Even acknowledged geniuses such as American inventor Thomas Edison commit blunders. His misguided attempt to promote DC, direct current, over AC, alternating current, electricity led him to publicly electrocute animals - including a carnival elephant named Topsy.The extremely wealthy also make mistakes. Take, for instance, rags-to-riches boxing phenomenon Leon Spinks, who, after a lifetime of struggle in the ghetto, went on to capture the heavyweight title from Muhammad Ali and then promptly lost it all within months - the championship and the many millions in prize money - to fancy clothes, fast cars and foolhardy investments.
Spiritual people, claiming to have God on their side, can also err big. In New York during the 19th century, a Utopian commune upstart called the Perfectionists tried to create a better world through "complex marriage," or, more simply put, open sexual relations with the female members. The experiment crumbled, in part because the group's leader got too old and tired to keep "initiating" young virgins.
These fantastic failures and many others are examined in the new book "Oops: 20 Life Lessons From the Fiascoes that Shaped America" (Collins; $24).
"Oops" was co-written by journalists Martin J. Smith of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., and Patrick J. Kiger, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., and whom Smith describes as a walking cerebrum.
The book takes a playful look at 20 gargantuan gaffes in U.S. history. All occurring during the last 150 years or so, the mistakes are seen by the authors as cultural pivot points, goofs that have had a lasting effect on the culture.
"Oops" is Smith and Kiger's second book together. Their first, "Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America" (Collins; $13), was published in 2004, and it, too, highlighted cultural pivot points.
But this time the pair is having fun by focusing on failure. Smith, a man whose blue jeans, quick smile and casual demeanor undercut an obvious sophistication, certainly has fun discussing the book's many documented oops episodes.
"There's nothing quite like a rip-roaring, well-intentioned, grand-scale fiasco to make us all appreciate life's absurdity," said Smith, 49. "Fact is, (failure) is just so much more entertaining than success."
The stories in Smith and Kiger's book are technically history, but "Oops" isn't your father's history lesson.
"I think there's an interest in accessible history," Smith said. "Not so much history with a capital 'H,' like wars and assassinations and great global-changing events. But history with a small 'h,' where the lessons are the same as with the big events ... but the stories are much more entertaining.
"Everybody knows of Thomas Edison, but telling the story of Topsy the Elephant is a way of telling the real story of Edison, who was a jerk, a horrible man, a schemer and a manipulator and an unparalleled huckster," Smith said. "That's much more fun to read than Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and changed America, which he did, but the details behind that fact make the really interesting story."
"Oops" provides the story behind the story on a wide range of topics, including fashion, engineering, the environment, sports, music, sex, religion and celebrity.
Each chapter begins with an applicable life lesson clearly spelled out for readers and ends with a convenient clip-and-save "Recipe for Disaster."
For instance, Lesson No. 5 warns readers: "Ignore the Past at Your Own Peril." The chapter goes on to tell the unbelievable story of how, just four months after completion in 1940, the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge collapsed and fell into Puget Sound.
The "Recipe for Disaster" at the end of the chapter clearly spells out how to make Marinated Myopia. The recipe calls for:
"1/2 mile of cold water
4 decades public demand
1 legendary bridge designer, common sense removed
Steel and concrete to taste
Dash of arrogance.
Ignore all previous recipes for a safe and successful suspension bridge. Leave out any ingredients that are too expensive. Combine remaining ingredients and add to water."
As is the case with all the stories in "Oops," no people died in this stunning failure of engineering, but lessons were learned.
"The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse was a tragedy," Smith said. "But you can still extract huge cultural lessons from it. In this case, the mistake was the pursuit of the aesthetics over structural soundness. They were trying to make it beautiful, because that was what the time demanded. Everybody was getting all excited about this art deco structure with pure lines, but oops, they kind of forgot to make it strong."
Smith said that out of all the book's big mistakes, his favorite is Lesson No. 13: "Desperation is the Cradle of Bad Ideas."
It tells the sad but predictable tale of what happened when management of the 1974 Cleveland Indians baseball team thought it would be a good idea to host 10-cent-beer night.
"It was the quintessentially well-intentioned but short-sighted effort," Smith said. "Attendance was way down, so they figured they'd back a couple of tanker trucks full of beer up outside the outfield walls. They had 25,000 people in the stadium who were all drunk before the game even started.
"It dissolved into complete savagery and menace," he said. "The entire visiting team was surrounded in the outfield by knife-toting people and others who'd broken up their wooden bleacher chairs to beat them. The really amazing thing about that story is that afterwards the Indians management still thought (10-cent-beer night) was a good idea."
Though Smith has a fascination with failure, it is, for the most part, theoretical.
Smith established a successful journalism career back East, and then came to California from Pittsburgh in 1985. Since then, he has worked at various high-profile newspapers and magazines, won dozens of journalism awards and is now a senior editor at West, the weekly magazine of the Los Angeles Times.
He's also written three critically acclaimed suspense novels, including 2001's "Straw Men," which earned an Edgar Award nomination.
"I don't remember learning a lot from my successes," Smith said. "But I've learned a lot from my failures. There's a certain sting to failure that you never really forget."