While writing my short novel The Theory of Anything, I wanted some concrete examples to illustrate the effects of chance and randomness featured in that story. My research led me to three chance events that shaped history (click here to download The Theory of Anything and learn more about the wrong turn that started World War I, the horseriding accident and the royal miscarriage, and the land transfer that launched the Napoleonic Empire).
In this article, I share seven more chance events that shaped history. The run from the extinction of the dinosaurs and the eventual rise of humans to the chain of events that led to the darkest periods of the twentieth century.
The Extinction of the Dinosaurs
65.5 million years ago, a massive asteroid struck Earth, triggering wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The debris from the collision and ensuing disasters clouded the atmosphere, blocking out the sun and causing temperatures to plummet. Dinosaurs—facing freezing temperatures and a sudden shortage of food—became extinct. Into their place came mammals, and eventually, humans.
But what if that asteroid had struck just 30 minutes earlier or later? As biologist Sean B. Carroll points out in his book A Series of Fortunate Events, paleontologists believe the fatal asteroid struck Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where scientists discovered a 110-mile-wide crater in 1991. The Earth spins at approximately 1,000 miles per hour. Had the asteroid landed 30 minutes earlier, it would have splashed down 500 miles east, in the Atlantic Ocean. 30 minutes later, and it would have landed in the Pacific Ocean. In either case, it’s likely that an aquatic landing would not have had the same disastrous consequences. The reign of dinosaurs would have continued, and the rise of mammals (and humans) might have never transpired.
The Storms That Saved Japan
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Mongols conquered much of Asia. Led by Genghis Kahn and his grandson Kublai Kahn, these nomadic tribes swept across the continent, seizing territory from the Pacific Ocean to Poland. As he was establishing a new dynasty in China, Kublai set his sights on the island nation of Japan.
In 1274, between 500 and 900 Mongol ships sailed across the Sea of Japan. They landed on the island of Kyushu, where the invaders set about slaughtering the outnumbered Japanese. But before the Mongols could finish the battle, a heavy thunderstorm drove them back to their ships. Fearing that the powerful winds and rough seas would drive their ships aground, the Mongols retreated to deeper waters… and directly into a powerful typhoon. By the time the storm subsided, it had sunk a third of the Mongol ships and drowned approximately 13,000 soldiers. Rather than renewing their attack, the survivors returned home.
Seven years later, the Mongols launched 4,400 ships and 140,000 soldiers against Japan. The Japanese samurai put up a valiant fight, but they were badly outnumbered. But just when it seemed all hope was lost, a second typhoon smashed into Kyushu. Only a few hundred Mongol ships withstood the storm. Most of the invaders drowned, and the few hundred who made it to shore were killed by the samurai. The fortunate Japanese dubbed the storms kamikaze or “divine wind,” and Kublai Kahn gave up on conquering Japan.
The Key That Could Have Saved the Titanic
In 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sunk. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died on that fateful night. The ship’s lookout, Fred Fleet, lamented that the crew would have seen the fatal iceberg (and steered clear of it) had they only had a pair of binoculars to spot it from farther away.
Unfortunately, those binoculars remained locked in a cabinet in the ship’s crow’s nest. And David Blair, who kept the keys, had been replaced with a more senior sailor prior to the voyage. Blair forgot to hand over the keys to his replacement, and the rest is history.
From Spanish Flu to World War II
1918 marked the end of World War I and the peak of the Spanish Flu pandemic. In January 1919, leaders of the Allied nations met in Paris to negotiate a peace treaty. In particular, American president Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris hoping to create a League of Nations that would include Allied enemies like Germany. By contrast, French president Georges Clémenceau wanted to take revenge on Germany for the French casualties and economic losses sustained during the war.
The talks dragged on until early April, when Wilson fell ill. His temperature soared to 103 °F. He suffered from violent coughing fits, shortness of breath and vomiting—all symptoms of influenza. Another symptom that plagued Wilson was delirium. He heard voices and suspected they were French spies.
When Wilson returned to the negotiations after almost a week in bed, he was not the same man. He gave in to Clémenceau’s demands, resulting in a treaty that hit Germany with massive reparations, a significant reduction in its military and large losses of territory. Wilson got his League of Nations, but Germany wasn’t allowed to join.
The treaty left Germany in a depression and humiliated its citizens by blaming them for the war. Many historians point to this treaty as inciting the German resentment and nationalism that set the stage for the rise of Nazism and everything that followed: World War II, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
… And Indian Independence
Halfway around the world in 1918, a lawyer and activist named Mohandas Gandhi was traveling across India giving speeches in support of Indian independence from Great Britain. One of Gandhi’s ideas at the time was that Indians should fight for the British in World War I. He believed that if Indians demonstrated their military capabilities and aided the British, they could persuade the British to grant them more autonomy.
In May 1918, a ship docked in Bombay (now Mumbai) carrying Indian soldiers home from World War I. With those soldiers came the Spanish Flu. In August, Gandhi suffered what he called the severest illness of his life. He was laid up through January 1919, as the flu ravaged the rest of India. Between 10 and 20 million Indians died during those few months, compared to about 500,000 total flu deaths in America. Gandhi’s son and daughter-in-law also contracted the disease, with the latter perishing.
On what he thought would be his deathbed, Gandhi had a change of heart. “We reap as we sow, we get what we deserve,” he wrote. “In this illness, I can see my own fault at every step.”
Perhaps part of that fault lay in urging his fellow countrymen to the violence of war, a war that would bring the Spanish flu to their homeland. Gandhi added:
“One need not assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war. One can do so even while keeping out of it. War is one powerful means among many others, but if it is a powerful means it is also an evil one.”
When he finally recovered, the war had ended, the disease had devastated India, and the British still held power. Gandhi started preaching a different message, one that better aligned with his “reap as we sow” belief. And it was this philosophy of non-violent resistance that captivated his countrymen and eventually led to Indian independence.
In the midst of another pandemic, the Spanish Flu stands out as one of the most significant chance events that shaped history.
The Swimming Lessons That Saved Taiwan
Between 1927 and 1950, China suffered a bitter civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party. In 1949, the Communists were on the verge of victory. Two million Nationalists had fled mainland China for the island of Taiwan. The Communists hoped an invasion of the island would wipe out their enemies once and for all.
The Communists lacked proper landing boats, so they planned to use junks to ferry their soldiers across the Taiwan Strait and have the soldiers swim the final distance from the junks to land. In preparation, invading soldiers practiced swimming in canals on the mainland.
Unfortunately, those canals were infested with snails carrying the Schistosoma japonicum parasite. Between 30,000 and 50,000 Communist soldiers fell ill with schistosomiasis, and the Communists had to delay the invasion by six months. But before they could launch their attack, the Korean War broke out. American warships entered the Taiwan Strait, blocking the Communist invasion. Taiwan was saved.
Adolf Hitler, Artist?
The Treaty of Versailles was one of the events that shaped history in the twentieth century, but it was Adolf Hitler who built the Nazi party and drove Germany into World War II. But decades before he became a dictator and mass murderer, young Hitler was an aspiring artist.
In 1907 and 1908, at the ages of seventeen and eighteen, Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Both times, the school rejected his application. In his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that this rejection struck him “as a bolt from the blue.” With his art dreams derailed, Hitler spent much of the next year moving from one cheap rented room to the next. The future dictator even spent time in a homeless shelter.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that his life among the poor in Vienna inspired his anti-Semitic views. He also grew to admire Vienna’s mayor of the time, a man famous for his anti-Semitic opinions and his oratorical skills. One can only imagine how history might have changed had the prototypical villain of the twentieth century spent his formative years in art school instead of scraping by in the Viennese slums.
From the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of humans to the origins of the Holocaust, these seven historical developments demonstrate the role that chance and randomness often play in the events that shaped history. Even the best-laid plans are at the mercy of a natural disaster. Even the sturdiest structures depend on a moment of inspiration, opportunity or forgetfulness. We can do our best to control the outcomes of the events in our lives, but we are all—to some degree—at the mercy of chance.
For more on the role randomness plays in our lives and additional examples of chance events that shaped history, click here to download my short novel The Theory of Anything.