Odd Solutions to Historic Problems

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems

Khalid Elhassan - December 9, 2020

Problems call for solutions like a parched throat calls for water. But just like not all water is good water, not every solution is a good solution. Take attempts to torture trauma away. Or treating women’s “hysteria” by trying to induce orgasms with giant steam-powered and coal-fueled vibrators. History is full of solutions that were a mix of weird and counterproductive. Following are thirty-five things about those and other weird historic solutions.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A shell-shocked British soldier in 1916. Rare Historical Photos

35. The World War I Solution to Horror? More Horror: Electrocuting the Private Parts of Shellshock Victims

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is widely accepted today as a mental disorder caused by exposure to shocking events, such as the horrors of warfare. In World War I, it was known as shellshock – erroneously assumed to be caused by the blasts of exploding artillery shells – and was often accompanied by uncontrollable shaking and tics. Shellshock was little-understood by psychiatrists, and there was little sympathy for its sufferers who were often seen as cowardly, malingering, weak-willed soldiers. German doctors referred to shellshock sufferers as “Kriegs-Zitterer” (war tremblers) or “Kriegsneurotiker” (war neurotics). The shaking that often accompanied shellshock was seen as evidence of unmanliness and weakness.

German psychiatrists strongly rejected the notion of giving any sort of benefit or payment to traumatized veterans. During the interwar years, they turned to a radical – and by then already controversial – solution for shellshock: electrocution. At its core, the treatment consisted of overcoming the remembered horrors of the war with even greater horrors in the here and now, by applying electric shocks to shellshock sufferers’ genitals.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Edgar Adrian. Nobel Prize Foundation

34. Inventing the Concept of Electrocution as a Solution to Shellshock

Electric shock as a solution for shellshock was not invented by Germans, but they took that solution and ran with it. That treatment was the brainchild of English electro-physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for physiology in 1932. During WWI, he devised an electric shock treatment for shell-shocked soldiers. He reasoned that pain was necessary to combine therapy with discipline, because shellshock sufferers were suspected of malingering.

Because shellshock was often seen as malingering, military authorities were reluctant to “reward” sufferers with adequate rest and relaxation which we now know are among the most effective means for treating PTSD. The goal was to send shell-shocked soldiers back to the front as quickly as possible, so an unpleasant treatment such as electric shock was seen as an appropriate coercive therapy.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Shell-shocked soldiers were not suspended from ceilings, but they were otherwise tortured with electric shocks to their private parts. Milli Gazette

33. WWI Psychiatrists Reasoned That the More Unpleasant the Treatment, the Better to Treat Shellshock Sufferers

As devised by Edgar Adrian, electric shock for treating shellshock had three goals: suggestion, reeducation, and discipline. The focus was greater on the “discipline” part, to the point that shellshock treatment often bordered on or crossed the line into torture. As Adrian wrote in emphasizing the benefits of electric shock from both therapeutic and disciplinary perspectives:

The current can be made extremely painful if it is necessary to supply the disciplinary element which must be invoked if the patient is one of those who prefer not to recover, and it can be made strong enough to break down the unconscious barriers to sensation in the most profound functional anesthesia“.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A shell-shocked soldier in the trenches. Pinterest

32. The Pioneer of Electric Shock as a Solution to Shellshock Changed His Mind, But by Then His Treatment Had Become Widely Accepted

The effectiveness of de facto torture as a solution for shellshock was widely accepted among both military and civilian psychiatrists during WWI, and for years after. Edgar Adrian eventually had second thoughts about the treatment he had pioneered when he discovered that it did not prevent relapses. After the war, he understood that shellshock – by then renamed “war hysteria”, was more complex than initially thought.

Adrian eventually realized that the physical shaking and tics often associated with shellshock were just some of the symptoms. Other symptoms included insomnia, depression, headaches, and irritability. Adrian figured that electric shock was at best a partial solution, that could only remove some motor or sensitive symptoms, and often only temporarily. As he put it: “Obviously there is still something wrong and the removal of bodily symptom has not been enough“. Unfortunately, it was too late. By then torturing the shellshock out of sufferers with electric shock was in wide practice, and the controversial treatment continued in use for many more years.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
The Mary Rose. Mary Rose Org

31. The Pioneering English Ship That Revolutionized Naval Warfare

Commissioned in 1511, the English ship Mary Rose was among the earliest vessels that relied on cannons, firing not from the top deck as had been the norm since guns were introduced to ships, but from portholes cut into the hull on lower decks. That made the Mary Rose one of the pioneering ships that revolutionized naval warfare. She and others like her helped usher in the transition from the age of fighting at sea via ramming, or grappling and boarding, to the classic Age of Sail’s combat via massed gun broadsides.

The Mary Rose was a success, and gave the Royal Navy decades of solid service. Then, in 1536, she underwent an unfortunate redesign and upgrade. The goal was to increase her firepower by equipping her with more cannons. The solution to the problem of just where to put all those extra guns ended up dooming the ship.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A 1561 illustration of sailing ships similar to the Mary Rose being attacked by more maneuverable galleys. Wikimedia

30. An Unfortunate Solution to the Problem of Where to Cram New Guns on a Ship Not Designed to Accommodate Them

The thinking behind the Mary Rose’s upgrade seems to have boiled down to “cannons are good, so more cannons are better“. In itself, it was not a bad line of reasoning. However, it could prove problematic if more cannons were added to a ship that had not been specifically designed to accommodate them and bear their additional weight. The Mary Rose was such a ship, and as built, there was no space for the new guns.

The solution was to add a new gun deck for the extra cannons. Between that and the addition of more and heavier cannons, the ship’s weight went from 500 tons to 700. That made her ride lower in the water, which brought the lower deck’s gun portholes closer to the sea’s surface. The consequences played out in the 1545 Battle of the Solent. The Mary Rose was among a fleet of English sailing ships becalmed in the Solent, unable to maneuver for lack of wind, when they were attacked by French rowing galleys.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
The Mary Rose heeling over. Trip Savvy

29. A Poorly Thought Solution Dooms the Pride of the English Navy

The becalmed Mary Rose and English fleet were in trouble at the 1545 Battle of the Solent. They were sailing ships, and without wind, they could not maneuver. The French galleys attacking them, propelled by oars, had no such trouble. The French galleys were on the verge of a victory over the immobilized English sailing ships, until the wind finally picked up. Sailing out in a stiff breeze, the Mary Rose led the English counterattack, and the outgunned French galleys suddenly became the ones in trouble.

However, the Mary Rose’s first broadside caused her to heel or lean over to her starboard side. Her lower gun deck’s gun holes, now lower and closer to the water’s surface thanks to the additional weight of the 1536 upgrade, dipped into the sea. Water rushed in through the open gun holes and the crew was unable to correct the sudden imbalance. Guns, ammunition, and cargo shifted to the submerging side of the ship, causing it to tilt even further, and the Mary Rose sank quickly, taking nine-tenths of her crew with her.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A lantern shield. YouTube

28. A Hazardous Renaissance Solution to Fighting in the Dark

Lantern shields – small circular bucklers to which a lantern was attached – became all the rage in dueling circles during the Italian Renaissance as a solution to the problem of fighting at night. They were popular enough that instructions for using and countering them were included in contemporary dueling manuals. A leather flap covered the lantern, and when the user deemed it appropriate, he would throw it open. The sudden light would hopefully dazzle the opponent by blinding or otherwise degrading his night vision. Some of the more sophisticated lantern shields, which could include built-in spikes, sword blades, and gauntlets, also had a mechanism for dimming or brightening the lamp’s light.

It was a stylish and good-looking contraption, bestowing upon its bearer an air of elegance, urbane classiness, and refinement. A drawback – and a significant one at that – was that lanterns back then were oil lamps. That meant that the lantern shield suffered from an unfortunate design defect: it literally mixed oil and fire, strapped to the user’s arm and in close proximity to his face and torso.

Related: 10 Most Bizarre Duels in History.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A lantern shield replica. YouTube

27. A Weapon That Set Its Users on Fire

The lantern shield’s lantern had an oil storage compartment to allow extended use for hours on end. Problems arose when the lamp was jostled. Being attached to a shield, the lamp could not help getting jostled, since the purpose of a shield is to absorb blows when used defensively and to bash opponents when used offensively.

When the lantern was jostled, its oil could leak out or spill uncontrollably. With the lantern’s fuel compartment attached to the shield, there was a strong possibility that the user’s shield-bearing arm, face, or body, would get drenched in flammable oil. That oil could then catch fire if it came in contact with the lantern’s flame. As a result, while the lantern shield was a decent-for-its-era solution to the problem of fighting at night, it came with the severe drawback of a tendency to turn its users into human torches every now and then.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Fingering away the hysteria. Pinterest

26. The Nineteenth Century Solution to the Problem of “Female Hysteria”

The cliché “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is often used as a shortcut for the notion that men and women are incomprehensible to one another. However, if there was any period in history when reality actually matched the cliche, it was probably during the Victorian Era. Back then, people – especially men – understood very little about female sexuality.

In the late nineteenth, women who exhibited a variety of symptoms such as depression, fatigue anxiety, or loss of sexual appetite, were diagnosed with “female hysteria”. The solution according to the era’s medical establishment was a pelvic massage to bring about a “female paroxysm” – Victorian speak for “orgasm”. A doctor would insert his fingers inside a patient’s vagina, and manually massage her vulva and clitoral region until she had an orgasm, which would supposedly cure whatever was ailing her.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Ad for treating female hysteria. Imgur

25. For Millennia, Doctors Saw Female Orgasms as Medical Oddities

As seen above, the Victorian Era viewed female orgasms as medical oddities – the province of professional physicians who induced them in order to calm down “hysterical” women. To be fair to Victorians, they did not invent such treatments to combat “female hysteria”.

That diagnosis dates all the way back to Hippocrates, circa 450 BC, and it persisted throughout the Middle Ages. However, the late Victorians can be credited with picking it up and running away with it in their quest for a solution to the problem of hysterical women.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A nineteenth-century steam-powered vibrator. 9Gag

24. The Nineteenth Century Solution to the Perceived Epidemic of Female Hysteria? Coal-Fueled Steam-Powered Vibrators

In the late nineteenth century, the medical community believed that there was an epidemic of female hysteria. Some leading physicians estimate that 75% of America’s women suffered from the malady. However, the cure of inducing “female paroxysm”, or orgasm, in patients via pelvic massage was a time-consuming task. It was difficult to teach and learn, doctors complained that it often took an hour or more, and many suffered wrist and fingers fatigue – carpal tunnel syndrome, as we would call it today.

The solution to weary doctors’ cramping fingers and aching wrists was mechanical vibrators, to relieve physicians of the manual work required to induce female orgasm. Mechanical relief first arrived in 1869 with the invention of the first steam-powered vibrator, fueled by shoveling coal into its furnace. The drawback was that such vibrators were bulky and cumbersome contraptions, some as big as a dining room table.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
An antique Hamilton Beach vibrator. Ancient Point

23. Electric Vibrators Finally Ended the Era of Steam-Powered and Coal-Fueled Vibrators

The era of bulky steam-powered and coal-fueled vibrators finally ended thanks to Hamilton Beach, the makers of kitchen appliances such as coffee makers, toasters, and blenders. In 1902, they marketed the “Try New Life”, the world’s first commercially available vibrator. Because of the era’s mores, the devices could not be advertised for what they actually were. Instead, they were marketed as “electrical massagers” to ease sore and aching muscles.

Some people probably did buy them for that purpose. However, it was very much a wink-wink-nudge-nudge situation. The devices were marketed to women, the overwhelming majority of purchasers were women, and just what vibrators were actually used for in practice was common knowledge.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Heraclitus of Ephesus. Alamy

22. A Misanthropic Ancient Greek Philosopher

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who advanced the notion that the essence of the universe is constant change. He coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice” to illustrate that everything, like the ever-moving droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not easily noticed. He also advocated the notion of a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges with all things paired in a relationship with their opposites.

Heraclitus was critical of other philosophers, had a dim view of humanity. He loathed mobs and democracy, preferring instead rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion a philosopher-king was the ideal ruler. Deeming wealth as a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, the curse of wealth as punishment for their sins. In short, Heraclitus was a misanthrope. That makes it easier to laugh at his weird death, described below.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Heraclitus of Ephesus. Wellcome Library

21. Cow Poop as a Solution and Cure Lead to a Weird Death

Heraclitus’ misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“. His odd end came when he tried to cure himself of dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities.

Doctors could offer neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus decided to heal himself by covering himself in cow dung. He reasoned that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow poop, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to be immobilized by the cow dung drying around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs that came upon him in that vulnerable state, and ate him alive.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Sticky Bomb diagram. US Navy Department Bureau of Ordnance

20. A Less Than Ideal Solution to a Shortage Problem

The British Antitank Hand Grenade #74, better known as the Sticky Bomb, was one of WWII’s more infamous weapons. It was developed after defeat in the 1940 Battle of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, where most of Britain’s antitank weapons were left behind. The Sticky Bomb, intended as a quick solution to the antitank weapons shortage, was a maraca-looking device with an outer metal shell covering a bomb coated with an adhesive.

The user would pull a pin to remove the outer metal layer and expose the bomb, run up to a tank, stick the bomb to it, activate a five-second-fuse, then run away or dive to avoid the explosion. Alternatively, the user could throw the bomb at the tank and hope it stuck to its surface. The first problem was that the Sticky Bomb’s adhesive had trouble sticking to dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces. Dusty, muddy, and wet surfaces were “a customary condition of tanks”, as Churchill’s chief military adviser pointed out. A second and bigger problem was that failing to stick to what it should, the Sticky Bomb often stuck to what it should not: the user.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Lit TNT stuck to Wile E. Coyote’s hand. Warner Bros.

19. The Sticky Bomb’s Unfortunate Tendency to Stick to Its User’s Hand

In cartoon-like fashion, the Sticky Bomb’s adhesive tended to leak and glue the bomb to its thrower’s hand or uniform. The results would have been funny had they not ended so tragically and gruesomely. A Sticky Bomb user would pull the pin to arm the five-second-fuse, then attempt to stick the bomb to a tank or throw it at one, only to discover to his horror that it was stuck to his hand instead. It is hard not to imagine such unfortunates spending their last seconds on earth frantically shaking their hand like Wile E. Coyote with a stick of TNT glued to his paw.

As a British Home Guard veteran recounted an experience with this less-than-ideal solution to Britain’s antitank weapons shortage: “It was while practicing that a Home Guard bomber got his sticky bomb stuck to his trouser leg and couldn’t shift it. A quick thinking mate whipped the trousers off and got rid of them and the bomb. After the following explosion, the trousers were in a bit of a mess — though I think they were a bit of a mess prior to the explosion.”

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Qin Shi Huang. Google Sites

18. The Ruler Who First Unified China Had to Figure Out How to Keep it Unified

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), founder of the Qin Dynasty, was king of the Chinese state of Qin during the Warring States Period (circa 475 BC – 221 BC). He brought that era to an end by conquering all the warring states. Qin Shi Huang ascended the throne as a child, and soon as he reached his teens, he wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority. He consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives.

The young ruler then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China. He was then faced with the difficult problem of how to unify the recently-conquered empire, and keep it from fracturing back into warring states. His solution was ruthless: impose his unifying will upon the empire via absolute tyranny.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
The Warring States and the dates of their conquest by Qin Shi Huang. Ancient China

17. A Ruthless Solution to the Problem of a Troublesome Nobility

Qin Shi Huang set out to unify China, which had cobbled together from recently-conquered kingdoms. He standardized the weights and measures, and introduced a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. Qin Shi Huang ended the feudalism that had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name. He replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government, with promotion and advancement based on merit.

Qin Shi Huang came up with a brilliant – and ruthless – solution to problem of a fractious and warlike aristocracy. To keep the nobility in check, China’s first emperor kept the nobles whom he favored in the capital, and controlled them with pensions and fancy titles. That transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into imperial dependents and tame courtiers. Then, abolishing all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, he had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work on giant projects.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Part of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb complex. Imgur

16. This Emperor Kept All of China Working on Massive Projects

With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Qin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 700,000 laborers working on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex, the bulk of which is yet to be unearthed.

As if obsessed with the solution to the problem of idle hands being the tools of the devil, Qin Shi Huang put everybody to work. In addition to the hundreds of thousands laboring on his tomb, millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China. It did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and Chinese seeking to flee Qin Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and tyranny.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Expedition sent by Qin Shi Huang in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

15. Qin Shi Huang’s Attempt to Find a Solution to the Problem of Human Mortality Backfired

Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with finding a solution to human mortality. So he lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever. He sent an expedition with hundreds of ships into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”, that was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but were hobbled by a lack of funding – a problem which the emperor generously put to rights.

One of those charlatans gave Qin Shi Huang daily mercury pills. He claimed that they were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs, which should tidy the emperor Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself and gradually grew insane. He became a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, had nearly all books burned, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Instead of extending his life, Qin Shi Huang shortened it, and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
American troops in Vietnam, circa 1966. WESA

14. “The Moron Corps”: The Pentagon’s Solution to a Manpower Shortage During the Vietnam War

When America got involved in Vietnam, it mired itself in a quagmire. By 1966, the country was getting sucked ever deeper into that quagmire. When President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed office following JFK’s assassination in 1963, America had 16,000 troops in Vietnam. The following year, the figure grew slightly to 23,000. In 1965, however, in response to requests from American commanders in Vietnam for ever more US troops, the figure mushroomed to 185,000. It would more than double again in 1966, to 385,000.

The Vietnam War’s insatiable demand for ever more American troops put the LBJ administration in a bind: where to get them, without risking a public backlash? The solution was to turn to an immoral recruitment scheme: a program for enlisting otherwise unfit soldiers, whom the rest of the US military referred to derisively as “The Moron Corps”.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Young recruits during the Vietnam War, circa 1967. History

13. The US Government Went Out of Its Way to Avoid Drafting Middle and Upper Class Children During the Vietnam War

The way the draft system was set up in the days of the Vietnam War, college students got deferments. Ending student deferments would furnish enough bodies for the draft and the ever-increasing manpower demands of the war. However, college students were predominately the kids of the middle and upper classes. That is, they were the children of people whose opinion counted the most with Congress and the media. Without their support, or at least acquiescence, America’s involvement in Vietnam could not continue.

Such support or acquiescence would not last long if middle and upper class kids’ student deferments were cancelled, and they were drafted and sent to fight and die in a far off country most Americans could not place on a map. Mobilizing reservists could also furnish enough bodies. However, it posed a similar dilemma: the reserves and National Guard were overwhelmingly filled with the children of the well-off and connected, and sending them to Vietnam would produce a fierce backlash. A different solution was urgently needed.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. ThoughtCo

12. Project 100,000: A Shameful Solution to the Pentagon’s Manpower Needs

US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara faced the dilemma of coming up with raw bodies for the Vietnam War, while minimizing the draft’s impact on the children of the middle and upper classes. So he and the Pentagon came up with a shameful solution: Project 100,000. It was touted as a Great Society program that would take poor and disadvantaged youth, and break the cycle of poverty by teaching them valuable skills in the military. It was nothing of the sort.

In reality, Project 100,000 simply amounted to lowering or abandoning minimal recruitment standards to sign up those who had previously been rejected by the draft as mentally or physically unfit. Recruiters swept through Southern backwaters and urban ghettos, signing up almost anybody with a pulse, including at least one recruit with an IQ of 62. All in all, Project 100,000 ended up recruiting 354,000 otherwise unfit young men.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
American troops in Vietnam. Rolling Stone

11. Unsurprisingly, “The Moron Corps” Suffered Heavy Casualties During the Vietnam War

It goes without saying that the mentally and physically unfit young men recruited by Project 100,000 were not taught the valuable skills the program claimed they would be taught. The Pentagon simply saw the scheme as a solution to its manpower shortage, not as a social service. Once they signed on the dotted line, “the Moron Corps”, as the Project 100,000 recruits were derisively called by other soldiers, were rushed through training, then bundled off to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers.

Once in Vietnam, they were sent into combat in disproportionate numbers. In combat, the mental and physical limitations that had caused them to be rejected by the draft in the first place ensured that they were wounded and killed in disproportionate numbers. The toll fell particularly heavily on unfit black youths: 41 percent of Project 100,000’s recruits were black, compared to 12 percent in the US military as a whole.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A cobra. New York Times

10. A Solution That Made a Problem Worse

During the British Raj, India’s colonial rulers grew alarmed by the large numbers of venomous cobra snakes infesting the city of Delhi. For a solution, the authorities came up with an incentive plan to eradicate the pests: a cash bounty for every dead cobra, payable upon delivery of its skin to designated officials. The plan seemed to be working great, and before long, natives were thronging to the drop-off points, whose storerooms were soon bulging with cobra skins.

Unfortunately, the incentive plan did not seem to have a noticeable effect on the city’s cobra population. No matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities, Delhi seemed to be just as infested with the deadly snakes as it had ever been. City officials eventually figured out why: many locals had turned to farming cobras. Since the bounty on the snakeskin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Young cobras. GGN

9. Delhi’s Snake Infestation Skyrocketed After the British Cancelled Their Eradication Plan’s Incentives

When the British authorities in Delhi finally realized what was going on, and how their incentive scheme for eradicating cobras was being gamed, they canceled the plan. However, stopping the payment of bounties for cobra skins turned out to be the authorities’ second mistake, and made the problem worse yet.

Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras were now worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers did the economically sensible thing and released the snakes back into the wild. The “wild” in this case was the city of Delhi. The snake infestation was increased by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than it had possessed before the authorities launched their ill-advised plan.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
The USS Indianola. Explore the Archive

8. The Confederates’ Capture of a Powerful Union Warship Posed a Serious Problem for the Union

During the US Civil War, the USS Indianola was a powerful ironclad river gunboat employed by the Union. She served in the Western Theater with the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron, operating in the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. The Indianola ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters. However, once she reached her destination, she was attacked by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured.

The Indianola’s capture derailed the Union’s plans to blockade the Red River. Its presence in Confederate hands was too great a threat to Union operations in the region to be endured. Plans were thus made to recapture the ironclad or destroy it to prevent the Rebels from using it. The solution to the problem of just how to go about doing that involved one of the Civil War’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
A wooden dummy ironclad. Wikimedia

7. Union Planners Turn to Hoax and Bluff as a Solution to a Thorny Problem

As part of the plan to deal with the USS Indianola, now in Confederate hands, Union Navy Commander David Porter ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge. It was made to resemble a real warship, with paddle boxes, and fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black. Barrels were stacked to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine.

The dummy warship was then floated past Confederate-held Vicksburg. When word that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way reached the Confederate salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola, they panicked. Since the ship was stuck, the Confederates could not get her away. In order to prevent her recapture, the best solution the Confederates could come up with was to set fire to the Indianola’s magazine and blow her up. The Rebels’ destruction of the ironclad relieved the Union Navy of the headache of how to prevent the Confederates from using the powerful ironclad against them.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
King John II ‘The Good’ of France ordering the arrest of Charles the Bad. Wikimedia

6. A King Who Justly Earned the Name “The Bad”

Charles II of Navarre, AKA Charles the Bad (1332 – 1387) was a powerful French magnate, with extensive holdings in Normandy and other parts of France. From 1349, he was also the king of Navarre, a small kingdom on the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. He was obsessed with trying to expand his tiny realm at the expense of his more powerful neighbors. He earned the epitaph “the Bad” because of his nonstop intriguing, bad faith dealings, betrayals, dishonesty, and double-crosses in his quest for a solution to the problem of big dreams coupled with little means.

During the Hundred Years War, he plotted with the English to betray France. He was arrested and imprisoned by the French King John II, AKA John the Good, when his treachery came to light. Charles escaped from prison and 1357, and began a series of intrigues with various French parties, betraying nearly all, one after the other.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Charles the bad ordering the execution of rebellious peasants. Wikimedia

5. Charles the Bad Discovers That He’s Not as Bad as Peter the Cruel

After King John II died, his successor forced Charles the Bad to renounce most of his holdings in France. In 1378, Charles the Bad was forced to cede nearly all of his remaining French holding when evidence of new treachery came to light. This time, Charles had not only planned to betray France to the English once more, but plotted to go one better this time around and poison the French king while he was at it.

To the south, Charles’ poor reputation was no better in Spain. There, he allied with Peter the Cruel of Castile against Peter IV of Aragon in 1362. The following year, he turned around and betrayed Castile, allying with Peter IV against Peter the Cruel. In 1378, Castilian armies invaded Navarre and Charles was forced to flee. Out of allies, having betrayed them all, Charles was forced to agree to a humiliating treaty that defanged his kingdom. Charles the Cruel’s solution to the problem of Charles the Bad’s treachery was to reduce him and his Kingdom of Navarre to Castilian clients.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Death of Charles the Bad. Morphosis

4. A Medical Solution That Backfired in Spectacular Fashion

In 1387, Charles the Bad came down with an illness that impeded the use of his limbs. So a doctor prescribed a remedy that required swaddling the king from head to foot in linen cloth steeped in brandy or other spirits of wine. It turned out to be a hazardous solution. A maid was tasked with securing the swaddling cloth snugly around the king’s body by sewing it in place with yarn. When she was done, she realized that she had no scissors to snip the excess yarn.

Resorting to a common alternate method for thread cutting, she reached for a candle to use its flame to burn off a section of yarn. The alcohol-infused cloth caught on fire, and Charles the Bad, tightly swaddled in the burning linen, was unable to escape. He suffered horrific burns all over his body, and lingered for two weeks in extreme agony before he finally died.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Kongming statue. Alamy

3. An Ancient Chinese General’s Fascinating Solution to a Rash Promise

Kongming (181 – 234), born Zhuge Liang, was a wily chancellor and military strategist during China’s Three Kingdoms Period. One of his exploits took place in 208 during the buildup to a climactic battle between armies separated by the Yangtze River. Kongming’s opponents maneuvered him into committing himself to furnish 100,000 arrows within a few days. It was a seemingly impossible task, and failing to accomplish it after stating that he would do so would result in a serious loss of face. After mulling it over, he hit upon a brilliant solution: he would get the arrows from the enemy.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Chinese stamp commemorating Kongming’s arrows exploit. 123RF

2. This Wily Strategist Tricked the Enemy Into Supplying Him With Arrows

Kongming gathered a flotilla of riverboats, lined them up with bales of wet straw, and explained to their crews what he expected from them. He waited for a foggy night, quietly rowed them across the river and, undetected, positioned them in a line close to the enemy camp. At a signal, his crews erupted to break the night’s silence, shouting, beating drums, clanging gongs, and creating an unholy din.

Startled, the enemy camp awoke in a panic. Convinced they were facing a surprise night attack, they unleashed a storm of arrows at the boat silhouettes flitting in the murk – arrows that were embedded in the bales of straw. Then, his pin-cushioned boats groaning with the weight of more than 100,000 captured arrows, Kongming departed. His exploit became a Chinese idiom for using others’ strength against them: “borrowing arrows with thatched boats“.

Odd Solutions to Historic Problems
Kongming statue. Qin Hus Roads

1. Playing Mind Games to Keep a Powerful Enemy From Seizing a Vulnerable City

Another of Kongming’s exploits, which became proverbial as “the empty fort strategy”, took place when he was tasked with defending a walled city with a severely undermanned garrison. A vastly superior enemy army approached – one against which Kongming’s minuscule garrison stood no chance. So he came up with another wily solution to his predicament.

Rather than barricade the city’s gates, he threw them open, then grabbed a musical instrument and played it nonchalantly atop the walls. When scouts told the enemy commander what they saw, he rode to the gates to see for him himself. He saw a city with its gates wide open, its walls unmanned, and Kongming playing music above. Suspecting a trap, the enemy commander turned his army around and left the vulnerable city that had been his for the taking.


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

All That is Interesting – The Strange, Surprising History of the Vibrator

All Things Medieval – The Strangest Medieval Weapon Ever Created: The Lantern Shield

Big Think – Project 100,000: The Vietnam War’s Cruel Experiment on American Soldiers

China Highlights – Zhuge Liang (181 – 234)

Cracked – 17 Weird, Historic Solutions to Relatable Problems

Daily Beast, April 27th, 2012 – ‘Hysteria’ and the Long, Strange History of the Vibrator

Encyclopedia Britannica – Charles II, King of Navarre

Laertius, Diogenes – The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book 9

Epoch Times, November 29th, 2019 – Chinese Idioms: Borrowing Arrows With Thatched Boats

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994)

Journal of European Neurology, 2018, 79:106-107 – Edgar Adrian (1889 – 1977) and Shell Shock Electrotherapy: A Forgotten History?

Mary Rose Org – The History of the Mary Rose

Qian, Sima – Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty

Quirkality – The Curious Case of Heraclitus and the Cow Dung

Salon – McNamara’s “Moron Corps”

Spartacus Education – Medical Treatment of Shellshock

Wikipedia – Cobra Effect

Wikipedia – Sticky Bomb

Wikipedia – USS Indianola