30 of the Most Expensive Mistakes in History
Everybody makes mistakes, but you’ve probably never screwed up this badly. These over-sized oversights and colossal blunders cost millions and surely raised the blood pressure of those who had to deal with the aftermath.
French train company orders trains that are too fat for platforms
French company SNCF flubbed the purchase of 2,000 trains in 2014. The problem? Many of their platforms were too narrow to fit the new trains. The mistake cost around 50 million euros, a steep cost to incur on top of the 15 billion euros they had just paid to purchase the trains.
The error occurred when the operator neglected to factor in measurements of train platforms that had been built more than 50 years ago. The process of expanding the 1,300 platforms to accommodate their corresponding trains took two years, in a process that was equally expensive and time-consuming as it was embarrassing.
‘Walkie Talkie’ building is so reflective it melts car parts
You might have heard of a building so ugly that it hurts your eyes, but you’ve probably never considered a building that can melt a car. The funny looking building on 20 Frenchchurch Street had to shell out some extra funds for sun protection after complaints that it had melted parts of a man’s Jaguar that was parked across the street.
Martin Lindsay was returning to his vehicle one day when he noticed a photographer snapping pictures of his car. His rear-view mirror and part of the body had rippled under the intense heat generated by the reflection off of the side of the building. Developers paid the 946-pound fee to Mr. Lindsay and had to erect a temporary sunscreen to mitigate sun damage to the surrounding area until a permanent solution was found.
Though it’s never a good sign, reshoots in the film industry are fairly common — especially in massive blockbusters when a lot of money is on the line. After filming Justice League Warner Brothers decided a few scenes needed to be added or redone. But Henry Cavill had already begun shooting Mission: Impossible – Fallout and this scheduling conflict proved to be quite the hairy situation.
Cavill plays August Walker in Fallout, a role that required him to grow a mustache and five o’clock shadow. Paramount refused to let him shave to reshoot his scenes as Superman, even though Warner Brothers begged them. Not only did coordinating the reshoots cost around $25 million, the studio had to pay a visual effects crew to remove Superman’s mustache in all these scenes. Good thing they nailed it — er, maybe not.
NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the metric vs. standard system
In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million satellite in a classic case of miscommunication. Engineers at Lockheed Martin used the imperial system (inches, feet, miles, etc.) when calculating coordinates of a communication station, while NASA used the metric system (centimeters, meters, kilometers, etc.). This caused the Mars orbiter to miss its mark, burn up its engine in the atmosphere and disappear forever.
The struggle between competing measuring systems is one most are familiar with. In this case, a small error ended up costing this team of engineers big. They flung an expensive satellite out of orbit: lost in space, likely orbiting the sun. If there’s a silver lining, its that the team will likely never repeat the mistake.
Publishers pass on Harry Potter
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the story — not Harry Potter’s story — but the story behind his, the one about the woman who wrote the books. J.K. Rowling had humble beginnings, writing the Harry Potter stories mostly on scraps of paper. After she finished writing, the books catapulted her to success. But maybe not right after.
For inspiration, J.K. Rowling shared a couple of her rejection letters with her Twitter followers. In response to Robert E. Galbrath (Rowling’s old nom de plume) one publisher says “I regret that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we could not publish [Harry Potter] with commercial success.” Book sales alone of the Harry Potter series have grossed an estimated $7.7 billion.
Spain nearly built a submarine that couldn’t resurface
In 2013, the Spanish government pumped $2.2 billion into a fancy new submarine dubbed The Isaac Peral. Before they finished building the vessel, engineers noticed a serious problem in the design. The unfinished submarine was already so heavy, it risked not being able to reemerge after submerging itself underwater.
Concerned engineers were able to trace the mistake back to a simple calculation error when drafting the design. Someone put a decimal point in the wrong space. Fortunately, the mistake was caught before they completed the submarine, and they were able to salvage the submarine by extending the length of the hull.
A stockbroker’s typo cost a Japanese company $225 million
In December of 2005, a small mistake cost Mizuho Securities Co., a Japanese company, an enormous amount of money. One stockbroker mistyped the data… He meant to offer a single share in J-Com’s stock for 610,000 yen (about $5,000) on the New York Stock Exchange, but instead, he ended up offering 610,000 shares for 1 yen.
Investors pounced on the opportunity, buying up a great deal of the mispriced stock. The loss was somewhat mitigated by stock exchange rules, which only allowed the stocks to be sold for as low as 572,000 yen. Still, the company lost around $225 million due to the mistake.
Record label doesn’t sign The Beatles
As many of the mistakes in this list have made abundantly clear, hindsight is 20/20. You can never be sure what band is going to make it big. When you’re an A&R or executive at a record label a big part of your job is to roll the dice on artists you think have a chance.
Dick Rowe, executive at Decca Records turned down an obscure band from Liverpool called the “Silver Beatles” when they auditioned for the label. His reason for passing? He thought guitar music was a fading trend … in 1962. Months later, The Beatles sign to EMI. In the year 1964 alone, The Wall Street Journal estimates their record sales grossed $50 million.
Yahoo! sells to Alibaba
This story is now legendary in the tech and finance industries. In 2005, Yahoo! owned 30 percent of Alibaba, a profitable Chinese multinational e-commerce, technology, and retail behemoth. Seven years later, they decided to sell half their stake to Alibaba at $13 a share. At the time it seemed like a good deal… Yahoo! made $7.6 billion.
Fast-forward to 2014. Alibaba goes public and breaks records when their stocks rose to $68 a share. Ouch. Today shares in Alibaba are worth $150 (the company is valued at around $84 billion) and Yahoo! sold its internet business to Verizon in 2017 for $4.8 billion.
A missing Oxford comma costs Oakhurst Dairy $5 million
Quite possibly the most hotly debated punctuation marks in literary circles, the oxford comma has its share of fans, detractors, and people who don’t care either way. It separates the penultimate and final items in a list and is usually considered optional (for example, the comma after “detractors” in the previous sentence is an Oxford comma). It has to be a particularly sore subject for the Oakhurst Dairy shipping department — an overtime dispute between the company and its drivers hinged on the lack of one.
Lawyers representing the drivers argued that a sentence in a contract the employees all signed needed the oxford comma to clarify that overtime pay was forfeited in a specific situation. “That comma would have sunk our ship,” the drivers’ attorney David G. Webbert told the New York Times. The company settled the lawsuit by paying the drivers a total of $5 million. That’s one expensive comma!
$39 flights across the world
$39 would be a great deal for a flight from Los Angeles to San Diego, so you can imagine how excited travelers were to score flight tickets from Toronto to the Meditteranean island of Cyprus for $39. This happened to chagrin of Alitalia, the airline company that offered the deal by mistake.
It was a typo — the tickets were supposed to cost $3,900, but their website was offering the tickets sans a couple of zeros. About 2,000 people got tickets before the company could fix the price. The company did the right thing and honored the cheap tickets, which cost them about $7 million.
Kurt Russell destroys a priceless guitar
The production crew for Quentin Tarantino’s film, The Hateful Eight, borrowed a one-of-a-kind old guitar from the Martin Guitar Museum. The guitar was to be used for a scene where actor Kurt Russell grabs the guitar from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, then smashes it. The film crew was meant to cut right before Russell snatched the instrument to swap it with a cheap replica.
Unfortunately, Russell didn’t realize this and went ahead with the whole scene, smashing the priceless artifact as the crew looked on in horror. In fact, Leigh’s reaction to the guitar’s destruction in the film is genuine, it seems everyone knew about the valuable guitar except Kurt Russell. The Martin Guitar Museum was not amused and decided to never lend an instrument to filmmakers again.
New Mexico lost control of a controlled fire
Prescribed fires are necessary for the safety and preservation of the wilderness. Old trees accumulate an excess of fossils, making them especially flammable and dangerous. By preemptively burning certain targeted zones, experts can remove the danger of a fire spreading throughout the entire area. That’s the idea, anyway.
In May 2000, in the Cerro Grande in New Mexico, workers lost control of a controlled fire and gusts of winds quickly spread the flames across the wilderness. The fire raged for a month before it was extinguished, costing around $1 billion in property damage. Fortunately, no humans died in the blaze.
Man throws away 7,500 bitcoins in 2009
In 2009, few saw the way cryptocurrency would take off in the coming years. Unfortunately for James Howell, he was not one of the few blessed with the foresight. Shortly after acquiring 7,500 bitcoins when they were worth very little, Mr. Howell spilled coffee on his computer. He salvaged and sold most of the parts and got all the information he thought he’d need off of the hard drive.
The hard drive sat in his drawer for years, before he threw it away during a move. When he realized his mistake, (and after seeing the way bitcoin had taken off), he began searching for the lost hard drive in the city dump. To make matters worse, the Newport City council barred him from continuing the search due to concerns about the environmental impact of disturbing potentially hazardous waste.
Bitcoin peaked when it hit $19,783 in December 2017. This means that Howell essentially threw away $148 million.
King Tutankhamman loses his beard, man glues it back
When museum workers noticed the beard on one of King Tut’s funeral masks was coming loose, an inexperienced restorer did the only logical thing — glue it back on. Apparently, there is a better way of fixing priceless gold artifacts than using a permanent epoxy-based glue.
A curator at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo admitted “Epoxy has a very high property for attaching, and is used on metal or stone — but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamen’s golden mask.” Hey, it could have been much worse — at least the fixer didn’t use duct tape. In truth, this restoration failure pales in comparison to the next item on this list…
Priceless Elias Garcia Martinez painting is restored (destroyed)
Most of the time pays to have self-confidence, but sometimes it costs. A lot. When an 80-year old parishioner noticed the fresco Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) at the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, she knew exactly how to fix it. Or, at least she thought she did.
The end result looks a bit different to the original, prompting jokesters on the internet to re-dub the painting Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey). While the original painting is sadly ruined, there’s a good argument to be made that the mistake actually had a positive effect. So many tourists flocked to Borja to see the painting that the church began charging people to see it — generating 50,000 euros to charity. Local businesses welcome the spike in tourism, and the church saw a substantial increase in donations.
‘Star Wars’ merchandise
George Lucas is a rich man — but it’s quite possible he could have been a lot richer. The film studio was loathe to fork over the necessary cash to allow the green filmmaker to film a certain science fiction story involving robots, spaceships, and light-up swords, so Lucas decided to sweeten the deal.
He signed over the merchandising rights for all Star Wars films to 20th Century Fox. That means that Lucas doesn’t see a dime from every toy droid, TIE fighter, or lightsaber sold. We don’t have to tell you how much money Star Wars merchandise makes for you to understand how much that has to hurt, but here’s a glimpse: In 1978, Star Wars action figures alone exceeded $100 million in sales. By now, it’s well into the billions.
Bridge alignment gone wrong
When you come across a fail like this, it really makes you wonder if somebody was out there playing an elaborate joke or something. There’s no way that anyone could possibly mess up a project that important, right? It’s less than likely that the guy responsible for this one kept his job…
On the plus side, it looks like one lane on each side lines up with the other. At least all they need now is a couple of ramps to send traffic flying over the gap to and from work on their daily commute! Modern problems require modern solutions.
Lotus Riverside apartment complex falls on its side
A residential complex in Shanghai collapsed due to bad construction practices. Ten meters of displaced soil was piled against one side of the building as a 4.6-meter car-park was being dug beneath the opposite side. Sadly, one worker died in the collapse as he returned to the site to collect his forgotten tools.
The real estate company responsible repeatedly ignored warnings about the mud-pile. Simply moving the soil before the incident would have saved the company around $800,000 and one man’s life. The 2009 incident shone a light on problems with construction supervision in China, highlighting the desperate need for reform and accountability.
Millennium, the wobbly bridge in the Thames
On June 10, 2000, construction was completed on an 18.2 million-pound bridge connecting both sides of the River Thames. The bridge closed three days later, after a disturbing incident while the bridge was crowded with foot-traffic: The bridge was swaying.
During the weekend it opened, approximately 160,000 people crossed the pedestrian bridge and were understandably alarmed by the rapid movement of the fixture. The cause of the problem was the bridge’s popularity; too many people stepping in unison along the path. The bridge closed immediately following the concerns, but more money had to be raised to correct the problem. It would be two years before the bridge would open again.
Russia sold Alaska to the United States
“The Last Frontier,” wasn’t always part of the U.S.A, in fact, it used to belong to Russia. Alexander II didn’t think much of Alaska; the harsh weather made it hard to farm, and high transportation costs kept it from being especially profitable as a trading port. He sold the colony to the U.S. for $7.2 million in 1867.
Few Russians had explored the land’s interior up until that point, otherwise, they would have noticed what a huge mistake the sale was. The United States clearly got away with robbery during negotiations: Alaska is rich in natural resources like oil and gold. A century and 20 years later, economists estimate Alaska’s oil and gas reserves alone are worth $200 billion.
Robert Wayne sells his Apple stock for $800
Everyone knows that hindsight is 20/20, but still, this had to sting. Steve Jobs is a household name, and most moderately tech-inclined people are familiar with Steve Wosniack, but many are unfamiliar with Apple’s third founder Ronald Wayne. Wayne drew Apple’s iconic logo, and served as an intermediary between the two innovative Steves.
Jobs’ strong personality clashed with Wayne, eventually prompting him to sell his 10 percent stake in the company for $800 in 1976, a decision that prevented him from becoming a multi-billionaire. (Apple became worth over $1 trillion last month). Despite missing out on enormous earnings, Wayne said he has no regrets in leaving the company.
Blockbuster could have bought Netflix in 2000
Before video streaming services became all the rage, you used to have to go to these places called video stores where you’d rent movies. If you kept it past the due date, you’d have to pay a late fee. Blockbuster was the biggest of these video store chains. Netflix was a successful newcomer with an interesting business model.
In 2000, Reed Hastings, the cofounder of Netflix met with John Antioco, the CEO of Blockbuster to propose a partnership. Netflix would run Blockbuster’s online brand and Blockbuster would promote Netflix in stores. Antioco and his team laughed Hastings out of their office. Ten years later, Blockbuster went bankrupt. Netflix is currently worth $15.8 billion.
Excite could have bought Google during its infancy
If you remember the early days of the internet, you might remember Excite. In 1999, it was the second most popular search engine (Yahoo! was number one). Google, then called BackRub, was a promising new competitor in the search engine market (side note: imagine an alternate reality where people refer to an internet search as a ‘backrub’). Excite was interested in buying the company for $750,000, but passed when Google insisted that its technology replace Excite’s.
Maddingly, one of the main reasons cited for Excite passing on Google’s technology was because they thought it worked too well. Users would find the information they wanted and move on too quickly, and Excite would lose precious revenue. Excite sold to Yahoo! in 2004, and recent estimates value Google at $167 billion.
New Jersey and the ‘Race to the Top’
Who hasn’t written the wrong year down by accident? In an ironic twist of fate, failure to proofread an application resulted in New Jersey missing out on a large federal grant to be put toward education reform. The oversight cost the state dearly.
In a bid to the federal government for educational reform money, a clerical error cost the Garden State $400 million. Instead of comparing the state’s budget information between 2008 and 2009, the state provided information for 2010 and 2011 instead, costing them five points, 10th place, and $400 million. If one group came out ahead, it was educators in Ohio who edged out New Jersey for the final slot.
Howie Hubler costs Morgan Stanley $9 billion
2007 wasn’t the best time to be a bond trader, but few traders have screwed up quite as badly as Howie Hubler (in truth, only one other person has to date). It happened like this, Hubler bought some risky credit default swaps for $2 billion and sold some rock-solid collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) for $16 billion.
The only problem was that the AAA rated-CDOs weren’t nearly as secure as he thought — in fact, they weren’t secure at all. If Hubler had taken corrective action sooner, his group could have greatly minimized their losses. Eventually Morgan Stanley had enough and forced Hubler to resign, but the damage was done. When the market crashed, Morgan Stanley was only able to recover $7 billion of a $16 billion loss.
Mercedes-Benz buys Chrysler
In 1998, Daimler-Benz (maker of the Mercedes-Benz line of luxury vehicles) acquired Chrysler for $37 billion. Nine years later, they sold the company for only $7 billion. Though it was sold to investors as an equal merger, it became clear that Daimler-Benz was calling the shots. For a while, everything seemed to be going right, stocks rose to $108.62 a share in 2001. But rocky times were ahead.
In 2006, Chrysler reported a loss of $1.5 billion despite launching 10 new vehicles that year. The instability and loss of profits proved to be too much for Daimler-Benz who sold off 80 percent of its shares in the company the following year. In 2008, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and was famously bailed out by the Treasury Department in 2009.
Texaco and the Lake Peigneur accident
Most people can tell you about a time when pushing something a bit too far ended up costing them. Perhaps none more so than workers on an oil rig in Lake Peigneur. In 1980, an oil rig contracted by Texaco drilled a bit too deep below the lake and struck a salt mine, which created a giant hole that quickly swallowed the lake. A giant whirlpool ensued, sweeping up barges, boats, and trees. The mistake caused giant geysers as the displaced air and water filled the caverns of the mine.
The disaster was caused by a calculation error that resulted in the rig drilling in the wrong coordinates. Luckily no one died as a result, but Texaco had to pay $44.8 million in out-of-state settlements (almost $149 million adjusted for inflation), and the ecosystem of the lake was irreparably changed.
B-2 Bomber crashes due to faulty electronics
Despite its primary purpose (stealth), the B-2 military jet is probably one of the most recognizable military vehicles. Unsurprisingly, it is also the most expensive, and unfortunately, in this case, the high cost did not guarantee the quality of materials.
In 2008, the $1.4 billion piece of sleek military machinery stalled and crashed upon takeoff during a practice flight in Guam when faulty sensors caused airspeed, altitude, and trajectory errors. Fortunately, both pilots ejected before the crash and survived the incident. An investigation discovered that the problem was likely caused by heavy rain, as moisture seeped in and damaged the sensors. It was the most expensive crash in history.
The Titanic hits an iceberg
You are undoubtedly familiar with this infamous story of ignored warnings. Dubbed “the unsinkable,” the RMS Titanic was the largest passenger ship in history in 1912. In a sad twist of irony, the Titanic an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and disproved its nickname on its very first voyage.
Despite being warned of the impending danger, the crew decided to embark on the ill-fated route. On April 15, 1912, the boat scraped its right side along an enormous glacier, causing the vessel to take on water and sink. The monetary loss is estimated to be around $7.5 million (about $175 million in today’s currency). While this is a steep cost, it that pales when compared to the loss of life: Over 1500 people died.