We are what we believe. Our belief system shapes us and dominates the choices we make in our lives. Ironically, not everything we believe is true! Sometimes, beliefs are formed based on experiences, deductions, and inferences, but mostly, we tend to accept what we learn as children to be the ultimate truth. As history shows us, people in the past put their faith in things that are now proven to be beyond logic or reason. As Stephen Hawking famously said in a lecture back in 2016, “We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.” Here, we will take a look at a few of these outrageous beliefs to show you just how astute his observation was!
1. People once believed that epidemics and diseases such as the Black Death, chlamydia, and cholera are caused by “bad air.” The famous “Miasma” theory stated that poisonous mist or vapor filled with “miasmata,” or particles from rotten substances, are the leading cause of illnesses.
This now obsolete medical theory originated back in the Middle Ages and persisted for centuries. It was believed that specific diseases such as chlamydia and cholera are caused and spread through toxic and foul-smelling air called “miasma” that is produced from decomposing, organic material. When the Great Plague of London took place in 1665, doctors started wearing masks with bird-like beaks filled with fragrant flowers. They believed that the sweet smell would keep the poisonous particles of the miasma out. People would also sanitize buildings, drain swamps, and remove soil to prevent miasma from spreading.
However, since odor molecules travel slowly in cold atmospheres, sanitary habits became irregular during winter months. The miasmic reasoning led people to believe that diseases are associated only with foul smells. As a result, doctors failed to adopt preventative measures such as washing their hands after seeing each patient.
Despite its flaws, the miasma theory did encourage cleanliness. Florence Nightingale, the pioneer nurse, was a firm believer in this theory, and she was widely celebrated for making hospitals airy, fresh, and clean. Moreover, the rapid urbanization and industrialization of 19th-century England had given rise to poor, foul-smelling, and filthy city neighborhoods which often caused epidemics and diseases. The miasma theory compelled sanitary reformers to take action and improve sanitation, housing, and general cleanliness. (1, 2)
2. From 1980 to 1990, all computers came with BASIC training because people believed it is necessary to learn general-purpose programming languages to keep up with the computer revolution.
A few decades ago, learning to use a computer also meant learning high-level programming languages such as BASIC. Thomas E. Kurtz and John G. Kemeny of Dartmouth College invented BASIC, which was widely used on school computers across the world. The duo firmly believed in the importance and necessity of computer literacy. That is why they designed a programming language, which they aptly named as “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” or BASIC. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, BASIC came integrated into most home computers thanks to Microsoft and the various versions they produced.
Soon, BASIC became the norm when it came to teaching and learning computer programming. However, it was more than just a milestone in the history and evolution of computers. Until the invention of BASIC, running a computer was a slow process, and sometimes you would have to wait for hours to get the results to a command. BASIC made the whole process much faster. All you had to do is type math statements and words to input your command, and the computer would respond right away! Today’s computers, smartphones, and other devices act fast, and it all started with BASIC. (1, 2)
3. The Mongols never took baths or washed clothes, fearing that it would contaminate the water and infuriate the dragons responsible for controlling the water cycles.
The Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in the history of the world, was founded in 1206, and it thrived for centuries. The Mongols were famous for a lot of things such as their brutal war tactics, intelligence reports, and mail-relay systems. However, what many people do not know is that they followed some less than satisfactory hygiene practices. Many historians state that the Mongols lived up to their status as ruthless barbarians. They also never bathed or washed clothes due to a prevalent superstition.
The Mongols believed in the myth that dragons control the water cycles, and washing clothes or bathing would pollute the water and enrage the dragons. It is also said that they would wear the same clothes until they rotted away or fell apart on their own. The only exception to this was seen during festivals and other special occasions.
Some historians have stated that the Mongols smelled so bad that when a horde approached, their stench would arrive first! Aside from their personal hygiene (or lack thereof), the foul smell could be attributed to their diet which mostly consisted of mare’s milk, tenderized meat, dry curds, rats, dogs, roots, and fermented mare’s milk. When mare’s milk was unavailable, they would drink the blood of their horses! (1, 2)
4. In Victorian England, people believed that a high-speed train ride can cause insanity, spontaneous combustion, and disintegration of body parts.
John Blenkinsop was the inventor of the steam locomotive, and he built the first commercially successful model between 1812 and 1813. This breakthrough invention changed the way people traveled. It was finally possible to move goods and travel great distances at the record-breaking speed of 20 mph! Though it does not sound like much now, back in the Victorian Era, it was nothing like they had ever seen before. In fact, the whole thing caused such a stir that people started contemplating the effects of traveling at such high speeds.
Anti-train propagandists started claiming that traveling by train causes brain injury, which can cause healthy people to become insane or latent “lunatics” to become more aggressive. This outrageous claim was supported by a few incidents where men started acting erratically when the train was at full speed, and they would calm down as the train slowed down or came to a halt. It does not end there. “Experts” also claimed that traveling by train can cause a healthy human to spontaneously combust or women to lose their uterus. Some even said that merely watching a moving train from a distance can induce a type of insanity called “delirium furiosum.”
As ludicrous as it sounds, it is not the first time people reacted this way to new technology. Anytime a revelatory advanced technology is introduced to society, it causes a moral panic and leads people into a frenzy. The same thing happened with the invention of TV, mobile phones, the Internet, and so on. (1, 2)
5. In the early 18th-century, a large number of Europeans thought the tomato was a toxic fruit. For over 200 years, they called it the “poison apple.” That notion changed sometime around 1880 when tomatoes grew in popularity across Europe.
Today, tomatoes are a key ingredient in various food preparations. However, for centuries, most Europeans deemed them to be poisonous. They believed them to be the cause of various illnesses, especially among the aristocrats. Some even thought tomatoes cause death! The origins of this belief would leave you bewildered.
Back in the day, the use of pewter plates was common among wealthy Europeans. These plates had a high lead content, and when they came in contact with the acid present in tomatoes, the lead would leach from the plates. Naturally, the reaction caused lead poisoning, which can be deadly.
Sadly, no one saw the connection and blamed tomatoes as the culprit. For over 200 years, people called tomatoes the “poison apple” until, in 1880, pizza was invented in Naples. Thus began the widespread use and recognition of tomatoes for sauce making. (1, 2)