The assassination of Franz Ferdinand (Archduke of Austria-Hungary) by a Bosnian Serb nationalist led to World War I. This devastated Germany so much that it gave Adolf Hitler the opportunity to gain popular support, which led to World War II. Also, the Bosnian assassin got his opportunity because Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn, and struck while the driver paused to get his bearings.
And the assassination would not have taken place if not for a chain of events. Previous attempts had injured members of the Archduke's party. He was on his way to visit them in the hospital when the assassin just happened to be having a sandwich as the motorcade drove by and had to stop to get their bearings.
The whole assassination was a comedy of errors. Of the group involved in the plot, most of them didn't even do a single thing as the motorcade drove past them. Cabrinovic, the young man who threw the bomb/grenade at the Archduke's car, was the only one to actually take action before Princip.
One of the Archduke's staffers had taken up a position on the running board of the automobile on the Archduke's side precisely to provide a human shield if anyone else tried to kill Franz Ferdinand. It was a perfectly good idea, except that Gavrilo Princip attacked from the other side of the vehicle.
Adding insult to injury, the Archduke, at least as it seems, wore a primitive form of bulletproof vest (multiple layers of tightly-woven silk on a metal wire frame) under his uniform, perfectly able to withstand the weak .380 ACP bullet. To no avail, as the bullet struck him in the neck, above the vest, flying downwards.
Duchess Sophie's (Franz Ferdinand's wife) death was a completely avoidable tragedy. The Archduke actually gave instructions for her to be taken back to the hotel where they were staying while he drove on to see the people who had been wounded in the bomb attack, but she refused to leave her husband's side as long as he chose to risk himself in public. Gavrilo Princip himself testified at his trial that he had never intended to shoot the Duchess; in fact, he wasn't even looking to see where he was aiming when he fired the fatal shot (which was intended either for the Archduke or for General Potoriek, the military governor of Bosnia).
Counter to this, the "Mad Monk" Rasputin wielded great influence with the Tsar at the time, and had both the desire (as explained in his writings) and the means to persuade him not to join in the growing conflict (on the side of Serbia, which was facing reprisals from Austro-Hungary). But Rasputin was not able to hurry to the Tsar's side because he was recovering from being stabbed by another monk, a rival for influence in the tiny monastic sect that they belonged to. If Russia hadn't entered WWI due to Rasputin's intervention... at the very least, Russia wouldn't have destroyed its economy trying to fight the war, the Tsar wouldn't have abdicated, and there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution. Added to that, however, Imperial Germany wouldn't have been able to declare war on Russia in support of Austria-Hungary, leaving Great Britain with little reason to get involved either. With major players sitting it out, the whole thing could have finished up as Austria-Hungary stomping on Serbia for a bit, with the rest of Europe issuing firmly-worded declarations.
Without Germany declaring war on Russia, the chances of a Bolshevik revolution would be slim: Lenin was stuck in Switzerland prior to the war and got carried to Russia (in a sealed train lest he escape into Germany) as a bid to force the Romanovs to withdraw from the war. And without the Bolsheviks, the Jews and Communists would never have been mixed in popular thought, meaning the latter's talk of exterminating millions of people could not have been used to fuel the antisemitism the Nazis used to rise to power — which means that millions of lives might have been saved if Lenin hadn't crossed somebody's mind. On another note, had Wilhelm II not been talked out of unrestricted submarine warfare early in the war for fear America would enter (despite the fact that the US was incapable of doing anything meaningful for some time), Britain very well could've been forced to surrender.
Naturally, it's hard to say for certain, but the Second World War saw four of five German casualties fighting the Soviet Union—and it wasn't the first German invasion of Eurasia since 1900, so it could have happened regardless. The Soviet Union, with its technocratic (by the standards of the time) leadership and complete absorption in rapid industrialization, had an infinitely better infrastructural and industrial base to fight a western invasion than the 20th century Romanov Monarchy and its attempts at industrialization. And with two, three, or four times as many German soldiers on the western front...
On the other hand though, this might just be an In Spite of a Nail situation; we can't say for sure one way or the other of course, since we can only see one reality at a time. The entangling alliances throughout Europe existed long before Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn. So did the anti-monarchist sentiment in Russia. Given the conditions as of 1900, at least one devastating war in Europe and/or a communist revolution seemed almost inevitable.
Inevitable is a good way to put it, but it could have easily been very different.
Several crises in the decade or so previous to June 28, 1914 came very close to touching off a major European war: e.g., the Dogger Bank Incident, Fashoda, the Moroccan crisis of 1911, the original Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. In those years, Europe was a powderkeg just waiting for the proper spark.
During the battle of Marcoing, a wounded German soldier walked into Pvt. Henry Tandey's line of fire, but he couldn't bring himself to shoot the man, so he let him go. That soldier was later found out to be Adolf Hitler.
In actuallity, this is false. The only source for this is Hitler himself, while records show that he was nowhere near that battle, as his regiment was not in that sector. There are, however, real instinces of this trope, such as:
Hitler was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His wounds could easily have been fatal - if his thigh wound had cut his femoral artery, for example.
Hitler's dugout was hit by an artillery shell, killing his entire platoon. Hitler was spared because he was chasing his pet dog to hit it for not sitting. His dog also died.
Hitler was temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack. He could have died from the gas, or been permanently blinded or suffered permanent respritory impairments from the gas, either of which would have made it difficult or outright impossible to take over Germany.
In 1919, Hitler was nearly beaten to death by a group of irate veterans who didn't like his politics. He was saved by local authorities, but they arrived barely in time.
In 1907 and 1908, Adolf Hitler was denied admission to the academy of fine arts in Vienna. He remained in Vienna, living in poverty, until finally giving up his career as a painter. Had he been accepted, he would probably have spent the rest of his life as an artist, and World War II would probably have never happened.
World War II was full of events that could have changed history if their outcomes had been different, but arguably the biggest one happened before the war even started: The Battle of Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia, the decisive battle in the Soviet-Japanese border wars, where Zhukov won using the blitzkrieg tactics before the Germans did (shame that the Soviets wouldn't use it for a while). Believing that the strength of Zhukov's forces was a standard average of the whole Red Army (while in reality Zhukov brought the best of the best with him) the Japanese High Command abandoned the North Strike Group Plan on Russia and instead concentrated on the South Strike Group plan attack on southeastern Asia, which led to Pearl Harbor. And during the German invasion of Russia, the Japanese said they would help only if the Germans would cut off the Russian reinforcements by taking over cities on the Volga river, which included Stalingrad. Knowing that the Japanese wouldn't attack, the Russians transfered their forces from Siberia to fight with Germans, and the rest is history.
A smaller event occurred during D-Day after the Ox & Bucks glider troops had captured what became known as "Pegasus Bridge". A sergeant managed to destroy a German tank that was heading for the bridge with a PIAT shot, blocking a key junction and forcing the other tank to retreat, as well as creating a big fireworks show via the ammo cooking off that gave lost paratroopers their bearings and convincing everyone there was a major battle taking place, causing the Germans to believe the forces were much larger there than they were. In his book on the matter, Stephen Ambrose argues that had he missed, it might have led to the loss of the 6th Airborne Division or even the failure of Operation Overlord.
Operation Barbarossa was a whole string of these. If Hitler hadn't diverted AGCentre's panzers south, he could probably have taken Moscow; if he'd kept them down there, he could well have taken the oil fields, which might also have been achieved if he hadn't tried to take Stalingrad at the same time (or alternatively he could have pushed on Stalingrad). If he hadn't been so pig-headed, he might have ordered a break-out of the Stalingrad divisions before the Russians managed to properly encircle them.
It's unclear whether this is the trope, or Russia was simply too big a piece for Hitler to chew. Besides, if Hitler didn't divert the AGC south, he would have been advancing to Moscow with a million Soviet soldiers in his rear. The forces in the north were giving him enough trouble as it was.
Some historians are considering that the biggest "nail" in Barbarossa was Greece. Specifically, had Mussolini won the Greco-Italian war in 1940, the Wehrmacht would not have had to roll through Yugoslavia cleaning up Mussolini's mess, allowing for an earlier start to Barbarossa.
By 1939, Nazi Germany had all the necessary means to create an atomic bomb: plutonium, heavy water and most importantly a nuclear research program with top scientists led by none other than Werner Heisenberg (who at one point was marked for assassination by the US in case he ever gave any indication he was working on nuclear weapons). So why didn't they have the bomb? Because Heisenberg, not knowing much about bombs, grossly overestimated the amount of uranium needed to create a bomb and came to the conclusion it would take several TONS. Though he would later claim he was deliberately misleading the Nazis, hidden microphone recordings show that he was indeed utterly shocked at the fact that the Americans had the bomb, which he had deemed completely impossible.
Another point on Heisenberg: he actually had all the means necessary, but couldn't get past several technical details that were needed to make a fully functioning atomic bomb. That is because he had an academic, theoretical background; what was needed was someone who had some technical knowledge on how to skip those details. There were plenty of polytechnics graduates around, but Heisenberg - having already got a Nobel Prize while in his early thirties - dismissed all their opinions and suggestions.
Another Nail was antisemitism, not just from the Nazis but also from the German scientific community itself. Long before the Nazis came to power, German physicists had already started rejecting scientific ideas from foreign and Jewish origin in favor of "German Physics". Had Germany welcomed Jews instead of persecuting them, they would have had the bomb. Oppenheimer and Einstein would have joined the Germans and they, along with Heisenberg would have given Germany the power to conquer the entire planet. So Germany's/Hitler's bigotry was the nail that screwed them.
The Battle of Midway found its nail when several planes got lost and then found the Japanese carriers in the worst possible situation (for the Japanese), with their cover planes at very low altitudes and the planes on the carriers being refueled and rearmed. Three dive-bombings later, the pride of the Japanese fleet exploded and sunk.
The assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague could happen only by an unexplained stroke of bad luck, as he had already seen the Czech assassins trying to shoot at him with a crappy Sten gun which jammed and shouted to his driver-bodyguard to speed up. As the driver did not understand at first the order and slowed the car down, the assassins could drop the bomb they carried as a secondary weapon, fight back with submachine gun and pistol and escape unscathed (not for long). Had the plot failed, Heydrich would have survived for sure, and his brilliance in running the German secret services might have changed the outcome of the war.
Heydrich's last words: "The world is just a barrel-organ which the Lord God turns Himself / We all have to dance to the tune which is already on the drum."
Ludendorff Bridge, if the demolition team would have gotten the right explosives. The only significant bridge left over the Rhine, without it's capture things may have gone differently.
One aspect often ignored in questions of Hitler's potential rise to power regarding the Second World War would be what might happen in regards to Japan. The Pacific Campaign in World War 2 occurred largely separate from the European campaigns, with the Japanese receiving very little aid from Germany or Italy. The possibility exists that had Germany not launched the Second World War or the Nazis had never come to power in the first place, there would have still been a major war in the Pacific. Of course, from that nail, we can ask a series of "What If?" questions breaking off from that. What would that war have been like? With the full focus of the European and American war capability aimed at Japan, might the war have ended sooner? Would it have ended in the complete restructuring of Japan, or would it have ended in status quo ante bellum? Where would the Soviet Union be in this? Perhaps the most important of these questions lies in regard to the role of nuclear weapons. The development of the American atomic weapon was spurred on largely in response to a German threat for their potential to develop a similar weapon, though it was ultimately used only on Japan. Would the atomic bomb had even been invented in this alternate history?
Other Military and Political
The Norman Conquest of England had the weather as one of its nails. William of Normandy's invasion fleet was assembled and ready to launch by August of 1066, but was delayed by unfavorable winds until late September. Between August and September the Saxon king Harold Godwinson faced two crises that depleted his forces: the term of his conscripted troops (who were mostly farmers and needed to tend to their harvests) came to an end, and Harald Hardrada of Norway invaded England from the North. By the time William's fleet reached England, Harold Godwinson's army had been reduced to a fraction of its former strength. Had the weather cooperated and William had been able to launch his fleet earlier, he would have faced Harold at full strength. The Battle of Hastings was by no means a guaranteed victory for the Normans even with Harold's forces in the state they were. Had William faced Harold at the strength he had in August, he would likely have been soundly defeated, and the Norman Conquest would never have taken place.
Even if the events had played out as they did in history, Harold still had the upper hand at Hastings. His army was positioned on a hill and engaged the Normans almost literally right off the boat. Their shield wall was formidable, and held after repeated Norman assaults (in one instance, William nearly died). Unfortunately for Harold, the Normans roped the Saxons into advancing down the hill, due to the king being far from that area of the battlefield and subordinate commanders dying in the fighting. Had order been maintained in Harold's army, he would have likely been victorious.
And without Benedict Arnold's efforts in winning the Battle of Saratoga, many historians believe the war would've taken a turn for the worse. Conversely, had Arnold had been told why he was removed from his position as military governor of Philadelphia or been offered the command Washington wanted him for earlier he might have remained loyal and become one of the greatest American heroes.
The war could have been lost had the Hessian commander at the Delaware prepared a proper defense. Washington's crossing, which was a turning point because of the massive moral boost it gave to the demoralised and disillusioned Continental Army, was discovered by British spies. When informed of the attack, the Hessian commander instead chose to play cards. He was killed in the attack. Had Washington's crossing failed, the Continental Army likely would have lost its will to fight and the war coming to a halt.
As per Harry Turtledove, the entire outcome of the American Civil War could have gone differently if some random Union scout hadn't found a lost copy of Robert E Lee's Special Order 191: the Maryland invasion plan.note The plans were found in a used Cigar box that the soldier had just happened to pick up, possibly with the hope that it still contained cigars. The North had a greater manufacturing capacity and a larger population of able-bodied men, which meant that it could field a larger, better-equipped army than the South. The only real chance the Confederacy had to win the war was to bring it to a swift and decisive conclusion before the indecisive Union commanders could get their acts together, which may well have happened if Confederate forces had captured Maryland and got within striking distance of Washington. With the interception of the battle plans, the Union now had detailed knowledge of Confederate military strength and planned maneuvers, and was able to halt the invasion at Antietam. Although the war dragged on for another few years afterwards, the Confederacy never regained the momentum they had at the outset and eventually lost by sheer attrition.
As it was, Union General George McClellan still didn't make the fullest possible use of this crucial intel and waited 18 hours before deploying. Although the Battle of Antietam was a turning point in the war, it was essentially a glorified standoff without a clear victor. Had McClellan deployed right away, he could have crushed Lee's forces and ended the war then and there. The only good thing that really came out of that bloody affair was that it gave President Abraham Lincoln a victory to announce his Emancipation Proclamation without looking like he was desperate.
An inverted way to look at it would be, with Lee's army destroyed, the Confederacy might have abruptly collapsed and saved the U.S. (and the South in particular) years of bloodshed; the second two years of the war were far bloodier than the first two for all concerned. To wit, 18% of Southern males would eventually die in the war, with a much larger percentage wounded or maimed, and the region as a whole dealt a blow that even to this day is still recovering from.
The Greco-Turkish War might have been very different if the previous Greek head of state had not died from an infected monkey bite in the act of defending his dog. This war was one of the major conflicts leading to the formation of the Republic of Turkey.
The Kennedy assassination and the murder of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald himself both resulted from an unlikely chain of lost nails.
The assassination of JFK nearly happened many years earlier, when he was still president elect. A disturbed person had planned to kill JFK and his father Joseph as they left for mass with a makeshift car bomb, but didn't want to do so while the would-be victim's wife was present, and hence aborted his plan.
In 1961, just three days after Kennedy's inauguration, a B-52 armed with a hydrogen bomb broke apart over North Carolina. Centrifugal forces in the cockpit pulled a lanyard which released the bomb, activating five of its six arming stages. Only a single arm/safe switch, still set to "safe", kept the bomb from detonating over North Carolina.
In 1979, at the American NORAD aerospace warning control center, a technician stuck a training tape depicting a full nuclear exchange with the Soviets into the main computer without remembering to hit the training button. As a result, NORAD interpreted World War III from within its own computers. Within a few minutes, American aircraft were loaded with nuclear weapons and launched, and missiles were prepared for a full retaliatory strike. For want a switch, the world might have been lost?
In 1980, during a routine maintenance procedure at a launch complex near Damascus, Arkansas, a worker dropped a nine-pound tool into a silo and pierced the skin of a Titan II ballistic missle, allowing the rocket fuel to leak and ignite. Had the Titan's thermonuclear warhead (600 times more powerful than Hiroshima) detonated, the result would have changed the entire course of history: Arkansas would have become a radioactive wasteland; Bill Clinton (who was governor of Arkansas) and Walter Mondale (who was in Arkansas when the incident happened) would likely have been killed; and of course, an accidental war could have started.
On September 26, 1983, a Soviet early warning station detected 5 inbound ICBMs. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the man in charge of the station, decided it was a false alarm and did not report it to his superiors. He surmised that no one would launch just five ICBM's as a first strike... they'd launch EVERYTHING.
Actually, his superiors DID know about the supposed launches, and they begged Petrov to retaliate. He refused.
It has been said that one of the reasons the British army lost the battle of Isandlwana against the Zulus in 1879 was not for the want of a nail, but the want of screwdrivers. The British soldiers were allegedly unable to unscrew and open the boxes containing ammunition fast enough during the battle and thus had to face the Zulu impis in close combat, in which the British were severely disadvantaged. It should be noted that this explanation for the defeat has been questioned by at least some modern military historians.
World War II would certainly have been different had Giuseppe Zangara been able to find a solid chair. The Italian immigrant fired shots at Franklin D. Roosevelt while he was giving a speech in Miami on February 15th, 1933, shortly after being elected (Inauguration Day was the first Monday in March back then). However, the short Zangara had to stand on a chair to get a clear shot over the crowd, and his unsteady perch meant that his shots hit five people, but not FDR (he did fatally wound Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago, who was sitting right next to the President-Elect). Turns out that Teddy isn't the only one Immune to Bullets.
Second restoration attempt of Charles I in Hungary in 1921 may be counted as a string of these. The telegraph containing the key phrase indicating date of arrival of the king was intercepted with any other telegraphs due to Hungarian police trying to cut communication means used by smugglers, completely oblivious that Charles is communicating with his loyal conspirators via this means. Therefore, trains prepared to take loyalist troops to Budapest quickly were loaned to farmers who used it to transport beeds harvest. Nothing was lost, however. If the troops started immediately, they would have probably take Budapest with little to no resistance. Instead, King and his loyalist lost two days with not only reassemling the trains, but endless tactics and strategy meetings and swearing in new soldiers. This gave Horthy time to whip up at least semblance of militia from Budapest students. Even then, King could have won, if he didn´t fight the only battle defensively. He was counting on Budapest garrison to actually join his cause on the grounds of the commander being staunch loyalist. This man, however, was gravely injured the day before battle and was replaced with a neutral officer, while Charles was not aware of this. His army therefore fought very passively and finally the Budapest garrison reluctantly joined defense of Budapest. Even then, with just a little more aggresivity, the battle could have been won, because the garrison was not really fond of Horthy. However, Charles panicked and ordered his troops troops to surrender, losing the battle and the war.
The Pristina Airpoint incident would have escalated further in a greater conflict (such as World War III) if it wasn't for a single British officer that refused to carry out an order to storm into an airport.note Said British officier will later become a musician later in his life Luckily, his commanding officier backed him up and lampshaded it a bit: ""I'm not going to start the Third World War for you."
There were two very serious blows to the Carter Presidency that may have been corrected had circumstances been different.
The infamous "Crisis of Confidence" speech, which became known as the "malaise" speech (which isn't even used in the speech), damaged Carter's presidency, as did trying to fire all of his cabinet members. It was not, however, the original speech he intended to give. He planned to give a speech merely on energy on July 4th, but by then his approval ratings were so low, he chose to alter his speech in an attempt to gain the attention of America. One wonders if he merely gave a speech on energy, and then fired his energy secretary.
Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran, was severely affected by small scale wind storms, which resulted in both a shortages of oil and the disuse of several helicopters, both of which caused the accident that stopped the mission. One wonders if they followed the advice of the Canadian authorities and waited a day.
Jimmy Carter was a strong supporter of human rights, yet did not condemn the shah for his control of Iran, rather for being a stable nation in a troubled region. Had he not been so supportive, could the hostage crisis been prevented? Possibly, but the fact is America had been pro-shah since the fifties, and Carter has simply followed the actions of his predecessors. So it was probably unavoidable.
This phenomenon is very much Truth in Television, as examples can be found in mundanity every day. Think of the people who wouldn't have been born if not for a defective condom, all the friends or lovers who only met thanks to their class seating arrangements, how different the world might be had certain inventors/scientists/artists/politicians chosen other career paths, et cetera. The universe is a funny thing.
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to leave the moon, Aldrin accidentally broke a circuit breaker that was necessary to fire the lander engine. Fortunately, they were able to activate the engine using a felt tip pen instead. Although the Lunar circuitry could have been modified to make the engine fire, it's possible that without the pen, mankind's first steps on the moon would have ended in death.
Despite having multiple redundant systems and some of the most stringent inspection and safety standards in the world, almost all airline crashes can be distilled down to this trope.
United Airlines Flight 232 in 1989 crashed because of a microscopic, metal-fatigue induced, hair-line crack in the compressor fan disc of its #2 engine. This crack caused the compressor fan to fail catastrophically, causing shrapnel to sever ALL THREE hydraulic system lines, causing complete loss of flight controls, causing the plane to crash and 111 passengers to lose their lives.
The single crack itself was traced to a factory defect due to impurities in the process of making the fan disc itself. What eventually happened there is known as a "hard-alpha inclusion", which fell out during final machining, leaving a miniscule cavity with microscopic cracks on the edges. It didn't help that United Airlines' maintenance teams missed this crack during inspection procedures when they used a special dye to detect such cracks and simply ignored it when it was first seen.
All three hydraulic lines ran through the same narrow area, though. Three lines, but a single point of failure.
AeroPeru Flight 603 took off with a small piece of tape covering an air pressure sensor (it had been put there to protect the sensor while the plane was cleaned). This prevented the sensor's operation, leading to the altitude and airspeed data to become confusing. This prompted the flight computer to begin issuing contradictory warning messages. This led to the crew becoming confused and disoriented. The end result was a CFIT* controlled flight into terrain (the crew piloted the aircraft into the ocean, thinking they were at several thousand feet altitude when actually they were skimming the waves). All 70 people on board died due to a piece of tape.
The proper way to look at it is that not despite, but because of stringent inspection and safety standards all airline crashes come down to this trope. Single isolated failures and mistakes have mostly been eliminated as cause of accidents.
What caused the sole fatal crash of a Concorde? A relatively small (17.1 x 1.1 in) piece of metal deposited on the runway by a DC-10 that had used the runway minutes earlier blew a tire.
One day in late March, 1979, American Airlines maintenance crews were swapping out an engine on a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, registration number N 110 AA. They used a forklift to remove the engine, a process not approved by McDonnell-Douglas, but used anyways by American Airlines and Continental Airlines. During the procedure, a small dent was made in the attachment assembly holding the engine. While it wasn't enough to cause an immediate failure, an unseen fatigue crack grew from that dent. On May 25, 1979, moments after American Airlines Flight 191 took off from Chicago O'Hare International Airport, this crack caused the attached engine to separate from the left wing. The plane then crashed into a trailer park, killing all 258 passengers and 13 crew on board, and two people on the ground. 35 years later, Flight 191 is still the deadliest plane crash in U.S. aviation historynote The September 11, 2001 attacks killed more people (2,973 vs. 273), but those aircraft were deliberately hijacked.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 could have easily been averted if not for a single dead battery in the emergency shut-off valve.
The Titanic was probably one of the very few disasters that may have been prevented if someone did nothing. Although plenty has been said about lifeboats, speed, and paying attention to reports, what actually doomed the Titanic was the iceberg scraping across the side of the ship, rendering the water-tight compartments useless. If the FO had merely ordered reversed/stopped engines, or even just maintained speed without changing course, the Titanic would've rammed the iceberg head-on. This would've resulted in some flooding, certainly, but only of the first couple compartments, and the ship would've remained afloat.
There was a closer ship, the SS Californian, but the radio operator had gone to bed and didn't hear the distress signal. And the crew thought the flares were just fireworks... Wow, there were a lot of nails that could have salvaged this one.
And, the criticism of the press of the world notwithstanding, it was too small and too slow to have been of much good anyway. Its few lifeboats could have been used to pick up survivors struggling in the water...but then again, many of Titanic's boats were half-full and still did not pick up survivors.
In truth, ramming the iceberg would almost certainly cause far more damage and cause the Titanic to sink much faster than it actually did. There were more nails that could have changed the outcome, such as the former First Officer accidentally packing away the key to a locker that contained the lookout's binoculars, or the Olympic being hit by a Navy vessel and requiring the use of the Titanic's dry dock spot for repairs, which caused the Titanic's maiden voyage to be moved to an earlier date, during the North Atlantic spring thaw, which caused an unusual number of icebergs in that area (and forced them to take a longer southerly route to avoid them), or the fire in the coal bunker in approximately the spot where the iceberg hit. The fire caused the metal to warp and weaken, which likely increased the extent of the damage.
For three straight years the Los Angeles Lakers dominated the NBA, winning its championship from 2000 to 2002. Shaquille O'Neal, its leader and driving force, injured his toe during the season. His injury led to the Lakers losing several games and the home court advantage during the playoffs, each playoff series decided by a best of seven margin. As a result the San Antonio Spurs got the home court advantage and by the time the Lakers started getting back to their winning ways, it was too late, and they lost the series 4-2. All this due to an injured toe. For want of a toenail?
In light of Ray Allen's 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Rick Reilly wrote a column mentioning quite a few Sports "nails"; though he also commits a fallicy presuming that the achievements earned in one configuration necessarily carry over with the nail when said achievements are realized years after the "nail" (applies to half of said "nails").
In one of Lewis Lovhaug's videos, he explains because of paranoia over the Columbine school shootings, he was suspended from school over something he said. His parents blamed the school and allowed him to treat his suspension as a vacation rather than a punishment, so he got an opportunity to watch Sailor Moon (figuring that if he was going to heckle his brother over it, he should know if it was worth mocking). This led him to becoming a fan of anime and eventually creating Atop the Fourth Wall - without the suspension "Linkara" wouldn't exist!
Also a Professional Wrestling example, but since it was a major part of real life, it belongs better here. At a live event at Madison Square Garden in May 1996, The Kliq (Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall) all hugged each other in front of the audience in what became known as the "Curtain Call". While it was not a problem for Michaels and Hall to hug (as both were faces), when Triple H and Nash joined in the hug, this scandalized the WWF (because both were heels), and this was seen as breaking the suspension of disbelief. While Michaels was not reprimanded because he was the WWF Champion, and Nash and Hall were leaving to go to rival WCW, this left Triple H as the sole member to take the blame. He was demoted from being a championship contender to the mid-card, and while originally booked to be in the finals at that year's King of the Ring, the MSG incident prevented that. Who took his place, and the push that went with it? Why, none other than "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, then a former WCW midcarder and current WWF midcarder, who went on to win the KOTR, jumpstart the Attitude Era, and help the WWF win over WCW in the Monday Night Wars. If the MSG incident had never taken place, then who knows what the state of the professional wrestling business would be today?
The butterfly effect works like this, except vastly more extreme, and with worse story-telling. If you move one atom a Planck length to the side, it will move the atom it hits slightly more, growing exponentially until the weather patterns change completely. In addition, brownian motion (the motion of atoms bouncing off of each other) will change very quickly, which will change which sperm gets to the egg in every conception, meaning that every person who is born from then on will be different.
An urban legend tells of a young man out to make his fortune in the city. He applies for a job in a brothel as a bookkeeper, but is turned away when he reveals that he can't read or write. The madam takes pity on him though, and gives him a couple of apples for his lunch. But instead of eating then, he sells them. He then manages to get a good deal on some more apples, sell those at a profit, and repeats the process...until eventually he owns his own fruit stand, then his own grocery store, then finally his own produce company. In a few years he's the biggest produce magnate in the country and is voted Businessman of the Year. When interviewed on the national news, the interviewer is shocked to discover that the man is still illiterate. The interviewer asks him if he did all that without being able to read or write, what could he have accomplished if he was literate? The man considers the question for a moment, then cheerfully responds "Well, I guess I would've been a bookkeeper in a whorehouse!"
There are various versions of this story floating around- oddly enough, in another he wants to be a church warden.
Socrates could easily have been killed while serving in the Athenian military. Given his foundational importance to Western philosophy, his death (most likely at Delium in 424 BC, the deadliest battle he fought in) prior to his career as a philosopher would have led to a western world practically unrecognizable - Socrates was the mentor of Plato and Xenophon; Plato was the mentor of Aristotle; Aristotle a tutor of Alexander the Great... and by this point, the nail is roughly the size of the Mediterranean...
The career of Ernest Rutherford, the 'father of nuclear physics', nearly didn't happen. In 1895, he came second place for a scholarship to Cambridge - and there was only one scholarship. But the man who it was awarded to decided to stay in New Zealand and get married. Rutherford went to Cambridge in his place, and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (in 1908), to discover both the proton and radioactive half-life, and to invent spectroscopy. He was the foremost experimental physicist of the twentieth century, which is pretty good for a guy who died in 1937.
Leonard Cohen saved Roger Ebert's life. Here's how: Ebert was in the hospital for cancer treatment, and it looked like the surgery had been a success. He and his wife were getting ready to leave, but Cohen's song "I'm Your Man" starting playing on his iPod and Ebert chose to linger for a bit so he could listen to his song. Just after it ended, though, his cartoid artery burst and Ebert collapsed in the room. Lucky for him, he was already in the hospital, so his life was saved. Had he not waited to listen to Cohen, Ebert would have been in a car bleeding profusely, with a much slimmer chance of reaching his doctors again.
Ever wonder why only the American League uses the Designated Hitter Rule and not the National League? It's all because of a fishing trip. On August 13, 1980 the National League gathered representatives from all 12 clubs in order to call a vote on the matter. The representative from the Philadelphia Phillies, Team Vice President Bill Giles, was unsure of how Team Owner, Ruly Carpenter, wanted him to vote and was unable to contact Carpenter because he was out fishing, so he abstained. The representative for the Pittsburgh Pirates, General Manager Harding Peterson, had been instructed to vote whatever way the Phillies had, and also abstained. With the abstention of a third club, the Houston Astros, this left the vote at 5 nae, 4 yea, and 3 abstentions. Giles later found out that Carpenter had been in favor of the DH, but by that time the leading proponent of an National League DH, John Clairborne, had been fired by the St. Louis Cardinals.
William Jennens was a very old, extremely rich man with various distant relations but no clear heir. In 1798, at the age of 96 or 97note his precise date of birth is unknown, he finally decided to make a will. He went to see his solicitor to execute it, and was about to sign it when he realised he'd left his spectacles at home. Never mind, he thought, he'd sign it when he got home. He went home, but before had a chance to sign the will, he died. Being unsigned, the will was invalid. There being no will, his relations went to court to fight over his vast wealth. The case lasted a hundred and seventeen years, finally collapsing unresolved in 1915 because his estate ran out of money - every penny of it had gone on lawyers' fees. All because he left his glasses at home.
In 1921, a young physician by the name of Frederick Banting came to the University of Toronto for a research gig. His supervisor lent him two research assistants, but Banting only needed one assistant, so the two (Charles Best and Clark Noble) flipped a coin for the position. Best won the flip and proceeded to help Banting discover insulin (an achievement that won Best international fame and 1/4 of the Nobel Prize money). Clark Noble died in 1978, his most famous achievement being inventing a (never commercially used) process to extract insulin from fish.
Clark Noble is infamous in the history of Canadian science as the man who missed two "sure" shots at eternal fame and glory due to pure dumb luck. The first one was his brush with insulin. The second was in 1954, when his collegues mailed him some leaves from Madagascar, however, Noble's lab did not possess the correct equipment for analyzing them so he passed the leaves to his colleagues Charles Beer and Robert Noble. They managed to extract Vinblastine from the leaves and turned it into one of the most widely drugs used chemotherapy.
One Red Paperclip, which details how a blogger got an entire two-story house from a series of trades which all started with a simple red paperclip.
Luis Gonzales III narrowly avoided a (false) rape, torture, and kidnapping claim made by his ex-girlfriend. Why? Because he stopped to buy a bagel, which provided him with an alibi.
In 1980, John Lennon was making his comeback after a 5-year hiatus with his album Double Fantasy. On December 8, after a long day at the studio, Lennon decided to go home instead of dining out. But he and Yoko Ono decided to get out on 72nd Street in New York City instead of having his limo drive to the more secure courtyard at the Dakota apartment building. As he was heading in, Mark David Chapman, a fan Lennon signed an autograph for earlier that day, walked up and shot Lennon to death.
On February 2, 1959, Waylon Jennings lost a coin toss to Buddy Holly for an airplane seat, so he had to take a bus to the next gig while Holly took the plane. The next day, Holly, along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, died when the plane crashed, now dubbed "The Day the Music Died".
September 11, 2001 might have been vastly different had the weather been much more unfavorable. In the days leading up to that fateful day, Hurricane Erin was bearing down on the East Coast. However, before the Hurricane made landfall (in New York City, to be exact), a cold front pushed through, sending the Hurricane back into open seas. Had the Hurricane made landfall, the terrorists' plans would have been washed out.
In 1962, shortly before he graduated from high school, George Lucas got into an auto accident where the cop who found him initially reported him as dead. He survived, but it was because his seat belt had failed. This accident inspired him to go to school to study film and become a director.