Is it human nature to laugh about others' mistakes? C'mon, admit it - there have been a few times when you have watched someone make an obvious blunder and snickered to yourself.

Maybe seeing someone else make a mistake is an opportunity to release some guilt over something you've done wrong, or maybe it just provides an opportunity to enjoy a good laugh.

In any case, I got a big kick out of a book I just read, The Dumbest Moments in Business History. Written by Adam Horowitz and the editors of Business 2.0, the book focuses on "useless products, ruinous deals, clueless bosses, and other signs of unintelligent life in the workplace."

There was no shortage of examples for the authors to document. Under the heading of "Research and Development," the book contains this tidbit: "They're multipurpose - not only do they put the clips on, but they take them off." That's Pratt & Whitney spokesperson Robert G.H. Carroll III in 1990, explaining why it charged the Air Force $999.20 for a pair of pliers.

Not to be outdone was Joseph Cullman, former chairman of cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris. After being presented in 1971 with studies showing the correlation between pregnant smokers and low birth weight in babies, Cullman said, "Some women would prefer having smaller babies."

NBC's "Dateline" also merited mention in the book under the heading of "Public Relations." Re-member the report on the fuel tank safety of General Motors' trucks? "Dateline" rigged the televised test so that the fuel tank would explode in the crash, adding "fuel" to the argument that the trucks were not safe.

General Motors eventually threatened to cancel all of its advertising on the network and sued NBC for defamation. The suit was resolved when NBC aired an apology and agreed to cover the $1 million cost of General Motor's investigation into the matter.

How is this for a public relations blunder? "There are natural seeps all over this country. Oil in the water is a phenomenon that has gone on for eons." That was Exxon executive Don Cornett, in 1989, explaining why the Exxon Valdez oil spill was just the ecosystem going about its business.

He's No Nostradamus

In this day of computer technology and high-speed communication devices, I found this example from Dumbest particularly interesting: "There is no reason for an individual to have a computer in their home." That was Ken Olson, then president of Digital Equipment Corporation, at the 1977 convention of the World Future Society.

And for those of us who think that original ideas are hard to come by in 2004, here is a fun one: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." That was Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the Federal Office of Patents, declaring his job obsolete in 1899.

Heck, I even gave a business idea a whirl back in the early 90s. I thought people would jump at the chance of ordering imprinted products if they knew that half of the profits from each sale would be donated to their favorite charity.

What I didn't understand was that it took a "little bit" of capital to spread the idea and that word-of-mouth in a small community would not make me wealthy overnight.

I'm willing to bet that some of you have done some dumb things or seen some dumb things in this business. Please share them with me - anonymously - and let's share a good laugh.

John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-362-0317 (fax), or

Publication date: 05/31/2004