What you think you know and what actually happened might be two different things
We’ve already talked about a few of the most common historical fallacies that are often promoted as fact, but there are plenty more out there. Let’s look at a few more.
1. Daylight Saving Comes from Farming
There are two misconceptions surrounding the origins of daylight saving time – that it was developed by Benjamin Franklin and that it was implemented for farmers. The idea that Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea originated with a paper he wrote satirically while in Paris suggesting that people could save money on candles by getting up earlier in the morning and making use of natural light. As far as who should actually get the credit for DST, Englishman William Willett and New Zealander George Vernon Hudson were busy trying to implement the concept in their respective countries around the same time.
As far as a national implementation goes, Germany was actually the first to use daylight saving time. And it had nothing to do with farmers, it was to conserve electricity during World War I. The UK soon followed suite, but it wasn’t until 1918 that daylight saving time came to America. And farmers were quite unhappy with the change because they made their schedules according to the Sun, not the clock and this forced them to make several unwanted changes.
2. The Colossus of Rhodes
The existence of the Colossus is not in question. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and, with an estimated height of around 100 ft (30 m), it was one of the tallest structures of that time. It was built to celebrate Rhodes’ triumph in a war against Cyprus and it stood at the entrance to the harbor. All of this is fact, but one famous aspect of the Colossus is its posture. According to legend, the Colossus straddled the harbor, with each leg on a giant pillar to the sides of the harbor entrance. Every ship that entered had to pass through the legs.
The problem is that there is no historical evidence to support this claim. Modern engineers agree that a bronze statue of this size would not be able to stand in this posture. Furthermore, the position meant that the harbor would have needed to be closed completely during construction and maintenance. The statue was most likely standing in a normal position to one side of the entrance. The fictitious portrayal is the work of artists who thought that the Colossus looked much more imposing straddling the harbor.
3. Roman Thumbs Down
If you know what “thumbs down” meant in ancient Roman times, this probably means you saw Gladiator and that’s about all we can say for certain. There is no mention whatsoever that “thumbs down” meant to kill the defeated fighter. The practice itself did exist and it is called pollice verso, Latin for turned thumb. However, all we know is that it involved a gesture of the thumb. Like ancient Roman poet Juvenal wrote: the gladiators would “win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay”.
The idea that a “thumbs down” meant a death sentence comes from (you guessed it) an artist – a 19th century painter called Jean-Léon Gérôme and his painting titled Pollice Verso. Ridley Scott admitted that he was inspired by the painting to recreate the famous scene in Gladiator and that’s pretty much how we all came to believe the story. Realistically, it could still be true, but it is also possible that the audience used a “thumbs up”, “thumbs in the middle” or even a gesture where they would tuck the thumb inside the fist.
4. Magellan sailed round the world
If you know anything about Magellan, it is probably that he was the explorer who became the first man to sail round the world. This is only somewhat true. Magellan’s expedition was, indeed, the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, but Magellan wasn’t on it for a very simple reason – he was dead. Magellan was killed halfway through the expedition when he tried to bring Christianity to the city of Mactan in the Philippines.
After his death, the surviving members voted on a joint leadership between two people who would assume command. However, just four days after Magellan’s death, these two were also dead so another man took command. While he didn’t die, he did prove himself to be somewhat incompetent. When one of the remaining ships was damaged, he stayed behind with a group of men, hoping to catch up eventually after making repairs (they didn’t). This finally placed command on Juan Sebastian Elcano, the man who would, indeed, finish the circumnavigation. The expedition started off with 5 ships and 241 people and finished with just one ship and 17 survivors.
5. Caesar was born through Caesarian section
The similar names are what lend this myth credence, but they are completely unrelated. Caesarian comes from the Latin verb caedere which means “to cut”. We can say with almost certainty that Caesar wasn’t born through this method because his mother survived his birth. While it is true that caesarian sections were practiced during ancient Roman times, they always resulted in the death of the mother. It was actually a law called Lex Caesaria that stated that the child must be cut out of the womb of a dead or dying woman. However, Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, supposedly lived for another 46 years after Caesar was born.
6. Statues Revealed How People Died
We actually covered this one in detail here. The idea is that statues of people on horses (predominantly American) revealed how those people died based on the posture of the horse. Alternatively, older European statues supposedly showed if a person took part in the Crusades or not by how their arms or legs were crossed.
7. Pope Joan
The story pretty much reads like a bad comedy: one very talented and very hardworking woman, sick of being discriminated against, starts dressing up like a man….with hilarious consequences. Ok, they’re not that hilarious. She supposedly begins climbing through the ranks: first a notary, then a cardinal and then, finally, becomes pope. However, her plan is eventually foiled…when she gives birth while riding a horse. Now the plot leaves comedy territory as she is dragged to the center of the city where she is stoned to death by an angry mob.
That is, more or less, the first version of the story where the name of the female pope isn’t even mentioned. The story is picked up and reworked by several other writers and chroniclers and, eventually, one of them names her Joan. However, there was never any kind of evidence to suggest that this is anything more than a legend.
8. Pirates Flew the Jolly Roger
Whenever a pirate ship comes into sight, it is immediately distinguishable by a black flag with a skull and crossbones on it. This flag, unofficially named the Jolly Roger, is the definitive identifier of a pirate. Except that it isn’t. Each pirate had his own version of the Jolly Roger so others could identify him, in particular, not just his status as a pirate. Skulls and crossbones were, indeed, oftentimes incorporated in the design of these flags, but so were swords, hearts, skeletons and hourglasses. “Black Sam” Bellamy reportedly flew a flag which looked like the traditional Jolly Roger while Calico Jack had one where the crossbones were replaced with crossed swords.
9. All Cowboys Wore Cowboy Hats
This one is half true. When we say cowboy hat, we mean the Stetson…which is the hat everyone is referring to when they say cowboy hat. And it is true that, at one point, it became the dominant type of hat worn in the west. However, this happened late in the 19th century. In the Old West, true gunslingers preferred the bowler hat.
The bowler was considered a true working man’s hat. An alternative to is was the sombrero while gentlemen usually preferred a top hat. The ten gallon hat really became popular much later but that is the image that stuck.
10. War of the Worlds Broadcast
You’ve probably heard the story: Orson Welles did a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. This part is true. Then everybody thought it was real and that they were invaded by Martians and went ballistic…Not as true.
Right off the bat, let’s say that some people did, in fact, believe the story to be true, but that number is really insignificant. For starters, the broadcast wasn’t really that popular. It was also in a timeslot with a lot of competition, especially from The Chase and Sanborn Hour which had a much bigger audience. So, really, not a lot of people heard it to begin with. Then there is also the issue of several local affiliates who chose to replace the broadcast ahead of time. Finally, there is also the fact that CBS wasn’t really trying to trick people into thinking it was real. It had notices that it was fiction at the beginning and end of the broadcast and during breaks.
So why the fuss? Mostly thanks to newspapers. There was actually a rivalry going on between radio, the new kid on the block, and newspapers, the old grouch who feared he was getting replaced. Columnists and editorialists jumped on the occasion to make radio look bad and they went berserk with the coverage.