe carried sensational news: the discovery of practical fusion power in Argentina. On March 24th of that year, Argentina’s president Juan Peron announced that his country had mastered “the controlled liberation of atomic energy“, not from uranium, but from hydrogen. He added that the discovery would prove “transcendental for the future life” of Argentina, and would bring it “a greatness which today we cannot imagine“.

Juan Peron went on to promise a future in which energy would be “sold in half-liter bottles like milk“. However, thermonuclear fusion was advanced technology that neither the US nor USSR had mastered at the time. So the idea that Argentina, then a rural country of fewer than 16 million people, had achieved what neither global superpower could was baffling. How had Argentina pulled off such a feat? The answer was: it had not.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Ronald Richter, left, with Juan Peron. Questa de Ciencia

26. The Wacky Nazi

As things turned out, Juan Peron had been conned by a German WWII aircraft designer named Ronald Richter, who had wildly misrepresented his credentials in a successful bid to get funding for a fusion reactor. Argentine scientists knew Richter’s claims were BS, but Peron wanted to believe in the Nazi scientist’s idea, so he did. The end result was that a significant chunk of Argentina’s budget was diverted into building a massive compound for Richter on Huemul Island, in an Andean lake.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Remnants of the main reactor building on Huemul Island. Mapio

In a humiliation for all involved, Richter’s claims were debunked almost immediately after they were announced by Peron. Richter was eventually jailed for having “misled” the Argentine president, and his embarrassed government razed most of the lab to the ground and tried to pretend the whole thing had never happened. After Richter was released from prison, he settled down to become a chicken farmer, but continued to insist to his dying days that his idea had been practical, and that he had mastered nuclear fusion.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Gamal Abdel Nasser. Pinterest

25. Stealing a River

Egypt was a British client state and protectorate from 1882 to 1952, and Britain had the right to base troops in Egypt to protect her interests. Most important of those interests was safeguarding the Suez Canal, of which the British government was a majority shareholder. Then in 1952, a military coup by nationalist Egyptian officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt’s pro-British king.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Anthony Eden. International Churchill Society

The new government demanded that British troops leave Egypt, and in 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal. Nasser and his nationalist government infuriated British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was determined to cut the Egyptian upstart down to size and put him in his place. So his government came up with the idea of blocking the Nile, to prevent its water from reaching Egypt.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The Owen Falls Dam in Uganda. Pinterest

24. Blocking the Nile

To coerce the Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the British government drew up secret plans to cut off the flow of the water, in an attempt to force their opponent to toe the line. In 1956, Britain still controlled Uganda, where the Owen Falls Dam lay astride the White Nile, the main source of the river flowing into Egypt. The idea was to cut off the flow in Uganda, thus reducing the Nile by seven eighths by the time it reached Egypt.

The plan was ultimately rejected, because it would deprive other countries between Uganda and Egypt of water, would take too long, and would produce a PR nightmare. Instead, Eden opted for direct military intervention. It turned out to be another bad idea. The result was the 1956 Suez Crisis, which ended with Britain being forced into a humiliating climb down, and the demise of Anthony Eden’s political career.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Senator Charles B. Farwell. Wikimedia

23. Bombing the Sky to Make It Rain

In 1871, former Civil War general Edward Powers wrote War and the Weather, in which he documented several battles throughout history that were followed by rain. He theorized that the loud din of battle agitated the clouds, and caused them to release the rain stored within. Powers’ idea gave birth to what came to be known as “Concussion Theory”, which held that clouds could be forced to yield rain via loud noises.

As Powers put it: “If lightning and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter were only intended, this surely can be done without these latter concomitants“. Credible scientists and scholars scoffed at the idea, but two decades later Senator Charles B. Farwell of Illinois read Powers’ book, and decided to test Concussion Theory. So he got Congress to appropriate $10,000 to make the tests.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Robert G. Dyrenforth. The House History Man

22. When Facts Fail, Fabrication Must Suffice

No serious scholars or scientists were willing to risk their reputations by having anything to do with something as wacky as the idea of Concussion Theory. So a patent lawyer named Robert G. Dyrenforth was assigned the task of carrying out the experiment. In August of 1891, Dyrenforth set up shop in a section of Texas prairie, and put on what must have been an impressive pyrotechnic display.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Robert G. Dyrenforth and his sky-bombing crew. Library of Congress

His men blasted clouds with mortars and with dynamite carried aloft by kites, while trailing behind them were balloons filled with flammable hydrogen. To add to the noise, Dyrenforth’s men increased the decibel levels by packing prairie dog holes full of dynamite, and setting them off as well. Unsurprisingly, the plan did not work, but Dyrenforth claimed it did. Dyrenforth’s fabrication was foiled, however, by a meteorologist who observed the experiment, and published a scathing report about it in Nature.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Protests in Saigon. People’s World

21. Dissuading Protesters With Rain

American ideas about forcing the skies to give up their water survived into the twentieth century and the Vietnam War. By 1963, South Vietnamese president and US puppet ruler Ngo Dinh Diem was on the ropes. His regime, marked by extreme nepotism, extraordinary graft, and astonishing levels of corruption, was hugely unpopular. Between that, a steadily intensifying Viet Cong insurgency, and economic hardships, South Vietnam was seething.

Protests were erupting up and down the country, only to be brutally put down by Diem’s security forces. That only added more fuel to the fire, and gave the South Vietnamese more cause for protest. However, bad as Diem might have been, he was still America’s Man in Saigon. So the US government tried to do what it could to prop him up – before finally abandoning Diem and backing a coup that overthrew him. Before washing its hands of Diem, however, the US thought up some batty ideas of supporting him. One such was the idea to literally dampen protesters’ enthusiasm with man-made rain.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Operation Popeye. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

20. Operation Popeye

One idea concocted by the American military and the CIA involved seeding clouds to make them, literally, rain on the parades of anti-Diem protestors. The hope was that the downpour would dampen turnout and disperse the crowds. That did not save Diem, who was overthrown and assassinated in 1963. However, the idea of seeding clouds seeding survived to be used as a tactic in the Vietnam War. Codenamed Operation Popeye, modified cargo planes began flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1967, releasing silver and lead iodide flares.

The idea was to heavily increase the monsoon period’s rainfall, and thus negatively impact the routes used to supply and reinforce communist forces in South Vietnam. By the time Operation Popeye was terminated in 1972, over 2600 missions had been flown, during which roughly 47,000 cloud seeding charges were dropped. Their impact on the Ho Chi Minh trail and communist supplies and reinforcements were next to nil.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Feral rabbits in Australia. Australia National Museum

19. Introducing Rabbits to Australia

In hindsight, few ideas have been as harebrained as that of the British introducing rabbits to Australia, and deliberately releasing them into the wild to breed like… well… rabbits. Knowing what we know today about the harms caused by tampering with ecologies, it seems incredible that the British thought that releasing breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback was a good idea. Just as incredible is the train of logic that got them there: the idea to release rabbits as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable, and the idea to release them as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.

The British initially viewed Australia as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that outlet was closed after America’s independence. Understandably, the new republic was less than eager to go on accepting shiploads of British jailbirds. So the British began transporting their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Convicts need to be fed, however, so the British transported rabbits alongside the cons.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Map of the original Rabbit-Proof Fence. Wikimedia

18. From Cute and Cuddly to Feral Pests

Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, the idea being that they would serve as a rapidly breeding food source. Eventually, some rich settlers had what seemed at the time to be a great idea: release rabbits and hares into the wild for sport hunting. Rabbits, which are not native to Australia, did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as was the case in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home.

The consequences were catastrophic. As early as the 1820s, settlers were complaining of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons allowing for year-round breeding, and natural selection producing a hardier breed of wild rabbits, their population exploded.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Nineteenth century cartoon predicting the futility of the Rabbit Proof Fence. Wikimedia

17. Combating a Catastrophe

By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Australia. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, because of all the inhabited continents, Australia has the most vulnerable soil and is the one most susceptible to erosion.

For over a century, Australia has lived with the consequences of the idea of releasing rabbits into the wild. Ever since, the country has struggled to control its rabbit population, with measures that included shooting, poisoning, and infecting the pests with epidemic diseases. The most conspicuous measure, though was and remains fencing, ranging from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences stretching for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
A European red fox preying upon a native Australian marsupial. Fox Scan

16. A New Man-Made Catastrophe to Address an Existing Man-Made Catastrophe

As early as the 1820s, it was becoming clear to all and sundry in Australia that releasing rabbits into the Outback had been a terrible idea. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place, that releasing a non-native species into a new environment might produce unintended negative consequences, was not enough to prevent a repeat with another species. As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were deliberately released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper-class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting.

Within two decades of their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were outcompeted by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other unsuspecting creatures.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Destroying alcohol during Prohibition. Tes Teach

15. An Idea to Save Society’s Morals Leads to the Creation of American Organized Crime

In 1919, America had a seemingly laudable idea that backfired spectacularly. That year, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, which went into effect the following January. It was a bold moral policing experiment, that turned out to be disastrous. Until then, American organized crime was relatively insignificant. City gangs existed, but they consisted of street hoods whose reach and influence seldom stretched beyond a few blocks. That changed dramatically, starting on January 16th, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect, banning the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol.

Making alcohol illegal did not reduce public demand for booze. What it did was alter societal attitudes, and create an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide the public with the alcohol it wanted. By making booze illegal, Prohibition took a major American industry that had operated legally until then, and gifted it – along with its enormous and now untaxed revenue – to criminals. Relatively well-regulated (and taxed) enterprises that had operated the American alcohol industry were driven out of business, to be replaced by organized crime.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Protesters marching against Prohibition. Popular Mechanics

14. An Explosion of Criminality

Just like drugs today, the profits from illegal alcohol during Prohibition were astronomical. Overnight, the idea of getting into bootlegging became irresistible to criminals across America. Their task was made easier by much of the public, as well as many cops and politicians, who did not see the sale or consumption of alcohol as particularly venal or morally blameworthy.

Illegal alcohol’s profits enabled organized crime to increase its other illicit activities, such as racketeering, prostitution, drugs, gun-running, and more. The profits also enabled organized crime to lavishly bribe politicians, officials, cops, and judges, and corrupt America’s political and criminal justice systems to failed state levels.

Read More: 10 Most Corrupt Political Machines in American History.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Detroit gangsters during Prohibition. Pinterest

13. Creating the American Mafia

The well-meaning idea of Prohibition backfired spectacularly. It was a huge boost to organized crime in general, and to Italian organized crime in particular. In Prohibition’s world, Italian gangsters were particularly well-positioned to prosper, because they were set apart from other ethnic criminals by their links to the Italian and Sicilian mafia. Thanks to those Old Country connections, ethnic Italian criminals in America could draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations.

In addition to an effective model, they also had access to experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the Old Country’s system in the US. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, modern organized crime, and the Italian-American mafia, had become well established and well-nigh ineradicable. They remain with us to this day.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The beached whale carcass. YouTube

12. How Not To Get Rid of a Dead Whale

In November of 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division not only had a problem on its hands, but a stinking whale of a problem. What to do with a 45-foot, 8-ton sperm whale, whose rotting carcass had washed up on a beach near the small coastal town of Florence, in Lane County, Oregon? Letting nature take its course, and allowing the whale’s carcass to decompose, was one option.

However, the good people of nearby Florence were not too keen on spending the next few years enduring the stench of a rotting whale. Nor were they comfortable with the idea of swimming in waters reeking of whale runoff. It had been so long since a dead whale had washed up in the region, that nobody could remember how to get rid of one. Then somebody came up with the bright idea of blowing up the dead sea giant.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
A reporter covering the beached whale. KVAL

11. A Seemingly-Dynamite Idea That Was Not So Dynamite

Without a frame of reference, Oregon’s Highway Division concluded that dragging the behemoth off and burying it was not a good idea, because decomposition gasses would destabilize the grave and uncover it. Cutting it up and then burying it would reduce that risk, but nobody was willing to chop up the stinking carcass.

So the authorities turned to dynamite: 20 cases, or half a ton of it. A military veteran with explosives training happened to be in the area, and he warned that 20 cases of dynamite was way too much. His advice that 20 sticks of dynamite would be enough was ignored by the authorities, who hoped that the blast would disintegrate the whale, with the resulting small pieces getting consumed by scavengers.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Contemporary coverage of the whale disposal idea. Eugene Register Guard

10. “I’m Confident That It’ll Work

As an Oregon Highway Division official told news reporters about the authorities’ idea for getting rid of the dead whale: “Well, I’m confident that it’ll work. The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it will take to disintegrate this thing, so the scavengers, seagulls, and crabs and whatnot can clean it up“.

Dynamite was buried beneath the whale, primarily on the landward side so most of the carcass would get blown into the ocean. Scores of bystanders had gathered to watch the spectacle, and were moved back about a quarter of a mile away as a safety precaution. The onlookers cheered when the dynamite was detonated at 3:45 PM, on November 12th, 1970. However, their cheers quickly turned into shrieks of panic when it became clear that the authorities had greatly underestimated both the blast zone, and what constituted a safe distance.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Exploding whale. NPR

9. Blubber Rain

A quarter mile turned out to be way too close to the explosion, as everybody and everything within half a mile of the blast got showered with rotting whale detritus. A huge piece of blubber flattened a parked car over a quarter of a mile away, while people and other vehicles were pelted by bits of a stinky whale carcass. Miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt by the tons of whale flesh hurled into the air.

When the dust settled and rotting whale stopped falling from the sky, dismayed officials discovered that while the blast had been spectacular, their idea for getting rid of the whale had turned out to be a dud: most of the carcass had not even budged. As darkness fell, Highway Division crews were back on the scene to bulldoze and bury the remains, as they probably should have done in the first place. If a whale ever washes up near Florence again, the authorities will probably not only remember what to do, but also what not to do.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Mao Zedong. Encyclopedia Britannica

8. When Trying to Force Progress Backfires

In the late 1950s, China was in desperate need of rapid and massive industrialization. Other countries had industrialized gradually, by accumulating capital and buying heavy machinery. However, China had neither the time nor the money. Its population was rapidly outstripping the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for the massive industrialization necessary.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Propaganda poster extolling The Great Leap Forward. Chinese Posters

So Mao Zedong and his communist acolytes hit upon the idea of industrializing China by mobilizing the country’s vast population. They would use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery and industrial plants, of which China had little. Thus was born the Great Leap Forward in 1958, a revolutionary campaign to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into an industrial giant. Unfortunately for the Chinese, Mao’s understanding of economics turned out to be faulty, and his expectations turned out to be wildly unrealistic.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Backyard furnaces during The Great Leap Forward. Missed in History

7. Backyard Furnaces Backfire

Mao Zedong wanted to increase steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – without waiting for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, his regime came up with the idea of getting people to use blast furnaces behind their communes – literal backyard furnaces. People used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. When they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find to produce steel girders.

As it turned out, making steel is complicated, and the girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron, which had to first get its carbon removed before it could get turned into steel. In some regions, where there was little metalworking tradition or understanding of metallurgy, even the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Collective farming. Lauren Ream

6. Backyard Furnaces Were the Least of It

As it turned out, Mao’s backyard furnace fiasco was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese dictator and his followers had another idea for revolutionizing China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. The communist regime prohibited private farming, and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization – combining communities’ private plots into big fields, belonging to the entire community.

The idea was that economies of scale would come into play, and the big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of collectivization, and the big fields ended up yielding less than private plots. Additionally, the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Chinese villagers welcome the arrival of tractors purchased by a farmers’ cooperative in April 1958, during the Great Leap Forward campaign. The disastrous modernization program ended in China’s great famine and tens of millions of deaths. NPR

5. Collectivization Catastrophe

As a result of mismanagement and wishful thinking, collectivization ended up being led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. A series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961 made things worse. The result was history’s greatest man-made disaster.

By 1960, it was obvious that the Great Leap Forward had been a bad idea, but by then it was too late. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, about 20 million Chinese starved to death, and some estimate that the casualties might have been as high as 50 million.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The Hindenburg above New York City. Curiosity

4. Using Flammable Gas to Fill an Airship

By the mid-1930s, rigid airships filled with hydrogen, commonly known as Zeppelins, had been flying commercial passengers for more than three decades. Tens of thousands of paying customers had flown over a million miles, in over 2000 flights, without a single injury. Zeppelins’ popularity was soaring, and it was widely assumed that they were the wave of the future. The latest milestone was that of Germany’s Zeppelin Company, whose giant airships flew passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and style, in a mere 60 hours – remarkable for commercial travel back then.

The idea that airships would dominate global travel was widespread. Then catastrophe struck the Hindenburg, the Zeppelin Company’s flagship and the biggest airship ever built – twice as high and three times as long as a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet”. On May 6th, 1937, after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the Hindenburg tried to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it suddenly erupted in flames. It took only 37 seconds from when the first spark appeared for the world’s biggest airship to get consumed by fire.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
The Hindenburg aflame. Time Magazine

3. A Flying Explosion Waiting to Happen

Of 97 people aboard the Hindenburg when it met with disaster, 35 died, and one more person perished on the ground. The spectacular catastrophe, captured on film and widely disseminated around the world, shattered public confidence in that mode of transport, and brought the airship era to an abrupt end. At the time, the disaster was commonly blamed on sabotage: the Hindenburg was not only the pride of the Zeppelin Company, but also a source of German national pride and a symbol of resurgence under the Nazis. Many were eager to stick it to the Nazis: threatening letters had been received, and a shot was advanced as a plausible source for starting the fire.

Another popular hypothesis pinned the blame on a static spark. Whether an accidental spark or a deliberate shot, the disaster would not have happened if not for the Zeppelin Company’s disastrous decision to fill its airships with highly flammable hydrogen, instead of a less combustible alternative such as helium. It was a bad idea. If the Hindenburg had used helium, as airships do today, then neither a spark nor a shot could have reduced it to a flaming wreck in less than a minute.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Maurice Duplessis. The Globe and Mail

2. A Well-Meaning Social Program That Doomed Thousands of Children

Until the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic Church held significant, and sometimes pernicious, sway over Quebec. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became premier of Quebec. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders.

Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces. The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients.

Historic Ideas That Aged Like Complete Garbage
Some of the Quebec Catholic Church’s misdiagnosed orphans. Sputnik International

1. A Shocking Abuse of Goodwill

To exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.

It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the children were often subjected by nuns and lay monitors to physical, mental and sexual abuse.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Airships Net – Myths About the Hindenburg Crash

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Amusing Planet – The Shoe Fitting Machines That Blasted You With Radiation

Cracked – 5 Bonkers Supervillain Plans Real Governments Actually Tried

Cracked – 8 Ad Campaigns That Aged Like Garbage

Diamond, Jared – Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Guardian, The, December 1st, 2006 – Lawyers Warned Eden That Suez Invasion Was Illegal

Iter Newsline 196, October 26th, 2011 – “Proyecto Hueumul”: The Prank That Started it All

Maniates, Michael, et al The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice (2010)

Mob Museum – Prohibition Profits Transformed the Mob

Vice, April 26th, 2013 – The Soviet Scientist Who Dreamed of Melting the Arctic With a 55 Mile Dam

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Smithsonian Magazine, September 4th, 2018 – When the US Government Tried to Make it Rain by Exploding Dynamite in the Sky

History Collection – Poorly Thought Out Plans that Went Bad Very Quickly

Snopes – Did a 1960s Oil Company Ad Boast How Much Glacier It Could Melt?

Tucker, Spencer T., Ed. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, & Military History (2000)

Wikipedia – Inland Customs Line

Wikipedia – Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope

Wired – Vintage Shoe-Fitting X-Ray Machines Will Zap Your Feet

Yorkshire Post, October 30th, 2006 – How the Suez crisis sank the British empire