Incredible Failures

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Incredible Failures

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in good spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson


British bankruptcy history was made in 1978 by Mr William Stern. The 43-year-old property developer had total personal liabilities in excess of 100,000,000 pounds. Hearing the case in the London Bankruptcy Court, Mr Alan Sales, the Official Receiver said, "This bankruptcy has been described as the biggest but really it is a very ordinary bankruptcy with noughts at the end."


A murder trial at Manitoba in February 1978 was well advanced, when one juror revealed that he was ompletely deaf and did not have the remotest clue what was happening. The judge, Mr Justice Solomon, asked him if he had heard any evidence at all and, when there was no reply, dismissed him. The excitement which this caused was only equalled when a second juror revealed that he spoke not a word of English. A fluent French speaker, he exhibited great surprise when told, after two days, that he was hearing a murder trial. The trial was abandoned when a third juror said that he suffered from both conditions, being simultaneously unversed in the English language and nearly as deaf as the first juror. The judge ordered a retrial.


The Mariner I space probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on 28th of July towards Venus. After 13 minutes flight a booster engine would give acceleration up to 25,820 mph; after 44 minutes 9,800 solar cells would unfold; after 80 days a computer would calculate the final course corrections and after 100 days the craft would circle the unknown planet, scanning the mysterious clouds in which it is bathed. However, with an efficiency that is truely heartening, Mariner I plunged into the atlantic Ocean only four minutes after take off. Inquiries later revealed that a minus sign had been omitted from the instructions fed into the computer. 'It was a human error' a launch spokesman said. This minus sign cost 4,280,000 pounds.

THE WORLD'S WORST JUROR (from "Book of Heroic Failures", by Stephen Pile)

It happened at a rape trial in Snaresbrook (U.K.) county court on an unusually warm and sultry day. One of the jurors fell asleep just as the victim was being questioned by the prosecuting counsel.
"Would you," he asked, "tell the court precisely what the defendant said to you before the attack?"
"No, she would not." she said. "It was far too crude and shocking."
"Would you be prepared to write it down?"
And she did, with every sign of distaste (it was, broadly speaking, a promise that nothing in the history of sexual congress compared with what the rapist planned to do to his victim), and the paper was passed to the judge, learned counsel, the clerk of the court, and the jury.
In the second row, our hero slumbered on until he was suddenly woken by a sharp nudge from the smiling brunette next to him. She passed the note to him. He read the message thereon, gazed in wonder at his neighbour, read it again, winked at the woman, and slipped the note in his pocket.
When the judge demanded the note back, the juror refused. It was, he said, a private matter.


A first class example of inaccurate labelling was discovered in October 1971 in County Durham. The object was exhibited in a South Shields museum as a roman sestertius coin, minted between AD135 and AD 138. However, Miss Fiona Gordan, aged 9, pointed out that it was, in fact, a plastic token given away free by a soft drinks firm in exchange for bottle labels. The dating, was in her view, almost 2,000 years out. When challenged to provide evidence, she said: ' I know because the firm's trademark is on the back.' A spokesman for the Roman Fort museum said 'The token was designed as a roman replica. The trouble was that we constructed the letter "R" on the coin to mean "Roma". In fact it stood for "Robinsons", the soft drinks manufactures.'


It is widely suggested that computers improve efficiency. Lovers of vintage chaos might remember the computer installed in 1975 by Avon County Council to pay staff wages. The computer's spree started off in a small way, paying a school caretaker 75pounds an hour instead of 75pence. Then it got ambitious and did not pay a canteen worker at all for seven weeks.
Before long it got positively confident and paid a janitor 2,600 for a weeks work. He sent it back and received another for the same amount by return post.
There was now no stopping it. A deputy headmistress received her year's annual salary once a month; heads of department earned less than their assistants, and some people had more tax deducted in a week than they earned in a year. In February 1975 two hundred and eighty employees on the council payroll attended a protest meeting. Of these only eight had been paid the correct salary. They all went on strike.


Pi is a mathmatical constant which is the ratio of the circumference of the circle to it's diameter. It is neverending but is usually taken to be 3.142. However in 1897 the General Assembly of Indiana passed a bill ruling that the value of Pi was four. This ensured that all mathematical and engineering calculations in the state were wrong. It meant that a pendulum clock would gain about fifteen minutes an hour.

THE WORST HOMING PIGEON from the British "Book of Heroic Failures" by Stephen Pile

This historic bird was released in Pembrokeshire in June 1953 and was expected to reach its base that evening. It was returned by post, dead, in a cardboard box eleven years later from Brazil.

THE WORST ANIMAL RESCUE from the British "Book of Heroic Failures" by Stephen Pile

During the firemen's strike of 1978, the British Army had taken over emergency fire fighting and on 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady in South London to retrieve her cat which had become trapped up a tree. They arrived with impressive haste and soon discharged their duty. So grateful was the lady that she invited them all in for tea. Driving off later, with fond farewells completed, they ran over the cat and killed it.

THE WORST HIJACKING from the British "Book of Heroic Failures" by Stephen Pile

We shall never know the identity of the man who in 1976 made the most unsuccessful hijack attempt ever. On a flight across America, he rose from his seat, drew a gun and took the stewardess hostage.
"Take me to Detroit," he demanded.
"We're already going to Detroit," she replied.
"Oh... good," he said, and sat down again.

THE WORST BANK ROBBERY from the British "Book of Heroic Failures" by Stephen Pile

In August 1975 three men were on their way in to rob the Royal Bank of Scotland at Rothesay, when they got stuck in the revolving doors. They had to be helped free by the staff and, after thanking everyone, sheepishly left the building. A few minutes later they returned and announced their intention of robbing the bank, but none of the staff believed them. When they demanded 5,000 pounds in cash, the head cashier laughed at them, convinced that it was a practical joke. Then one of the men jumped over the counter, but fell to the floor clutching his ankle. The other two tried to make their getaway, but got trapped in the revolving doors again.

THE WORST FISHERMAN from the British "Book of Heroic Failures" by Stephen Pile

Thomas Birch, the eighteenth-century scholar, was a keen fisherman. However, he rarely caught anything and so decided to disguise himself in order to lull the fish into a false sense of security. He constructed an outfit which made him look like a tree. His arms fitted into the branches and his eyes peered through knots in the bark. Thus attired, he set off down the river bank and took up his position. He still did not catch anything, attracting only suspicious dogs and friends who used to picnic at his feet.

THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL HANDCUFFINGfrom the British "Book of Heroic Failures"

The most exciting case of handcuff difficulties was reported in the New Statesman in 1978. It arose while a British circuit judge was trying a burglar in whose possession a pair of handcuffs had been found. 'I thought,' said the judge, 'that the jury might be interested to know how handcuffs could be used to incapacitate a victim.' Brushing aside protests of the prosecuting council, he clasped one handcuff around his left wrist. 'And now,' he said, 'if I take the other handcuff...Oh do be quiet, Mr Smith (addressed to the agitated prosecutor), I am going to show the jury how these things work.' Only when the judge was completely fettered did he learn that the police had not yet recovered the keys. The hearing was adjourned while the judge was led off to the tender mercies of the local blacksmith.

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