Classic cock-ups

Saltillo Prison in Northern Mexico was the scene of a gloriously unsuccessful prison escape in 1976. In November of the previous year 75 convicts had begun digging a tunnel designed to bring them up on the other side of the prison wall. Five months later, the escapees finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel but they ended up in a nearby courtroom, the one where they had originally been sentenced. The surprised Judges returned all 75 to Jail.

In October 2002, the US investment bank Bear Stearns entered an order to sell $4bn (£2.6bn) worth of Standard & Poor securities in a late trade, 20 minutes before the market closed. In the world of high finance this is not that unusual. The problem was that there had been a “clerical error” and the real sum should have been $4m, 1,000 times less than the order that was actually placed. They were finally able to cancel all but $622m of the order before execution. These kinds of errors do happen from time to time.  In 1998 a Salomon Brothers trader mistakenly sold £850m-worth of French government bonds by leaning on his keyboard.

The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished concrete skyscraper in Pyongyang, North Korea. Work initially began in 1987 but ceased in 1992 due to the government’s financial difficulties. It has yet to be opened but after 16 years of inactivity building has finally resumed this year. It has 105 stories and stands 330 m tall with 360,000 m² of floor space, making it by far the largest structure in Kim Jong-il communist paradise. When they first started, they intended it to be world’s tallest hotel. Critics have been less than complimentary about it. It has earned epithets such as the “worst building in the history of mankind”, “one of the most expensive white elephants in history” and the “Hotel of Doom”. The North Korean government has airbrushed the building out of pictures of the capital.

On the bloody Eastern Front during the Second World War the Russian Army came up with the idea of an anti-tank dog. The year was 1942, just a few months after Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa. It was a brilliantly simple theory; if you always feed a dog underneath a tank, underneath a tank is the first place that they’ll head towards on the battlefield. The starving dogs would carry explosives strapped on their backs with a harness. They were then trained to run under the enemy tanks and in doing so would activate a large wooden trigger that would cause the bomb to detonate. However, there was one slight snag – they were used to the Soviet tanks and in battle they would run often under their own side’s vehicles. They thus became a menace to the Red army, once forcing an entire Russian tank division into retreat.  Although they were credited with the destruction of 300 German tanks, they were then promptly retired from service.

The NASA Mars Climate Orbiter will go down in the annals of incompetence. Lockheed Martin, who were involved in the ill-fated Orbiter project, wrongly assumed that they would be using imperial measurements for the controlling software. Nobody told NASA this and the inevitable result was that the $330 million spacecraft missed its orbit, entering the Martian atmosphere at about 57 km instead of the target of 140–150 km. This was too close and it was never heard of again.

During the 1978 firemen’s strike of 1978 the British Army took over emergency fire fighting duties. On 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady to rescue her cat, which was stuck up a tree. They arrived quickly and soon were able to bring the cat down. The lady was delighted and invited them all in for tea. Once the beverages had been served and they had said goodbye to the lady, they drove off. Unfortunately they then ran over the cat and killed it.

In August 1975 three men were trying to rob the Royal Bank of Scotland at Rothesay, the principal town on the Isle of Bute, off the West coast of Scotland. They found themselves trapped in the bank’s revolving doors. After being freed by some employees, the three men thanked them and left the bank. They probably should have called it a day there and then, but they were nothing if not persistent. A few minutes later they were back and announced that they were going to rob the bank. The staff all thought it was some kind of practical joke and when the men demanded £5,000 the head cashier started laughing.  Furious at the lack of respect they were being shown, one of the men jumped over the counter. But he fell to the floor, clutching his ankle in agony. The other two robbers finally realised the futility of it all and attempted a clean getaway, only to get stuck in revolving doors once again

Millionaire businessman Gerald Ratner managed to wipe off £500 million from the value of Ratners jewellers with one speech in 1991. In the speech he was somewhat unflattering about some of his company’s jewellery products, and by extension all of them.  He said: …We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap ……….. We even sell a pair of earrings for under £1, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer’s. But I have to say the earrings probably won’t last as long ” These comments were picked up by the media and Ratner got the sack. At least he had the satisfaction of having an expression named after him; Doing a Ratner is used for this type of corporate gaffe.

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2 Responses to Classic cock-ups

  1. […] those collections such as Famous put-downs, Untranslatable words, Really terrible predictions, Classic cock-ups, and all those quotes. I have a fixed format but that allows me to write about a wide variety of […]

  2. […] will know that a common trope is the prevalence of failure in our world. I have done pieces such as Classic cock-ups, Really terrible predictions and Creative destruction in the financial sector. Today I want to look […]

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