We all believe things to be true that are, in fact, quite wrong. Many of these “facts” we learned in school, while some of them we picked up from friends or on TV—or just “heard somewhere.” Whatever their source, however, they have subsequently proven to be erroneous, demonstrating once again that just because something is repeated often enough doesn’t necessarily make it so. In fact, it seems the only things we really know for certain is that we don’t know anything for certain, which is what makes it possible for revisionist historians to make a living and pundits like myself to pretend to be smarter than everyone else. (The “fact” is that most of the things I list below I once assumed to be true myself, demonstrating that even an old blogger like me can be taught a thing or two every now and then—dispelling yet another internet myth.) While there are literally hundreds of erroneous beliefs, misconceptions, or just plain fables from both history and our modern culture to choose from, I’ve managed to narrow the list down to my top ten nominees for the ten most famous “facts” that are wrong. Enjoy—and remember everything I write here is subject to change without notice as new “facts” emerge to challenge my world view.
10. The United States Lost the Vietnam War
While it is a fact that the country known as the Republic of South Vietnam no longer exists (having been absorbed by its Communist neighbor to its north) the truth is that its demise was not because the United States lost its seven-year long war there. In fact, by the time the country was overrun by the North Vietnamese in the spring of 1975, the United States had been out of Vietnam for nearly two years, its active involvement having concluded with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in January, 1973. The only reason the war is considered a “loss” for America was because of its great cost (57,000 Americans killed) and its general unpopularity at home. It could be considered a political defeat, however, in that America was essentially so worn down by the conflict that it lost the will to come to South Vietnam’s defense when the North Vietnamese launched their invasion, thereby effectively surrendering that nation’s sovereignty to its Communist neighbor and giving the U.S. a black eye that took literally decades to recover from. However, it did not “lose” the war in the traditional respect in that it was defeated militarily by a superior foe. In fact, the Paris Accord gave the U.S. everything it wanted from North Vietnam, bringing the war to what could be considered a positive close. Who could have guessed the North Vietnamese would renege on the treaty just two years later?
9. Charles Lindbergh was the First Man to Cross the Atlantic Ocean by Air
While “Lucky Lindy” became quite the hero when he made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic by air—a grueling 34 hour, 3,600 mile flight—he was not the first man to make the crossing by air. In fact, he was something like the 85th man to do so. The feat was actually first accomplished by a pair of British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, eight years earlier when they flew a British Vimy bomber from Newfoundland, Canada, to Ireland in June of 1919. It was also accomplished by the entire crew of the German-built and manned zeppelin, the U.S.S. Los Angeles in 1924, when they flew the monster ship to America as war reparations. And, of course, this doesn’t include the men who may have made it but didn’t survive, such as the French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, who attempted the flight a mere three weeks before Lindbergh only to vanish somewhere between Paris and New York. (Many suggest, however, that they may have actually made it across, only to crash land in the uncharted forests of Newfoundland.) Lindbergh was, however, the first to make the flight solo, which is what made it such an accomplishment—especially considering that as there was no autopilot in that day, he was forced to remain awake the entire 34 hours of the flight. Talk about a bad flight!
8. Columbus Was the First European to Discover North America
Though the idea that Columbus was the first European to discover America was held as sacrosanct for most of this countries’ history, it is becoming more commonly acknowledged today that he was probably not the first European to make the crossing. That honor generally goes to some Viking named Leif Erickson, who is believed by historians to have made his way from Scandinavia to Newfoundland a good five hundred years before ‘ol Chris was even born. In fact, the Vikings established villages in Greenland and on the Canadian coast, making them the first Europeans to colonize the New World as well. There is even evidence that the ancient Phoenicians—an eastern Mediterranean sea-going people who lived between 1550 and 300 BCE—might have accomplished the deed centuries earlier than that! Columbus was the first European to discover it in “modern” times, however, and the first to make the fact that a continent existed between Europe and Asia known to the “civilized” world. Another “fact” that needs revising is the one that imagines that Columbus set out on his quest in an effort to prove that the world was not flat. In fact, no one in 1492 believed the Earth was flat. What he wanted to prove is that it was possible to get from Europe to China by sailing west rather than east. In effect, he was looking for a shortcut and found a whole continent in the process.
7. The Wright Brothers Were the First to Fly an Airplane
While the accomplishments of the gifted brothers from Dayton, Ohio cannot be diminished, the fact is there are a number of people who may have accomplished the feat of being the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air craft in powered flight (as opposed to unpowered gliders, which had been flown for years before the Wright Brother’s first flight). Probably the best claim to having been the first is attributed to a German immigrant named Gustav Whitehead, who may have made one and possibly two flights in a small monoplane of his own design (and powered by a tiny motor also of his own design) as early as 1901—two full years before the Wright Brother’s tried it. Unfortunately, ol’ Gustav was a better mechanic and aviator than an archivist and he neglected to get any photos of the flight or document it (although there was a reporter from a local paper supposedly present—along with a handful of witnesses—who allegedly saw a second flight in 1902). Had he done so, he might have changed aviation history rather than remaining just a footnote. Whitehead wasn’t alone in the claim of being the first, however, as some maintain that Frenchman Clement Ader may have accomplished the task in 1897 in a frail-looking plane named the Avion III and another Frenchman, Felix du Temple, might have done it as early as 1874. Even a Russian Army Officer, Alexander Mozhaiski, supposedly accomplished the feat in a monster steam powered aircraft in 1884, so the list of candidates who may have beat the Wrights into the air is considerable. The Wrights, however, did come up with the first truly controllable aircraft, making the previous claims fairly moot in that none of those earlier attempts flew very far (usually a couple hundred of feet) or were controllable—with the possible exception of Whitehead. If only the man had thought to buy a camera.
6. Alexander Graham Bell Invented the Telephone
Not to take anything away from the prolific Mr. Bell, but he didn’t come up with this modern little irritant on his own, but was one of several men who were working the idea at the same time. What he did do was be quicker on the draw than his competitors by getting to the patent office first. In fact, some historians maintain that another fellow named Elisha Gray was the first to create a working telephone, only to see Bell get all the credit for it. (And Gray has a pretty good claim according to many, with over 70 other patents—many communications oriented—to his credit. In fact, he may have missed out beating Bell to the Patent Office by a few hours!) Other names frequently mentioned for their work on early communication devices are Antonio Meucci, who was experimenting—quite successfully—with the electromagnetic telephone in 1857; Innocenzo Manzetti—who may have invented a “speaking telegraph” as early as 1865; and the German inventor Johann Philipp Reis, who was working on the idea during the 1860s. However, it was a Hungarian inventor named Tivadar Puskas who made the telephone useful by inventing the switchboard and with it something known as the “party line”, thereby making it possible for people to use Meucci’s/Manzetti’s/ Reis’/Gray’s/Bell’s invention in a practical way.
5. Charles Darwin Was the First to Conceive of the Theory of Evolution
Like the telephone, no timely idea is birthed by a single mother. There is almost always more than one person working on a good idea at the same time, with one of them inevitably getting most of the credit in the end. This was not only true of inventions, but of scientific theories as well—in this case the (at the time) controversial theory of evolution. British naturalist Charles Darwin is usually credited with coming up with the concept, but the fact is there were any number of scientists and naturalists working on the thorny issue of how human beings got here (in a non-Biblical way). The foundation for the idea may have been laid down by the Greek philosopher and scientist Anaximander (610 BCE-546 BCE), who was the first to suggest that physical forces, rather than supernatural forces, create order in the universe. However, the basics for the modern theory of evolution were first articulated in 1745 by the French mathematician and philosopher Pierre Louis Maupertius. Additionally, Charles Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote of the idea as early as 1796. However, few men did as much for the theory as did the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who came up with the first truly cohesive theory of evolution, in which he argued that there was a natural force that drove organisms up a ladder of complexity, and a second environmental force that adapted them to local environments through use and disuse of characteristics, differentiating them from other organisms—which was very close to Darwin’s concept of natural selection. Darwin’s greatest competitor, however, was the Englishman Alfred Wallace, who presented a very similar theory to Darwin’s to the prestigious Linnean Society in 1858 at the same time Darwin presented his. It was Darwin’s book, the Origin of the Species, however that made him world famous and is why to this very day it is Charles Darwin who gets all the credit (and, from some people’s perspective, all the blame) for the modern theory of evolution.
4. JFK’s Assassination was Part of a Larger Conspiracy
Though the idea that President Kennedy’s assassination was part of a larger conspiracy is actually an urban legend, the fact that it is believed by such a large percentage of the population—by some estimates, as much as 70%–makes it to many people’s way of thinking, a cold and hard fact. The idea that a lone nut job like Lee Harvey Oswald could have pulled off what was effectively the murder of the century without help is too much for some to accept, leading to nearly fifty years of all manner of conspiracy theories. These theories are generally divided into two groups: one which believes that Oswald was “set up” by someone—the CIA and the Mafia being the main suspects—and the other being that while he was in on the killing, he had help (and, in fact, may have been just one of several gunmen that day). Oswald’s death at the hands of a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby a couple of days later—in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters no less—seals the deal for most people, making the JFK conspiracy one of the most successful and lucrative cottage industries in America to this very day. Of course, no amount of evidence demonstrating that Oswald indeed possessed the means, motive, and opportunity to carry out the most heinous crime of the twentieth century all by himself or the lack of even a shred of solid evidence to suggest otherwise does little to dissuade the truly convinced, meaning that the idea that JFK’s death was the product of some massive CIA/Cuban/Russian/Mafia/Vice President Johnson plot a “fact” for millions that is unlikely to ever die.
3. We Only Use 10% of Our Brain
This “fact” has been so often repeated that most people don’t even question it anymore (thereby demonstrating that it may be true). However, even a moment’s consideration should demonstrate what a fallacy this idea is. The brain is a magnificent organ that does everything from making sure you don’t forget to blink once in a while to helping you remember where you put the car keys. To use only 10% of it, then, would render it little more than vestigial organ which, while making getting shot in the head more an annoyance than a catastrophe, is obviously nonsense. The fact is that despite evidence to the contrary, everyone uses 100% of their brain all the time; it’s just that different parts of it do different things. While it is possible that only 10% of the brain is used for the higher brain functions such as cognitive thought, reasoning, and memory, that doesn’t mean the rest of it is sitting idle. It’s just that those other parts are busy doing all sorts of other things like keeping your heart pumping and making sense of the millions of bits of data being sent to it by the bodies’ sensing organs. In reality, science is only just beginning to understand the complexities of the human brain and its capacity for doing all the stuff it does on a daily basis, making it more of a mystery than ever. The prospect that many of us don’t use our brain to its fullest capacity, however, may be worth considering, but that is a subject for another day.
2. Roosevelt’s New Deal Ended the Depression
It has been taught for over seventy years that FDR was responsible for ending the Great Depression of the thirties by enacting a dearth of government spending programs collectively known as the “New Deal”. In fact, the success of FDR’s massive spending programs is often pointed to by advocates of big government today as evidence that massive infusions of federal spending is the best hope for the poor, and has been the impetus behind some of the largest federal entitlement programs in history, from Medicare and Medicaid to welfare and food stamps. The only problem is that the New Deal was, in many ways, the Big Bust in that it did little to help the country recover from the Great Depression and, in fact, may have even delayed the recovery by years by raising corporate tax rates to such a level that it flat-lined business hiring for years. It was the Second World War that finally put most Americans to work which, combined with a reduction in tax rates in 1946, led to one of this countries’ greatest boom periods. Don’t believe it? Then just compare how long it took the United States to recover from the Depression compared to the countries of Europe which also saw a huge downturn in the early 1930s; England, France, and even Germany had put the worst of the depression behind them by 1935 while America continued to lumber on for years with high unemployment rates and a sluggish GNP. While no one can fault FDR for his noble intentions in wanting to ease the suffering of many people in this country, the New Deal actually demonstrated that the government that does the least to “fix” the problem actually does the most good by simply letting economic and financial forces heal themselves.
1. Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb
Like so many great inventions in history, this one too must fall into the “I wonder who really invented it first” category. Though Edison is given the credit, work on an incandescent light bulb had been going on long before ‘ol Tom wrapped his prodigious brain around the problem. As far back as 1802 a guy named Humphrey Davy passed an electrical current through a thin strip of platinum to create the first short-lived but impressive light show and after that the race was on to see who could be the first to find a filament that could last more than, say, five minutes. It wouldn’t be until 1841 when another Englishman, Frederick de Moleyns, would patent the first incandescent lamp using platinum wires in a vacuum as a filament. (However, the setup proved to be too expensive to be commercially viable, which is why no one speaks reverently today of de Moleyn’s remarkable invention.) After that, it was just a matter of time until someone stumbled upon a material that would be both economical and long-lasting, both of which would be required to make the light bulb useful. While Edison’s team did come up with a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1200 hours, thereby making the light bulb practical, another British physicist (clever folks, those Brits) by the name of Joseph Swan actually beat Edison when he came up with something that pretty closely resembled Edison’s later bulb by a couple of years. He had even begun installing the things in pubs around London while ‘ol Tom was still seeing if human hair would work as a filament. However, for some reason, history has not been kind to Mr. Swan and he remains largely forgotten (which probably explains why he could be frequently found afterwards drinking away his sorrows in one of London’s many well-lit pubs).
Honorable Mentions: General Custer (was not a General at Little Big Horn but a lowly Lieutenant Colonel. He had been a General during the Civil War but was reduced in rank afterwards, which is the reason for the confusion); George Washington’s Wooden Teeth (they were not wooden at all but made from gold, ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth!); George Washington and the Cherry Tree (Never happened); and The Emancipation Proclamation Ending Slavery (which did not end slavery in the North but applied only to those slaves living in Confederate States. There were thousands of slaves still residing in northern states at the time, though most were domestic servants or slaves by choice—usually for personal or economic reasons—at the time.)
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.