WHETHER we’re SHOCKED by a “wardrobe malfunction” or hooting as a reality-show contestant is humiliated on national television, Americans are none-too-secretly fascinated with failure—and with good reason. From embarrassing fashion faux pas to architectural disasters, recent history is filled with flops that not only were bizarrely spectacular, but have had lasting cultural impact.
Now, finally, here’s a book that not only celebrates some of the most significant flops, goofs, misjudgments, and fiascoes of the past century and a half, but also extracts a meaningful lesson from each.
Oops: Twenty Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America examines in excruciating detail twenty strange and amusing stories, from the ill-fated 1967 Monkees-Jimi Hendrix concert tour to the preposterous collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It’s peopled with eccentric visionaries, misguided geniuses, and well-intentioned incompetents, ranging from the Reverend John Humphrey Noyes, the 19th-century minister who created a libidinous utopia in upstate New York, to Dr. Hans Laube, inventor of that dubious cinematic advance known as “Smell-O-Vision.” We’ve carefully weighed the topics and personalities to create a book that will, like its predecessor, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America, offer an enter taining, informative, and eclectic mix of topics, but with a crystal clear organizing principle.
Ultimately, the book offers twenty complementary lessons about the general conduct of life—lessons that can be used for everything from a personal mantra to a philosophy of business. Each story serves as a vivid example of the stated lesson, and each lesson is accompanied by a handy clip-’n’-save “Recipe for Disaster” that details the essential “ingredients” of each grand failure.
At the same time, we’ve retained the qualities that readers liked so much about Poplorica. Each of these twenty miscues in some way helped spawn a trend, phenomenon, or motif whose influence is still felt in contemporary culture. We trace the sometimes obscure and often amusing connections between the forgotten failures of the past and the world in which we now live.
Martin J Smith and Patrick J. Kiger
Good judgment is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgment.
—An attorney in a lawsuit involving Boston’s John Hancock Tower, after the skyscraper’s windows fell out
Some said I couldn’t sing, but no one could say I didn’t sing.
—Florence Foster Jenkins, widely recognized as the worst opera diva ever
Introduction The Joy of Oops
Lesson #1 READ THE FINE PRINT
The Eroto-Utopians of Upstate New York
John Humphrey Noyes’s sexually adventurous Perfectionist commune was one of the most successful utopian religious groups in 19th-century America. Alas, the devil was in the details.
Lesson #2 ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
How Thomas Edison Invented Trash Talk
Why would one of America’s iconic inventors publicly electrocute a full-grown carnival elephant? The answer reveals a little-known story of ego, failure, and the moment when America began “going negative.”
Lesson #3 BEWARE SOLUTIONS THAT CREATE NEW PROBLEMS
The Global Underarm Deodorant Disaster
Thomas Midgley Jr. was among America’s greatest problem solvers. Unfortunately, his landmark “Eureka!” moments had an echo that sounded a lot like “Oops!”
Lesson #4 BAD RESULTS TRUMP GOOD INTENTIONS
Kudzu: A Most Tangled Tale
What began as a well-intentioned effort to stop soil erosion in the American South became a dramatic example of what can happen when you mess with Mother Nature.
Lesson #5 IGNORE THE PAST AT YOUR PERIL
The Preposterous Collapse of “Galloping Gertie”
The completed Tacoma Narrows Bridge stood for four months in 1940 as a landmark of machine age design and aesthetics—qualities that are less apparent now that it’s at the bottom of Puget Sound.
Lesson #6 PERSISTENCE CAN OUTWEIGH TALENT
The Screeching Diva
With a voice that was more canine than coloratura, Florence Foster Jenkins may have been the worst operatic singer of all time. But the do-it-yourself diva was able to charm audiences with unabashed, joyful ineptitude.
Lesson #7 CHOOSE THE RIGHT PARTNER
The Kaiser-Hughes Flying Boat
If you’re crazy enough to take on an incredibly difficult project with an unrealistically short deadline, don’t ask an even crazier person to help you get it done.
Lesson #8 PANDERING WILL GET YOU NOWHERE
The 1955 Dodge La Femme
In the 1950s, Dodge saw a pink car with a matching umbrella and lipstick case as the way to a woman’s heart. But that was only the worst of the automotive industry’s efforts to woo a misunderstood market segment.
Lesson #9 BEWARE OF UNPROVEN TECHNOLOGIES
The Lingering Reek of “Smell-0-Vision”
Sound revolutionized motion pictures, but the tortured effort to bring smell to the silver screen proved that some things are best left to the imagination.
Lesson #10 CONVENIENCE ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH
The Paper Dress
In the mid-1960s, ordinary housewives and the fashion elite thrilled to the notion of cheap, disposable garments. The fad lasted about as long as the clothes themselves.
Lesson #11 DUBIOUS NOTIONS SEDUCE EVEN THE BRIGHTEST MINDS
The U.S. Psychic Friends Program
The federal government dabbled in paranormal espionage for decades, using clairvoyants for everything from spotting enemy subs to “reading” documents on Nikita Khrushchev’s desk. And for fun, they bent spoons.
Lesson #12 UNDERSTAND THE MARKET
The 1967 Jimi Hendrix-Monkees Concert Tour
Perhaps the greatest rock guitarist ever, Jimi Hendrix’s flamboyant fusion of blues, psychedelia, and sex changed popular music. But to the prepubescent fans of a fictional TV pop group, he was boh-ring!
Lesson #13 DESPERATION IS THE CRADLE OF BAD IDEAS
The Cleveland Indians’ Ten-Cent Beer Night
Lagging attendance. Latent hostility. Limitless lager. Add them up, and you get the most ill-conceived sports promotion in American history—and a pivot point in the new temperance movement.
Lesson #14 SWEAT THE DETAILS
The Sixty-Story John Hancock Guillotine
If you’re going to build a masterpiece of modern high-rise architecture, make sure the five-hundred-pound windows don’t fall out during windstorms.
Lesson #15 CULTURAL NORMS RESIST RADICAL CHANGE
Male Fashion’s Fabulous Faux Pas
The leisure suit is reviled as the ultimate icon of 1970s-era bad taste. But what was hyped as a harbinger of a male fashion revolution actually turned out to be just that, in a flammable, double-knit way.
Lesson #16 THINK LONG TERM
The Abbreviated Reign of “Neon” Leon Spinks
The tragicomic heavyweight boxing champ was neither the first nor the last American sports hero to badly mismanage fame and fortune. But by rising higher and falling faster than most, he brought schadenfreude to the masses.
Lesson #17 KNOW “HELPFUL” FROM “ANNOYING”
Clippy—Microsoft’s Relentless Software Irritant
The bizarre, bug-eyed anthropomorphic paper clip was supposed to make Microsoft software easier to use. Instead, Clippy became such an unpopular pest that even its creator ended up mocking it.
Lesson #18 BEWARE THE PROFITING PROPHET
The Y2K Scare
To nervous Americans on the eve of the 21st century, a couple of missing digits in a computer program foretold a looming techno-apocalypse. So a few entrepreneurs did what they do best: turned fear into cash.
Lesson #19 DON’T MESS WITH SUCCESS
The XFL’s Quick Takedown
In a single season of televised T&A, backstage buffoonery, and second-rate football, the league launched by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon and NBC recorded the lowest prime-time ratings in network history.
Lesson #20 OCCASIONALLY LOOK UP FROM YOUR WORKBENCH
The Quixotic Quest for the Flying Car
As they have for generations, aviation wonks and Popular Mechanics subscribers continue working toward the Holy Grail of private transportation: the flying car. Never mind that nobody needs one anymore.
The Bonus Chapter Fiascoes That Failed to Qualify for Oops
Think We Blew It? Tell Us About Your Favorite Failures
Chapter Notes Or, How We Learned These Twenty Lessons