When the Black Plague devastated Europe in the 14th century, many people assumed it was caused by witchcraft. And cats, with their glowing eyes and night-prowling habits, were thought to be tools of witches. Thousands of cats (and a lot of women thought to be witches) were slaughtered. Scientists later determined that the plague was transmitted by fleas that lived on rats. Had all those cats not been slaughtered, they might have been alive to kill all those rats, which could have vastly reduced the death toll of approximately 30 million.
The Untalented Mr. Ripley
Colonel James Ripley, chief of U.S. Army Ordnance in the Civil War, outfitted Union troops with short-range “smoothbore” rifles that dated to the War of 1812. He declined to buy the more modern, long-range Enfield rifles on the grounds that they were too expensive and made in England, whom Ripley still hated fiercely, even 50 years after the War of 1812. But Enfield found a buyer: the Confederate army. At the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, the Confederacy devastated the Union troops and suffered a third fewer casualties because their Enfield rifles could hit targets at 800 yards, compared to the Ripley’s 500- yard guns.
In the 1450s, the gunsmith Urban of Hungary crafted “the Basilic,” the largest cannon ever built. The 19-ton behemoth required 100 men to move and could shoot a 1,200-pound cannonball over a mile. Urban tried to sell the Basilic to Byzantine emperor Constantine XI, but Constantine turned it down on grounds that the cannon was too expensive. So Urban sold it to Ottoman Turk leader Sultan Mehmed II, who used the cannon to blow down the walls of Constantinople in 1453 and take over the city.