5 Vastly Overrated Historical Events

Many events live on in history for their greatness and significance. And some of those events, quite frankly, don't deserve all the fuss. When writing the book Busted! The 50 Most Overrated Things in History, I discovered a few such events. Here are five of my favorites.

1. The Signing of the Magna Carta

magna.jpgThe legend goes that, after King John of England was forced to sign The Magna Carta ("Great Charter") in 1215, he (and his successors) could no longer ride roughshod over their subjects. Actually, The Magna Carta provided plenty of personal rights and freedoms, provided you were a noble. If you were one of the three-quarters of the population who were not wealthy, and toiled your life away for the landowners, it wasn't really much use. When the barons of England wrote the Magna Carta, they were not motivated by a sense of great injustice, but by their sense of outrage when King John tried to increase their rental fees. John's numerous acts of cruelty and murder might have been good reasons to take action, but in the end, it all came down to rent.

Fortunately, it later had a few tweaks. In 1369, Edward III replaced the words "no free man" with the language "no man, of whatever estate or condition he may be," and added that nobody could be imprisoned or executed without "due process or law."

Still, it wasn't a magic document that brought fairness to the world. Its great reputation is mainly the result of political propaganda. In Victorian Britain, it was used to justify Britannia's rule over a colonial empire, as it showed Britain as a model for other freedom-loving nations. (This presumably included India, whose subjects were nonetheless fighting to free themselves from the yoke of the British Empire.)

Incidentally, John did not sign The Magna Carta. In fact, he might have been illiterate. As a look at any of the "original" Charters (there are four of them) would reveal, he simply placed his Royal Seal upon it.

2. The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed eighty percent of the city, left 100,000 people homeless, and caused an estimated 10 million pounds of damage "“ but as far as "great" disasters go, it was actually pretty mild. The fire spread remarkably slowly, killed only a handful of people, and seems almost harmless compared to many lesser-known fires. London was swiftly rebuilt (even by modern building standards), and almost all the people who had lost their homes were re-housed within a few years. The fire probably saved thousands more people than it killed. What kind of disaster was that?

great-fire.jpgThe Great Fire was started early in the morning of September 1, 1666, by an oven owned by Thomas Farynor, royal baker to King Charles II. When alerted of the fire on the first night, the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth, took one look and retired back to his room. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he protected his valuables by burying a large slab of cheese in his backyard. The fire burned for five days, destroying 13,000 homes and 87 churches, but allowing many of the people living in the area to calmly evacuate to a nearby town.

So how many people were killed in the fire? Believe it or not, there are only five recorded deaths, including two people who were right next to the oven and one man who died of smoke inhalation. (A few were later killed in the street violence, as people lost their senses). London's previous major fire, back in 1212, had left 3000 people dead "“ and you've probably never even heard of it, probably because London wasn't such a world-class, "happening" city back in the mediaeval world.

In fairness, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of London and left millions in a state of abject terror. But despite its reputation as one of the darkest, most terrifying moments in British history, it actually did more good than harm. By destroying the black rats and their breeding grounds, it brought to an end the Great Plague, which had already killed up to 100,000 people in the space of two years. In the end, the Great Fire of London was surely a textbook case in how not to destroy a city.

3. The Fourth of July, 1776

July 4, 1776, is known as the date when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. However, America's independence from Britain was a long process. July 4 was the date that Thomas Jefferson went to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with the first draft of the Declaration. Though Jefferson's wording was approved, only the president of Congress, John Hancock, actually signed it on that date. It wouldn't even become "official" for another five years.

declaration.jpgSo when should America celebrate its independence? It might as well be June 7, when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a motion for a declaration. Or perhaps it should be July 2, when Congress approved a formal resolution calling for independence from England. "It ought to be solemnised with pomp and parade," wrote John Adams in a letter the next day, "with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations "“ from this time forward for everyone." (When a nineteenth-century scholar discovered this letter, he "corrected" the date to read "July 5" so that it wouldn't question everyone's patriotic assumptions.)

After Jefferson's draft was approved, copies were sent to the printers, and public proclamations of the draft had to be posted to the colonies. General George Washington's soldiers, camped in New York, didn't know about it until July 9. Other colonies didn't find out until August 10. Britain, which still assumed that it ruled America, didn't hear anything about this act of rebellion until August 30.

But what was the true Independence Day? On August 2, a parchment copy was finally brought to Congress, and was signed by 50 Congressmen who were present.

Though they still awaited a few signatures, the August 2 copy is often referred to as the "original" Declaration of Independence. Other signatures were added later, and the last signatory, Thomas McKean, didn't get round to adding his name until 1781.

But while it was fine to talk about independence, it doesn't work until you can convince your former rulers to agree. Happily, just as one future President (Jefferson) was doing a fine job in the Declaration-writing field, another (Washington) was doing equally well on the military front, leading the American armies against the British Redcoats in the American Revolution.

Even though the Founding Fathers had signed the Declaration, the Revolution continued for another seven years before King George and his U.S. counterparts signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace, finally granting America some real independence from England. This was on September 3, 1783. So the true Independence Day is"¦ the Third of September!

4. The Great Crash of 1929

The Great Depression of the 1930s is said to have begun with the Wall Street Crash of "Black Thursday" "“ October 24, 1929. In fact, the Crash had little to do with the Depression, though it had the same causes: among them, an unstable US economy, high tariff barriers (meant to help farmers and manufacturers, but instead ruining the export industry), tax cuts for the rich, and a collapse in commodity prices.

great-crash.jpgYet investors behaved like they were in boom times. Even the banks were speculating with their clients' money "“ and just in case these banks weren't living dangerously enough, they lent heavily to the struggling farmers, even with the land value in freefall. This combination of disasters wiped out millions of dollars in people's savings. As nobody had any money, it was easier to find a bargain during the Depression, as manufacturers tried to rid themselves of their surplus goods. Hence, it was more difficult for anyone to make a profit.

As investors (and most other people) know, the market rises and falls on a regular basis. Back in 1929, investors were not so aware of this. The American stock market peaked in August, and during September the prices began to drop. The problem was that 1.5 million Americans were still dabbling in the stock market. In a panic, they started selling their shares. A record 12 million shares were put up for sale on "Black Thursday," but this was superseded by another record "“ 16 million shares "“ only five days later.

For all the panic, the so-called "Crash" of 1929 wasn't quite as dramatic as it sounds. The Dow Jones went up and down like a yo-yo before the market finally collapsed in 1932. By then, the Great Depression was well and truly under way.

Wall Street's worst-ever crash would actually happen 58 years later, on October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 500 points, losing 22.6 percent of its value. That's almost double the 12.82 percent decline on October 28, 1929. Yet while it wasn't exactly good news, it didn't lead to the Great Depression II.

More recently, the 777-point decline of September 28, 2008, was called a "record," but if you talk percentages (which is the fairest way to do it), it was less than seven percent. Not quite as bad as 1929, but nothing compared to 1987.

5. Woodstock

The Woodstock pop festival is near the top of many people's "I wish I was there" lists "“ four days of peace, love and togetherness, as 500,000 people flocked to a 600-acre dairy farm to witness a free, one-of-a-kind concert by some of the greatest rock artists of the time. Or so you might have read. Actually, the whole thing was arranged as a money-making venture. (Some performers, including Janis Joplin and The Who, refused to perform on Saturday night if they weren't paid in advance.) The tickets were pricey, which is why so many people opted to save money by breaking in. To make it easier for gatecrashers, it was so badly organized that the ticket booths never made it to the entrance. By the time the security team came in, it was already out of control. Naturally, Woodstock lost millions "“ meaning that, as far as its organizers were concerned, it was a terrible failure.

woodstock.jpgThe journey to heaven, as we all know, can be arduous. Ditto the journey to Woodstock, with a traffic jam so long that many of the first-day acts were stranded, leaving the first performer, folk singer Richie Havens, to perform for nearly three hours (including seven encores), before his replacements were flown in by U.S. Army helicopter. "If it wasn't for the U.S. Army, Woodstock might not have happened," recalled Havens. "We were never anti-soldier. We were just against the war."

The true magic of Woodstock, however, was that you could completely ignore the music and still have a terrible time. "For those who found themselves there it was nothing short of a disaster area," wrote columnist James Campion in 1999. Martin Scorsese (assistant director on the documentary, Woodstock) has often described it as surviving war, with bad acid, bad weather, bad well water and creeping sickness.

busted.jpgWoodstock also had more casualties than the Great Fire of London. Of Woodstock's 5,162 medical cases (including 797 documented instances of drug abuse), two died of a heroin overdoses. Another concert-goer was crushed by a clean-up tractor in his sleep. The medical director, Dr William Abruzzi, said that there were also eight miscarriages in the Woodstock medical tent, adding to a total of 11 deaths.

Mark Juddery is a Australian writer and historian. His latest book, Busted! The 50 Most Overrated Things in History, is published by Random House.

* * * * *

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


More from mental floss studios