It can be mind-boggling to think of how many of history’s mis-steps and blunders could have been prevented if today’s mobile communication technology had been around. Communication failures have been one of the key causes of many conflicts and man-made disasters, making us wonder how different things might have been if we had today’s communication technology way back when.
Here are four of the most infamous historical communication breakdowns.
1. The Boston Tea Party
The British East India Company was struggling financially, and had a massive amount of tea they needed to unload. In an effort to incentivize the American colonies to buy the company’s tea, Great Britain passed the Tea Act of 1773, which in effect was what the colonies considered “taxation without representation.”
In response, the colonists dumped the company’s tea in Boston Harbor, setting the stage for the American revolution. If only there was mobile communication technology in the 18th century, Great Britain might have better understood the colonists feelings much sooner and responded in kind. They could have introduced messaging about the tax and asked for feedback on the impact it would have. Instead, they doubled-down on the their position with the passage of the Coercive Acts, sparking the Revolutionary War.
2. Battle of Marathon
Everyone knows that a marathon race is 26.2 miles, but not everyone knows how that came to be. The Greek myth goes that Philippides, a messenger, was sent from the Battle of Marathon to announce the Persians had been defeated. The problem was he ran the entire distance, and when he made it to the Greek assembly he was only able to say, “We are winners!” before collapsing to the floor and dying.
Poor Philippides could have been saved with a simple internal communications app letting his countrymen in the assembly know of Greece’s victory. Then again, we wouldn’t have what we know as a marathon today, so Philippides’ sacrifice was more significant than he’ll ever know.
3. The Fall of Rome
The Byzantines held the safe ground in Constantinople, surrounded by secure walls protecting their city. Even though the Ottoman Turks had them outnumbered, they were still unlikely to take the city successfully. However, the Byzantines had made a tragic communication failure: they left one of the gates to the city ajar, providing an opening for the Turks.
If only a commanding officer of the Byzantine army could have alerted an officer with a simple telephone call or chat message in a mobile team app, the Roman Empire might still be standing today.
4. The Mars Climate Orbiter
In late 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter in order to study the Martian climate. After traveling nearly 300 days, it was going to maneuver into Mars’ orbit to monitor the temperature, weather, and water of the planet.
The spacecraft was supposed to enter Mars’ orbit at an altitude of 226 km which is 226,000 meters, meters being the SI unit for distance. Using correct units is important. You’re about to see why. Entering at such an altitude should have given the Orbiter plenty of margin of error. The minimum altitude the spacecraft needed was just 80 km. Based on what NASA could piece together after they forever lost contact with our Orbiter, at the end of its journey, the Mars Climate Orbiter entered orbit 23 km below the minimum altitude, and promptly disintegrated.
How could NASA have miscalculated? The problem was that one piece of software spit out its results in pounds-seconds. The SI unit is Newton-seconds. Had there been clearer internal communication and goal alignment between the software provider and NASA, such a mundane unit conversion mistake could have been avoided, and the $300 million space mission might have succeeded.
While we’ll never know how different our world might be if better internal communication technology had been available, we can learn from these communication failures for ourselves. Don’t let your business be dragged down by inferior operational communications. A war may not hang in the balance, but the success of your company just might!