Five Milestones to Forget

<I>TSC's</I> Countdown ranked the century's top biz events. Here, we look at five infamous events.
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Earlier this year

TSC

compiled the

TSC Countdown: A Century of U.S. Business, ranking the top business events of the century and giving perspective on the most important events over a hundred years. But every top deserves a bottom. So we plucked five-to-forget from the same time period. Each of these events or phenomena, while interesting in its own right, had far-reaching and unexpected repercussions.

Some of them made both the Countdown and this list, although you won't find two big disasters, the Crash of 1929 and the Y2K crisis, here. Of course, the crash was a century low point, but one that gave rise to the guarded, sober market of today, and for that we must celebrate. And soon enough we'll see the effects of the Y2K crisis. If the world fails to end today, survivalists, members of obscure sects, even bottled-water makers will suffer setbacks. And if Y2K predictions do come to pass? Well, that would be one for the record books, wouldn't it?

The Rise of the Corporate Ecological Disaster

While the

Exxon Valdez

incident, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, serves as this category's poster child, you can take your pick from the countless bad management decisions and even worse luck experienced in big business:

Shell Oil's

decision to tow an oil platform out to sea and sink it (the company later rescinded the decision, marking a victory for

Greenpeace

);

Love Canal;

Exxon's

(XON) - Get Report

extremely unlucky May 1989 convergence of tanker, substance-abusing tanker captain and Alaskan reef. What have we learned from these scandals? Certainly not to protect the environment better. But spin-doctoring got some slick inspiration.

New Coke

Reformulated "New Coke" may have taste-tested ahead of

Pepsi

(PEP) - Get Report

, but widespread consumer distaste for it in 1985 was merciless. An embarrassed

Coca-Cola

(KO) - Get Report

quickly remade its remake of one of the century's most-recognized brands as "Coca-Cola Classic." But, wait, wasn't this intentional? Weren't the marketers at Coke crazy like a fox? Not really. The company lost millions. And in introducing this fizzy version of the Edsel, it gave upstart Pepsi a victory in a marketing war that until then had been relatively one-sided. It's the corporate equivalent of the touchdown fumble. Team

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

and

Monsanto

(MCT)

are also supplying moves for this playbook.

Baring Brothers Scandal

When a 27-year-old single-handedly brings down Britain's oldest merchant bank,

ING Barings

, you know youth culture has achieved a new milestone. Putting old fogies like

Michael Milken

and

Charles Keating

to shame (if that's possible), former Barings derivatives trader Nick Leeson was recently freed from a Singapore prison owing $164.4 million. While unfortunately suffering from colon cancer, Leeson, now 31, is busy proving

Fitzgerald

wrong. In his second act, he's negotiated book and film rights (

Ewan McGregor

is his filmic counterpart), launched a lecture tour to benefit the bank he ruined and, most humorously, he's been scheduled to present at the British comedy awards. Crime may not pay, but it certainly brokers media deals.

Three Mile Island

Chernobyl was worse, but America got there first. Both a human and a mechanical failure, the U.S.' most serious nuclear reactor incident nearly resulted in a meltdown when the facility's reactor core, normally immersed, became exposed to air, emitting radioactive gases. Occurring near Harrisburg, Pa., on March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island set back U.S. nuclear power indefinitely, but it breathed new life into both the global "No Nukes" lobby and indignant pop singer

Jackson Browne

, plus allowed the well-timed 1979 film

The China Syndrome

to pave the way for future coincidental box-office hit

Wag the Dog.

Prohibition

The influence of the 18th amendment still resonates six decades after its repeal. In effect from 1919 until 1933, the decision banning the sale or consumption of alcohol did such good turns as setting back legitimate industries like hospitality and promoted scofflaw activity among honest Americans. Its greatest feat: Creating an environment in which a new kind of entrepreneur could father modern distribution methods, perfect "vertical market penetration" and popularize

Art Of War

business tactics. His name:

Al Capone

.

The Teapot Dome Scandal

If it weren't for

Albert B. Fall

, nobody would ever have heard of

Kenneth Starr

. The scandal that begat the idea of appointing special counsel in this country surfaced in 1921 when Fall,

Warren G. Harding's

secretary of the interior, secretly leased government oil fields and drilling rights to his cronies. After serving a year in prison for taking bribes, Fall went to work for the

Mammoth Oil Company

(seriously). He then blazed a trail for such 20th century luminaries as

Spiro Agnew

,

Hamilton Jordan

,

Webster Hubbell

,

Dan Rostenkowski

and the

Salt Lake City Olympic Committee

.

Stuart Wade is a regular contributor to The Onion, and his work has also appeared in Harper's, The Globe and Mail and Details. He is co-author of "Drop Us a Line ... Sucker" (Carroll & Graf).