14 Experiments Gone Wrong

Franz Reichelt is now remembered as the "flying tailor."
Franz Reichelt is now remembered as the "flying tailor." / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

From psychological studies that would never pass ethical muster in the present day to disastrous new product launches, here are some experiments gone horrifically wrong, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Winthrop Kellogg's Ape Experiment

In the early 1930s, comparative psychologist Winthrop Kellogg and his wife welcomed a healthy baby boy they named Donald. The psychologist had grown interested in those stories of children who were raised feral—but he didn’t send Donald to be raised by wolves. He did the opposite: He managed to get his hands on a similar-aged baby chimp named Gua and raised her alongside Donald.

Gua initially did better than Donald in tests that included things like memory, scribbling, strength, dexterity, reflexes, problem-solving, climbing, language comprehension, and more. But she eventually plateaued, and it became evident that no amount of equal treatment was going to make her behave more like a human (for example, she was never going to be able to speak English).

But when the Kelloggs ended the experiment, they did so abruptly and without much explanation, which is contrary to the meticulous records they otherwise took throughout the course of the study. While Gua wasn’t showing any signs of picking up English, Donald had started to imitate the vocalizations of his sister from another species—so it’s not hard to speculate why the Kelloggs called it quits.

2. The Stanford Prison Experiment

You may have heard about the Stanford Prison Experiment, a social psychology study gone awry in 1971. The point of the experiment, which was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, was to measure the effect of role-playing and social expectations. Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo had predicted that situations and circumstances dictate how a person acts, not their personalities.

To start, 24 young men were assigned the roles of prison guard or prison inmate, with some held back as alternates. Each was paid $15 per day for his participation in the study, which was supposed to last two weeks. The prisoners were “arrested,” taken to a fake prison in the basement of a school building, then made to wear a dress-like prison uniform with chains around their right ankle.

By the second day, the faux prisoners had revolted. Over the next few days, some of the prisoners were so traumatized that they were pulled out. The experiment was disbanded on day six, after an outside observer witnessed the upsetting events taking place and sounded the alarm.

Many modern-day researchers don’t believe the experiment can be replicated because it doesn’t meet today’s research ethics standards—namely, informed consent. After all, it’s hard to give fully informed consent when there’s no way to predict how events could unfold. Beyond that, some psychologists doubt the core findings of the experiment and claim that the cruelty didn’t emerge organically, but was instead influenced by Zimbardo nudging the experiment in that direction. Zimbardo, however, has defended his results and stated that these criticisms are misrepresenting his study and the experiences of the people in it.

3. Franz Reichelt's Aviator Suit

If there's anything to be said for Franz Reichelt, it's that he had supreme confidence in his own invention. In the early 1900s, Reichelt crafted a parachute from 320 square feet of fabric, all of which folded up into a wearable aviator suit. He had conducted several parachute tests using dummies, which all failed. He pinned the blame on the buildings, saying that they simply weren’t tall enough.

In 1912, Reichelt planned to test his latest version by flinging a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. But when he arrived at the famous landmark, the inventor surprised the waiting crowd by strapping on the parachute suit himself and taking the leap. The parachute didn’t open, however, and Reichelt became a victim of his own invention. (An autopsy reportedly determined that he died of a heart attack on the way down.)

4. McDonald's Bubblegum-Flavored Broccoli

In 2014, McDonald's concluded that they needed to offer more nutritious options for children—which led one mad scientist in Ronald’s test kitchen to come up with bubble gum-flavored broccoli. Luckily for all of us, this horrifying experiment never made it to a Happy Meal near you.

5. William Perkin's Mauve-lous Mistake

In 1856, chemist William Perkin was experimenting with ways to manufacture a synthetic version of quinine, a tonic water ingredient that also happens to treat malaria. At the time, dyes were only made from things like plant material and insects—but when Perkin was mixing up his latest quinine concoction, he accidentally produced an oily sludge that left a lovely shade of light purple residue. He had unwittingly discovered a way to produce mauve. The color was a smash hit, especially after Queen Victoria donned it for her daughter’s 1858 wedding. 

6. The Michelson-Morley Experiment

Another happy failure is the Michelson-Morley Experiment. The experiment was supposed to detect ether, a substance that carried light waves, according to some scientists. The working theory at the time, in the late 1800s, was that ether was motionless, so the motion of Earth through space would alter the speed of light depending on what direction you were facing.

This was popularly known as “ether wind.” To test the ether wind theory, scientist Albert Michelson invented a device that could theoretically measure changes to the speed of light, thus detecting the supposed ether wind. The device was perfectly accurate, but it didn’t detect any changes in the speed of light. What Michelson and his collaborator Edward Morley discovered—or rather, didn’t discover—eventually led to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and the realization that the speed of light is a universal constant, and there is no absolute space or absolute time.

7. The Cleveland Indians' 10-Cent Beer Night

In 1974, the Cleveland Indians tinkered with a new promotion to increase game attendance—giving fans the opportunity to purchase an unlimited amount of beer for 10 cents a cup, which wasn't the best idea. The game against the Texas Rangers was an eventful one: memorable events of the evening included a woman running into the Indians’ on-deck circle and flashing the umpire; a naked fan running onto the field and sliding into second base; and a father and son who ran onto the outfield and mooned the bleacher section.

Things took a violent turn when fans launched fireworks into the Rangers’ dugout, and the whole thing eventually turned into an all-out riot, fans against players on both teams. Players were hit with folding chairs, there were numerous fist fights, and some players were injured when they were pelted with rocks. After that, the Cleveland Indians kept 10 cent beer nights, but limited the promotion to two drinks per person.

8. Stubbins Ffirth's Yellow Fever Experiment

Stubbins Ffirth was a medical student who believed that yellow fever wasn’t contagious. To prove it, he tried some awful experiments on himself at the turn of the 19th century.

Ffirth cooked vomit from yellow fever patients on his stove and breathed in the vapors. He dropped the vomit into his eye, into an incision he had made in his left arm, and put drops of a patient’s blood serum into his left leg. Eventually, he was basically drinking shots of black vomit—straight. (He described the taste as “Very slightly acid.”)

How did he Ffirth manage to ingest all of this without falling ill? Well, we now know that Yellow Fever is spread by mosquitoes. So maybe Ffirth was vindicated? Is this just a disgusting experiment gone right?

Not exactly. We also know now that yellow fever can be spread from human to human through direct bloodstream contact, and Ffirth was deliberately introducing samples to his bloodstream. So how’d he avoid contracting the virus? It’s been proposed that he may have had an immunity from an unrecorded bout of yellow fever earlier in life. Or maybe he just got extremely lucky and the samples he used were virus-free. Either way, if you’re chugging vomit and cutting open your arm to introduce a potentially lethal virus, it’s fair to say that something has gone wrong.

9. Biosphere 2

In the early ‘90s, eight scientists sealed themselves into a 3.14-acre structure in Arizona. The highly-publicized, $200-million experiment was known as Biosphere 2, and according to one of the scientists involved, its goals included “education, eco-technology development and learning how well our eco-laboratory worked.” But the scientists ran into a number of problems that required outside interference in order to continue the experiment, including a lack of sunlight that affected crops, a cockroach infestation, an injured crew member who had to temporarily leave for treatment, and insufficient oxygen.

In recent years, however, the success of Biosphere 2 has been re-evaluated, with some scientists believing that the base message—that humans can live in harmony with our biosphere—was a win in and of itself. And even if the vast investment was viewed as a mistake, the underlying idea remains solid: Similar experiments have been recently conducted to see if we can sustain human life on Mars.

10. The New Ball

Although basketball was originally played with soccer balls, a leather ball has been used since Spalding began manufacturing sport-specific balls in 1894. The basketball has been tweaked here and there over the years, but the modifications apparently went too far when the NBA experimented with a microfiber ball in 2006. “The New Ball,” as it was commonly known, was cheaper to make and was supposed to have the feel of a broken-in basketball right from the start.

Sounds good in theory, but players absolutely hated it. Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Dirk Nowitzki complained about the ball to the press. One issue was that the ball apparently became much more slippery than a traditional leather ball when it was wet, which happened frequently when sweaty basketball players were constantly handling it. Some players even reported that their hands were getting cut due to the increased friction of the microfiber surface.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also commissioned a study from the physics department at the University of Texas at Austin, which found that the ball bounced 5 to 8 percent lower than a traditional leather ball and bounced up to 30 percent more erratically. Feeling deflated, the NBA officially announced they were pulling the ball from play on December 11, 2006—less than three months after its debut in a game.

11. Henry A. Murray's Psychological Experiments

It’s probably safe to say that an experiment falls into the “gone wrong” category when it may have been responsible for producing the Unabomber. As an undergrad at Harvard in the late 1950s and early '60s, Ted Kaczynski participated in a three-year-long study run by Henry A. Murray that explored the effects of stress on the human psyche. After being asked to submit an essay about their worldview and personal philosophies, Kaczynski and 21 other students were interrogated under bright lights, wired to electrodes, and completely torn down for their beliefs. The techniques were intended to “break” enemy agents during the Cold War—and the students were never completely informed about the nature of the study. In short, the man who would eventually kill three people and injure over 20 more with his homemade bombs was subjected to repeated psychological torture.

Kaczynski later described this as the worst experience of his life; still, we can’t assume the study was solely responsible for sending him down the destructive and murderous path he eventually followed. But at the very least, the study is now considered highly unethical and likely wouldn’t pass current ethics standards for research.

12. Wilhelm Reich's Cloudbusters

Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich managed to draw a straight line from human orgasms to the weather to alien invasion. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on the human libido, Reich extended the concept to propose a kind of widespread energy he called orgone. To give you an idea of how scientifically sound Reich’s concept was, orgone has been compared to the Force in Star Wars. This energy was supposedly responsible for everything from the weather to why the sky is blue. Reich believed orgasms were a discharge of orgone, and that through the manipulation of this energy you could treat neuroses and even cancer.

As bizarre as this all sounds, Reich went even further in the late 1950s, when he became convinced that aliens were spraying the earth with a specific type of radiation to prevent us from using this powerful energy. In order to save the world, he and his son built Cloudbusters, a row of tubes attached to hoses immersed in water and aimed at the sky. The water, they believed, would absorb the radiation.

Did the experiment work? We don’t know for sure, but the FDA didn’t think so. They ordered Reich's various machines and apparatus destroyed, and had him jailed for trying to smuggle them out of state.

13. Duncan MacDougall's Soul Experiments

In 1901, Duncan MacDougall conducted experiments on extremely recently deceased people—and dogs—to see if their body weight changed immediately after death. A decrease in weight, he theorized, would be indicative of a physical soul leaving the body. To test this theory, he weighed six people before and after their deaths, and concluded that there was a weight difference anywhere from half to one and a half ounces (somewhere between one and three compact discs). He repeated the experiment on dogs and found no difference—and therefore, by MacDougall’s reasoning, dogs have no souls.

Other scientists have been critical of this experiment from day one, citing issues like small sample size and imprecise methods of measurement.

14. New Coke

April 23, 1985, was a day that will live in marketing infamy. And that’s how Coke describes the failed experiment that was New Coke. On that day, the Coca-Cola Company debuted a new version of their popular soft drink made from a new and supposedly improved formula. It was the first major change to the product in nearly a century, and it was one that was supported by overwhelmingly positive reviews in taste tests and focus groups.

But once New Coke actually hit the shelves, fans were absolutely outraged. While the taste tests accounted for the actual flavor of the new formula, it couldn’t account for the emotional ties consumers had to the brand history. Fans started hoarding “old” Coke, and complaints poured in to the tune of 1500 calls a day. CEO Roberto Goizueta even received a letter addressed to “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company.”

The message was received loud and clear. Coke announced the return of Old Coke in July, dubbing it Coca-Cola Classic—and they never experimented with the formula again. Or if they did, they kept it to themselves, and we’re none the wiser.