Change can be sparked by even the littlest things

Published 4:56 pm Friday, November 27, 2020

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This week, my friend sent me a link to an interesting article from about little things that ended up making a huge impact. I enjoyed learning some new trivia I hadn’t known about before (after extensively fact-checking the sources linked in the article). You really just never know how one small thing can make ripples in the universe and change life unexpectedly.

Here are a few of the most fascinating things I learned:

A tiny piece of tape is what foiled the Watergate burglary in 1972. The plan was for a handful of men to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters (at the Watergate complex, hence the name) and gather negative intelligence on Nixon’s opponents. The men perhaps would have gotten away with the crime were it not for nighttime security guard Frank Wills. During his rounds, he noticed a piece of tape on the latch of one of the doors to the building’s parking garage. He removed the tape, but when he returned later, someone had taped it again to prevent the door from locking. That’s when Wills decided to call the police and reported a burglary. The men were arrested, and the rest of the Watergate scandal unfolded from there, making a huge impact on politics for years to come.

Like many inventions, the pacemaker was created almost completely by accident. In 1956, Dr. Wilson Greatbatch was working on a device to record the sound of heart rhythms. When constructing the device, however, he added an incorrect electronic component. The result was a device which produced electronic pulses instead, and it sparked Greatbatch’s idea for a device which could help an unhealthy heart stay in rhythm. By 1960, the first patient had been implanted with a pacemaker, and now the device extends lives around the world. Greatbatch went on to patent more than 325 inventions over the course of his life. He sounds like a pretty smart guy to me! But even smart guys make (fortuitous) mistakes every now and then.

Speaking of inventors, had it not been for a $15 debt, we wouldn’t have the extremely useful safety pin today. Walter Hunt, an independent inventor, found himself owing a debt in 1849, and so he quickly started trying to think of a new idea that would earn him money. What he came up with was simply twisting a metal wire into the shape we’re familiar with as a safety pin. Hunt, however, called it a “dress pin” at the time. He patented it and then sold the rights for $400, never earning another penny off of the idea. That’s too bad because the safety pin is such a versatile tool. Personally, I remember safety pins as an absolute necessity for the dozens of dance costumes I wore for recitals as I was growing up. Thank goodness for that little piece of metal!

Sometimes the tiny mistake of being unprepared can make a world of difference. That’s true for when the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany finally opened up for travel between the two. Guenther Schabowski was a senior official from East Germany who was speaking at a press conference on Nov. 9, 1989. Confused and shuffling through his papers, Schabowski answered a question about travel restrictions with the surprise announcement that any citizen could leave East Germany through any border crossing, and even more astonishing, the new regulation was effective immediately. As it turns out, the announcement wasn’t supposed to be revealed until the next day and Schabowski also failed to mention that East Germans were supposed to apply for visas to cross over. But at that point, it didn’t matter. The wall between East and West Germany was open for good.

Lastly, did you know that a broken switch was all that prevented a nuclear disaster right here in North Carolina? In the early morning of January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber flying from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro with two nuclear bombs on board had mechanical issues, causing it to break up in the air over Wayne County. The bombs fell to the ground: one’s parachute got tangled up in a tree while the other landed in a boggy field right on the edge of the Nahunta Swamp. When the bomb recovery crew came out, they discovered that some of the arming mechanisms had been activated while falling through the air. But the “arm/safe” switch—the final component—broke on impact, ensuring that nuclear disaster was avoided. Crisis just barely avoided! (The recovery crew, however, was never able to fully recover part of the bomb that landed in the swamp… but that’s something to think about another day.)

Those are some pretty crazy stories, right? They can be good conversation starters for any virtual/socially distanced family gatherings for the upcoming holidays. It’s a good reminder that life really can change in an instant, caused even by the tiniest of things.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.