The weak things of the world shall confound the mighty
March 8, 2008 4:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of small non-descript events that ended up changing history or dispelling was the general consensus or widely-held perception at the time.
posted by PoopyDoop to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Fungus contaminates plates of bacteria in the laboratory of Alexander Fleming.
posted by bluenausea at 4:37 AM on March 8, 2008

Economic parallels would be great as well.
posted by PoopyDoop at 4:53 AM on March 8, 2008

small non-descript events that ended up changing history

In time-travel SF this is called a jonbar hinge, from Jack Williamson's book The Legion of Time.

In nonfiction there's a growing literature of counterfactual history, some of which is discussed here, and Robert Cowley has written a whole series of "What If?" books in which he invites historians to discuss such possibilities.
posted by futility closet at 5:07 AM on March 8, 2008

There's a popular rhyme about the importance of taking care of the little things. I'm not sure if it has any basis in a historical event, but it is from at least before Benjamin Franklin.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of the horse, the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a nail!

More information on "For want of a nail"
posted by greenknightwatch at 6:26 AM on March 8, 2008

Every momentous occasion is a bundle of minor events.

Some loser was hired in October 1963 for a temp job, $50 a week until Christmas, to lug boxes of books around a warehouse. It turned out the president was coming to town the next month and that the warehouse had windows facing out on the planned route of the presidential motorcade. A bored loser with dreams of somehow being noteworthy might look out those windows and wonder. To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail; the loser happened to own a rifle and be pretty good with it. It was raining in Fort Worth that morning, but when the president got to Dallas it was nice enough to go out with the top down.
posted by pracowity at 6:27 AM on March 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

On September 13, 1862, a union officer discovered three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper lying on the ground. That piece of paper was Special Order 191, Robert E. Lee's order of troop movements for his first invasion of the North during the American Civil War. It revealed that Lee had divided his command and offered the United States a chance to annihilate Lee's army piecemeal. Fortunately for the South, the commanding general of the Union army was General McClellan, who failed to fully capitalize on the information.

Regardless, Lee was forced to fight at a time and place that he did not want, and was not prepared for, and the Battle of Antietam put a direct stop to Lee's first venture north. What would have happened had Lee not been forced to fight at Sharpsburg is unknown, but has been the subject of at least one Alternative History, in which the South wins the war as a result. Hopefully this works for what you're looking for.
posted by Atreides at 6:28 AM on March 8, 2008

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 is kind of an example. Though the assassination of someone who is the heir to an empire by some shadowy terrorist group isn’t a minor event, at the time of the assassination I don’t think anyone thought the situation would snowball the way it did.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 7:40 AM on March 8, 2008

The publication of Tom Paine's Common Sense in January 1776. It was one of thousands of pamphlets arguing the American side as the revolution was getting underway, but this particular one convinced essentially everyone in the colonies that defeating England was actually feasible (it soon had the largest circulation, if I recall correctly, of any book published in America up to that time). Without Common Sense, there wouldn't have been a Declaration of Independence, most likely.

One of the classic examples is Napoleon, who claimed to have lost Waterloo because of a bad cold. All subsequent European history would have been completely different if he had won the battle.

Joan of Arc's vision, which eventually lost England the Hundred Years' War and ensured that there would be a permanent cultural divide between English and Continentals.

A routine spat over dynastic succession in early-thirteenth-century Constantinople, combined with a cash flow problem among the Crusaders, led to the sack and capture of the city by the crusading army. This crippled the administrative machinery of the eastern part of the empire and eventually led to the complete destruction of the Byzantines, and with them a crucial source of heritage and cultural exchange for Europe.

Benjamin Franklin's great cleverness, popularity, and personal charm during his stay in France in the 1770s-'80s led directly to the creation of the United States of America and the French Revolution. Neither would have occurred in the same way if a lesser man had been in his place, which very nearly happened. (Franklin managed to negotiate a huge and unprecedented loan from the French, without which there would have been no Continental Army or Navy, and which crippled the French treasury, causing the economic crisis that led to the French Revolution).

Etc. etc. etc.
posted by nasreddin at 8:07 AM on March 8, 2008

That semi-nutty 1970s television series James Burke's "Connections" was all about this. There was an excellent FPP about this a while ago but the Blue is down for me right now so can't find it.
posted by Rumple at 9:57 AM on March 8, 2008

Some great answers (some expected, some not expected) but again, all great answers. Thanks!
posted by PoopyDoop at 1:12 PM on March 8, 2008

The James Burke FPPs: 1, 2, 3
posted by Rumple at 1:29 PM on March 8, 2008

And this book might be of interest - for example, it seems to note that Archduke Ferdinand wouldn't have been assassinated if his chauffeur hadn't made a wrong turn.... apparently confirmed here:

Franz Ferdinand announced he would like to go to the hospital to check on the other bomb victims. He begged Sophie to stay behind but she insisted on accompanying him. Oskar Potiorek, Military Governor of the province, assured the angry Archduke:

"Your Imperial Highness, you can travel quite happily. I take the responsibility."

And with that they were off. The Archduke's chauffeur was following the mayor's car. They passed the sixth assassin, Grabez, at Imperial Bridge. He merely watched as the car sped by. The mayor's driver made a wrong turn. Where he should have taken the Appel Quay, he turned onto Francis Joseph street, a street named for the Archduke's uncle. Potiorek, riding with the Archduke and Sophie, cried out:

"What's this? We've taken the wrong way!"

The driver applied the brakes and the car came to a stop not five feet from Gavrilo Princip. Unlike his cohorts, Princip acted quickly and precisely, drawing his pistol and firing twice before the car could complete its turn. The shots made little noise and the car sped off. Potiorek looked at the couple and, at first, thought that they were unhurt. In actuality, the Archduke had been hit in the neck and Sophie in the stomach. The Archduke opened his mouth and a stream of blood poured out.

posted by Rumple at 1:34 PM on March 8, 2008

Whoops: this book.
posted by Rumple at 1:34 PM on March 8, 2008

If Louis XIV of France had not sent his troops into Germany in September of 1688, William of Orange could not have invaded England in the Glorious Revolution. Without the revolution, the Stuarts would have remained on the throne in England and Louis XIV would have been ascendant on the continent. The American Revolution had it's intellectual roots in the Glorious Revolution, so it would probably have never occured. In fact, America would probably have been dominated by France rather than Britain, as Britain was very weak under the Stuarts. I wish I knew enough history to know how much the deposition of the Stuarts changed the history of the world. I just know the changes would have been immense.
posted by happyturtle at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2008

I wish I knew enough history to know how much the deposition of the Stuarts changed the history of the world. I just know the changes would have been immense.

For one thing, there would never be a United States of America, for two other reasons: a) the presence of a Catholic king on the English throne would have significantly reduced the scale of the great-power rivalry between France and England, preventing the Seven Years' War (and hence the taxation imposed on the colonies afterwards); b) the French would therefore also be less inclined to weaken the English by supporting an insurgency against them.

Also. liberal democracy as we know it would not have come into being, for two more reasons: a) the English liberties that came with the Glorious Revolution would not have been granted, preventing the development of a populace committed to political activism and debate and essentially nullifying the significance of Parliament; b) the rise of the prime-minister system under Robert Walpole would not have occurred, meaning that we would have no example of a strong non-monarchical executive branch.

Contemporary capitalism and colonialism were also hammered together under the Whigs in the early 1700s, and this would have looked much different had they never been able to come to power.
posted by nasreddin at 3:02 PM on March 8, 2008

Galileo looked through his primitive telescope on succesive nights and saw moons orbiting Jupiter…the first time anyone had seen anything orbiting a body other than earth (it was "known" at the time that the sun obited to earth.) The implications for science and religion proved to be revolutionary.
posted by dinger at 5:51 AM on March 9, 2008

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