18 Strange Ideas From Historory That Actually Took Off

Human history is filled with moments of utter brilliance and breakthrough, but there are also those moments that leave us scratching our heads and wondering, “What were they thinking?” From impractical inventions to ridiculous military tactics, here are 18 strange things that human beings really did in times past, and some of them even worked (a bit!).

Flying Plague Horses (14th Century)

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Imagine settling a dispute by launching a diseased horse at your enemy! During the Hundred Years’ War, attackers used trebuchets to catapult livestock infected with the bubonic plague into the besieged city of Thun L’Eveque in France. According to NOVA Science, the city dwellers were disgusted by the smell and negotiated a truce, and biological warfare became a standard military tactic.

The Diving Bell (16th–17th Century)

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Long before scuba diving, the diving bell was the only way humans could explore the underwater world for extended periods of time. This dangerous invention featured an inverted metal chamber suspended from a surface vessel by ropes and manually pumped full of air. The enclosed air pocket allowed divers to breathe underwater but put them at great risk of decompression sickness and other accidents.

The Penny Farthing (1860s–1880s)

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So-named for the ridiculous difference in size of the front and back wheels (like British coins of different circumferences), this 19th-century bicycle was popular during the Victorian era. Before the invention of gears, these 5-foot high ride-ons were the only option for faster travel via pedaling, but were notoriously difficult to mount and often fell over, especially on bumpy roads!

The Lobotomy (1930s–1950s)

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Modern medicine may not be perfect, but be thankful you weren’t a psychiatric patient in the 1930s. Psych Central reports that the first lobotomy was performed in the 1880s to treat schizophrenia but became increasingly popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. Surgeons severed the connection between lobes of the brain, sometimes having a calming effect on the patient. Unfortunately, the procedure also often resulted in personality changes, cognitive decline, and even death.  

Anti-Tank Dogs (1939–45)

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During World War II, the Soviets decided to use dogs to blow up enemy tanks. The cruel plan involved teaching the animals to hide under military vehicles while strapped with explosives, which were detonated by a timer. Unfortunately, the Russian army used Soviet tanks to train the dogs, so instead of cowering under German tanks, the dogs blew up their own military vehicles! 

The Great Emu War (1932)

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Australia is infamous for its dangerous and unusual wildlife, and in the 1930s, the country faced an unexpected enemy: emus. About 20,000 of these large, flightless birds invaded farmland and damaged crops. The Australian government deployed soldiers with machine guns to cull the emus, but the birds were surprisingly agile and evasive. Final score: Emus–1, Australian Government–0!

The Antikythera Mechanism (1st Century BC)

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Nature states that this tongue-twistingly named device was discovered in a shipwreck off Greece in 1901. It features a complex interplay of gears and dials that predict astronomical phenomena like eclipses and planetary movements—a kind of cosmic calculator. Its sophistication far surpasses what was thought to be achievable in its time, leaving historians baffled by its ingenuity.

Trepanation (6500 BCE)

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The first ever surgical procedure was that of scraping a hole in the patient’s skull with glass or flint, and was performed in prehistory! While the reasoning behind those first attempts remains lost, it later became a popular treatment for epilepsy, headaches, and even demonic possession! A special corkscrew-shaped device (called a trepan) was invented, giving the procedure its name.

Putting Animals on Trial (13th century onward)

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It sounds insane, but JSTOR confirms that, for centuries, European courts “tried pigs, dogs, rats, grasshoppers, and snails for crimes against people, property, and God.” Charges were often serious (theft or murder), and trials involved formal accusations, witness testimonies, and even human defense attorneys! The sentences for these animal “criminals” ranged from banishment to execution.

The Great Stink of London (1858)

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In 1858, London was overwhelmed by a horrific stench emanating from the River Thames that was so disgustingly powerful that Parliament was forced to temporarily adjourn its sessions. The tonnes of raw sewage pumped into the waterway every day were to blame, and the smelly event led to major sanitary reforms in London, many of which still exist to this day.

The Dancing Plague (1518)

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During the early 16th century, a strange phenomenon swept through Strasbourg in modern-day France. Hundreds of people began dancing uncontrollably, often for days or even weeks at a time, until they collapsed from exhaustion. The cause remains a mystery, with historians suggesting some kind of mass hysteria or potential ergot poisoning, causing temporary insanity! 

The Search for the Fountain of Youth (1600s–1800s)

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The quest for immortality has long captivated mankind, and several explorers have gone in search of it. History.com claims that the Frenchman Ponce de León embarked on one such expedition to Florida in 1513. Unsurprisingly, he did not accomplish his goal, but that didn’t stop others from later taking up the mission in the hope of eternal youth and endless life.

Whalebone Corsets (18th–19th Centuries)

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You may think modern beauty standards are unhealthy or dangerous, but feel grateful you weren’t a high-bred woman in the 1800s! The pursuit of an hourglass figure prompted the invention of the whalebone corset (by a man, of course). Rigid strips of bone were used to cinch the waist unnaturally, often causing internal injuries, breathing difficulties, and even organ displacement.  

Mummified Pets (3100 BC–332 AD)

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We all know how concerned the Ancient Egyptians were with preserving their important people, like pharaohs, for the afterlife. But did you know that the wealthy dead were also buried with their beloved pets, elaborately mummified to preserve them? These cats and dogs may have had a close bond with their human masters but probably didn’t appreciate being killed before their time!

The Viking Sunstone (10th–14th Centuries)

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Viking explorers were known for their impressive navigational skills long before modern equipment like GPS. Several historical accounts suggest they used a mysterious “sunstone” to navigate on cloudy days—some records assert it was a kind of transparent calcite crystal that could detect polarized light, while others claim it was less scientific and possessed mythical abilities.

Disgusting Meal Combinations (1930s)

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During the Great Depression in the U.S., food was so scarce that poorer families had to eat whatever was available, in any combination. With malnutrition a genuine threat, WBUR maintains that “cheap, nutritious, and filling food was prioritized—often at the expense of taste.” One recipe combined canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar, and lemon juice!

Ice Houses (18th–19th Centuries)

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Before the invention of refrigerators, the wealthy elite relied on ice houses to preserve food. These specialized structures, often built underground or heavily insulated, stored ice that had been harvested from lakes and rivers during the winter months. The ice was used to keep food cool, even in summer. While they may sound strange, they were highly successful!

Talking Dogs (19th Century)

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A growing public fascination with trained animals reached a fever pitch in the 19th century when “talking dogs” gained popularity. These dogs could supposedly hold a conversation and were endlessly entertaining in the days before televisions or Wi-Fi. The dogs were trained to mimic human sounds, and the audience was cleverly manipulated into thinking that the animals could actually converse.

Read More: 17 Things Society Can No Longer Do Because Gen Z Said So

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Gen Z, our digital-native, trendsetting generation, is making waves in the cultural sea, steering the ship of societal norms in fresh and unexpected directions. As they charter new territories, there are certain practices they’d rather we say goodbye to. Curious? Let’s take a look at 17 things the rest of us can no longer do because Gen Z said so.

17 Things Society Can No Longer Do Because Gen Z Said So

19 Big Mistakes People Make After Losing a Spouse

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Losing a spouse is one of life’s most tragic experiences, and when we’re overwhelmed by grief, we might make some decisions that we’ll later regret. Here are 19 mistakes people make after losing their spouse.

19 Big Mistakes People Make After Losing a Spouse

20 Time-Honored Practices Our Grandparents Followed That We Should Bring Back

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Our grandparents had a far simpler life. There was no such thing as social media. Instead, there was more walking and meals were always fresh and homemade. With so many things keeping us busy nowadays, sometimes life would seem much easier if we lived the way our grandparents did.

20 Time-Honored Practices Our Grandparents Followed That We Should Bring Back

19 Common Behaviors of Highly Intelligent People

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Intelligent individuals often display a range of behaviors and qualities that set them apart from others. When exploring these characteristics, it’s crucial to comprehend that intelligence is a multifaceted attribute. Here are 19 essential behaviors and qualities frequently observed in highly intelligent people.

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17 Things We Were Taught in High School That We Now Know Aren’t True

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Well, this one may depend on when you went to high school, but for this millennial, these are the things we were taught in high school that have been proven not to be true. Personally, I still want to go back and correct every teacher who told me I wouldn’t always have a calculator in my pocket; the joke is on them.

17 Things We Were Taught in High School That We Now Know Aren’t True