10 False History 'Facts' Everyone Knows

Men dressed up (rather inaccurately) as Vikings take part in the annual Viking festival of Catoira in north-western Spain. © MIGUEL VIDAL/Reuters/Corbis

We would like a word with our fifth-grade teachers. How is it that so many supposedly educated adults still believe that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity when his kite was struck by lightning, and that Columbus discovered America while trying to prove that the world was round? It can't be because we're ignorant, or gullible, or both. Better to blame the fifth-grade teachers. For shame, Mr. Donnelly. For shame.

If you know — for a fact! — that Napoleon was the shortest emperor ever, and that Einstein absolutely failed math as a kid, then boy do we have some disappointing news for you. The real truth is that few of us have our facts straight when it comes to history. Keep reading to find out how wrong you've been, then go out and make your friends feel just as dumb! Our first false fact involves a beloved story from American history.

Ben Franklin Discovered Electricity Flying a Kite
Though he didn’t discover electricity, Benjamin Franklin coined most of the words we use today to describe it, including battery, conductor, and positive and negative charges. © Bettmann/CORBIS

American statesman and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin was a compulsive problem-solver. Among his many inventions were rudimentary "swim fins" — glove-like pads worn on the hands to increase speed. And then there are his famous bifocals, a simple solution to carrying around two pairs of glasses [source: PBS].

But one thing that he definitely didn't discover was electricity. Electricity was a known phenomenon in Franklin's day, although not completely understood. Franklin believed that electric current was a "fluid" that went from one body to another and that lightning was simply a more dramatic form of static electricity [source: Avril].

Did Franklin actually test his theories by flying a kite in a thunderstorm? No one is sure. We know that he published his groundbreaking diagrams for a lightning rod in May 1752, a month before his alleged kite escapade [source: Avril]. The main source for the kite story is Franklin's friend, scientist Joseph Priestley, who wrote about it 15 years later [source: USHistory.org].

From there, the tale took on its own life, depicted in paintings and sealed in American lore. In no version of the story, however, was Franklin's kite actually struck by lightning. That would have resulted in chicken-fried Franklin [source: MythBusters]. Instead, when a storm approached, Franklin noticed the hairs on the kite string standing up, indicating the presence of electricity in the air. When he touched the key tied to the string, it released a nice spark, sealing the deal [source: USHistory.org].

Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear in a Fit of Madness
Vincent van Gogh painted this self portrait some time after fellow painter Paul Gauguin allegedly sliced off part of his ear during a bitter quarrel. Peter Barritt/SuperStock/Getty Images

Part of the allure of Vincent van Gogh's priceless impressionist paintings is the widely accepted belief that the 19th-century artist was stark raving bananas. Exhibit A: In a fit of madness, he lopped off his left ear with a razor blade and gifted the bloody auditory organ to a local French prostitute. Need proof? How about the famous van Gogh self-portrait with a bandaged ear?

But in 2009, a pair of German art historians busted the madman myth in a book titled "Pact of Silence," which claims that van Gogh's close friend and rival Paul Gauguin sliced off van Gogh's ear lobe with a fencing rapier [source: Kucharz]. The book asserts that Gauguin and van Gogh had a violent falling out in 1888, resulting in the ear-chopping incident. Both men vowed to keep the matter quiet, although Gauguin invented the prostitute story to make van Gogh look even crazier.

Van Gogh undeniably suffered from periodic fits and ultimately took his own life in a deep bout of depression, but was he certifiable? An American microbiologist diagnosed van Gogh a century after his death with Acute Intermittent Porphyria, which is a metabolic disorder, not a neurological disease [source: Browning].

Richard III Was an Evil Hunchback
Philippa Langley, originator of the Looking for Richard project, poses next to a facial reconstruction of King Richard III at a London news conference. The bones of the last English monarch to die in battle were found under a car park in 2012. © ANDREW WINNING/Reuters/Corbis

In William Shakespeare's classic play "Richard III," the bard conjured up one of the juiciest villains this side of the Joker. Not only was Shakespeare's Richard III a murderous usurper of the English throne — he smothered his two young nephews next in line for succession — but he was also a hunchback.

Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; (Richard III, Act I, Scene I)

Shakespeare's fictional take on the real-life king was borrowed heavily from quasi-historical accounts written by the Tudors, the rival dynasty that stole back the throne and killed off Richard III in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth [source: Richard III Society]. During his brief 26 months on the throne, Richard III proved a capable and just leader, but his subjects never really got over the whole "double child homicide" thing and his reputation was sealed as a colossal jerk [source: Jones].

But was he really a hunchback? After years of searching for Richard III's lost remains near the historical site of the Battle of Bosworth, his fully intact skeleton was miraculously discovered under a parking lot in 2012 [source: Richard III Society]. Richard III's spine was unmistakably curved, but further testing revealed that the cause was a bad case of scoliosis, rather than kyphosis, the medical term for having a hunchback [source: University of Leicester].

Columbus Was Trying to Prove Earth was Round
This painting shows Christopher Columbus landing on San Salvador (in what is now the Bahamas). Columbus thought he'd reached India. © Bettmann/CORBIS

As we all know, everyone in 15th-century Europe thought the world was flat except for one brave and brilliant Italian-born explorer with the inexplicably English name of Christopher Columbus. And as usual, we are all completely wrong.

Not only was a round Earth an accepted fact in Columbus' day, but the ancient Greeks were calculating the size of the spherical Earth back in the 3rd century B.C.E. [source: Stern]. Even better, every ancient sailor who navigated outside of his own bath tub knew that the constellations rose in the sky as you sailed south. And then there's the whole lunar eclipse phenomenon that shows Earth's unmistakably curved shadow.

Columbus wasn't trying to prove Earth was round when he set sail in 1492. He was trying to prove that sailing due west was the quickest way to get to the Far East and the treasured spice ports of India. Not only were his calculations fabulously wrong, but he and his crew would have surely died if they had not accidentally bumped into a cluster of Caribbean islands that Columbus believed to be coastal India. In fact, in all his voyages to the New World, he continued to think he had hit on some part of Asia [source: Royal Museums Greenwich].

One more Columbus factoid: Although Columbus did briefly set foot in Panama on his fourth westward expedition, he never landed anywhere on the North American mainland [source: Royal Museums Greenwich].

Napoleon Was Super-short
This political cartoon shows British Prime Minister William Pitt and Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte dividing up the globe, almost certainly after the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Note how much smaller Napoleon is depicted than Pitt. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Most of us know next to nothing about the French general and "emperor for life" Napoleon Bonaparte — a man whose military skill and political ambition made him one of the most powerful and feared figures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — other than the fact that he was one petite dude. Even today, we say that an overcompensating short guy has a "Napoleon complex."

For years, the history books listed Napoleon's official height as 5 feet, 2 inches (1.6 meters), indisputably in "shorty" territory. But that's because they mistakenly believed that a French "foot" was the same as an English foot.

When the measurements are properly converted, Napoleon stretches to a respectable 5 feet, 7 inches (1.7 meters). That's not going to get him an NBA contract, but it's 2 inches (5 centimeters) taller than former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and nearly a head above Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev [source: BBC News]. Somehow, "Medvedev complex" isn't as catchy.

Lincoln Fought the Civil War to End Slavery
This close-up of a mural, titled ‘'Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln' by William Edouard Scott, 1943, depicts Frederick Douglass (right) petitioning for the participation of African-Americans in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

What caused the Civil War? This is one of the thorniest questions in American history. But one thing is for sure: Abraham Lincoln did not declare war on the Confederate states to end the practice of slavery [source: Loewen]. He declared war because the Confederate states were attempting to secede and he wanted to save a unified USA.

Why did the Confederate states want to secede from the Union? Well, slavery for one thing. Wait ... didn't we just say the Civil War wasn't about slavery? No, we said that Lincoln didn't fight the Civil War to end slavery. The South was sick of federal laws that restricted the movement of its slaves in the North [source: Lichtman]. The decision to secede from the Union was to free itself of federal interference in the slave trade.

Let's let Lincoln himself explain his motivation for going to war, as written in a letter to the New York Tribune in 1862 [source: Loewen]:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

In his personal beliefs, of course, Lincoln was strongly antislavery. When he finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — three years into the war — it rallied the Northern forces around the abolitionist cause and gave the war effort a moral dimension. This is why most of us think the Civil War was always fought to end slavery, because that's exactly what it did.

Vikings Wore Horned Helmets
This is a real Viking helmet from the 7th century. Unfortunately, it is hornless. © Werner Forman/Werner Forman/Corbis

With most historical falsehoods, it's hard to pinpoint who exactly started the whole misinterpreted mess. But this one has a clear culprit: Professor Carl Emil Doepler, the costume designer for the very first production of Richard Wagner's epic opera cycle "Der Ring de Nibelungen" in 1876 [source: The Economist]. Thousands of stagings of "The Ring" cycle worldwide have made horns the de facto Viking helmet.

So what did real Viking helmets look like? Truth is, we're not too sure. Viking remains have been dug up across Scandinavia, but archaeologists have found only one helmet, a rounded iron cap with a nose guard, but nary a horn in sight. (It doesn't seem too practical to have a helmet with horns, since they could get tangled in tree branches). Doepler may have taken his inspiration from pre-Viking cultures in Northern Europe that used helmets with horns or antlers in religious rites [source: History.com]. Or you can blame Elmer Fudd.

Einstein Failed Math as a Student
Does it really seem plausible that Einsten would have failed math as a youth? Here he is, giving a lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1934. © Bettmann/CORBIS

This is a classic inspiration story for every kid who ever got a C- on a third-grade multiplication test. "You know who also struggled with numbers, Johnny? Albert Einstein!" Sure, and Michael Jordan was also cut from his high school basketball team. Wrong and wronger.

Yes, Albert Einstein was a late bloomer — he was slow to talk and socially awkward — and he didn't get the best grades in school. He even flunked the entrance exam to the Zurich polytechnic school [source: History.com]. But that's not because he couldn't do math. He passed the math section, but failed the botany, zoology and language requirements. By all accounts, little Al was an ingenious problem-solver who was simply bored to death by most subjects other than math.

The source of the "Einstein flunked math" myth is not clear. However, when shown the allegation in a 1935 "Ripley's Believe It or Not" column, Einstein replied, "I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus" [source: Isaacson].

Thomas Crapper Invented the Flush Toilet
This photograph of the worthy Mr. Crapper graces the cover of the 1902 catalogue of Thomas Crapper and Company, which sold all kinds of plumbing items and water closets. SSPL/Getty Images

Come on, this one HAS to be true! Even if it's not, can't we all just agree to continue saying that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet? This little pseudo-fact has been making fourth-graders giddy for centuries. While we're at it, let's start the rumor that the lollipop was invented by a Swiss woman named Ivana Lix, and the man who invented tar for sealing driveways was the Belgian Prince Philip de Cracken.

Yes, Thomas Crapper was a 19th-century plumber and manufacturer whose brand of "water closets" — gained widespread popularity in his native England. But no, Mr. Crapper did not invent the life-altering item that often bore his name. Flush toilets were already installed in finer households by the time young Crapper started his plumber apprenticeship as a child in the 1840s. And sadly for irony-lovers, the word crappe is a 13th-century word for waste, so it was likely in use for toilet-related matters before Mr. Crapper got into the business [source: Lienhard].

The true inventor of the flush toilet was likely Sir John Harington, a 16th-century English poet, translator, rogue and occasional inventor who installed one of his ingenious "loos" for Queen Elizabeth at her country palace in Surrey [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. If you ever wondered why toilets are called "johns," wonder no more [source: Levitz].

Newton Discovered Gravity When an Apple Fell on His Head
Contrary to popular belief (and this illustration), Sir Isaac Newton did not discover the theory of gravity after being bonked on the head by an apple. Andrew Howe/E+/Getty Images

Sir Isaac Newton is arguably the most influential and insanely original mathematician and physicist of all time. (Somewhere, he and Einstein are arm wrestling for the title.) It turns out that the inventor of calculus and the fundamental laws of motion was also an inventive storyteller.

In 1666, the University of Cambridge was shut down due to a little thing called the plague, so Newton took a break from his studies and returned to his childhood home in Lincolnshire. Newton's first biographer, William Stukeley, related that in 1726 when the two of them were having a spot of tea under the shade of an apple tree, Newton reminisced that it was in a similar place 60 years earlier that "the notion of gravitation came into his mind."

Why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter [source: Connor].

That's a bushel load of mind-blowing insight from one apple, but that's the story that Newton told and retold over the course of his life to friends and colleagues. As with most good stories (and good storytellers), the tale grew more colorful with each retelling, but never did it say anything about an apple literally plunking Newton on the head. For all know, it could have been a fig.


Meet Talos, the Killer Robot From Ancient Greek Mythology

Meet Talos, the Killer Robot From Ancient Greek Mythology

The ancient Greeks have been warning us about the rise and fall of technology as far back as Talos, the man of bronze. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.

Author's Note: 10 False History Facts Everyone Knows

I'm not going to embarrass myself by admitting how many of these false facts I believed to be true before researching this article, but I'll give you a hint: it starts with an "n" and rhymes with "fine." In my defense, a few of these falsehoods still have their defenders, like the arguments over the true cause of the Civil War, or the controversy over van Gogh's ear. The upside of feeling tragically dense, of course, is the ability to turn around and act like an obnoxious know-it-all to friends and family. Just ask my wife and children!

Related Articles


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  • BBC News. "Sarkozy height row grips France." Sept. 8, 2009. (April 25, 2014) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8243486.stm
  • Browning, Frank. "Who Really Cut Off van Gogh's Ear?" NPR. May 10, 2009. (April 25, 2014) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103990820
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