We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect; the idea that one butterfly could have a far-reaching ripple effect on subsequent events.

It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) is arguably the earliest illustration of the butterfly effect in a movie. In it, an angel shows main character George Bailey (a mortgage guy) how rewriting history so that George was never born would detrimentally affect the lives of everyone in his hometown.

In the 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder,” the killing of a butterfly during the time of dinosaurs causes the future to change in subtle but meaningful ways: e.g., the spelling of English and the outcome of a political election.

In the Simpson’s Halloween episode, “Time and Punishment,” Homer repeatedly travels back to the time of dinosaurs with a time machine (à la Bradbury’s story). Each time there, Homer’s actions drastically change the future (for example, Homer squishing a butterfly results in Ned Flanders ruling the world, and Homer wiping out the dinosaurs with a sneeze which results in his extraordinary wealth, well-behaved kids, his sisters-in-law dead, and donuts raining from the sky).

Yet, one of the most powerful examples of the “butterfly effect” is drawn from a true story that has had far reaching effects for all of mankind.

A Poor Scottish Farmer

One day in the countryside of Scotland, a common and poor farmer was toiling in his field when suddenly he heard a cry for help. Startled, he recognized someone was in trouble and the plea was coming from a nearby bog. Immediately he dropped what he was doing and ran to the source of the plea. When he located the voice calling for help, he stumbled upon a terrified boy up to his waist in black muck, screaming and sinking deeper and deeper into the bog as each minute passed.

The farmer calmly retrieved ropes from nearby, pulled the boy out of the bog and saved his life.

The next day, an elegantly dressed nobleman arrived at the farmers small and simple home. When the nobleman stepped out of his carriage, he introduced himself as the father of the boy the farmer had saved.

Emotionally, the nobleman thanked the farmer and asked to repay the farmer for saving his son’s life. The farmer waved off the offer and informed the nobleman he could not accept payment for doing what was right.   

At that moment, the nobleman asked if the farmer had a son in which the farmer replied he did. Subsequently, the nobleman insisted he provide the farmers son an education on par with that he would provide his own son. Upon leaving the farmers house, the nobleman told the farmer, “if the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.”

The nobleman’s prediction concerning the farmers son proved to be prophetic.

True to the nobleman’s word, the farmers son attended the best schools in the world and eventually graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. More importantly, he went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.

Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia.

What saved his life this time?

Penicillin.

The name of the nobleman?

Lord Randolph Churchill.

His son’s name?

Sir Winston Churchill.

… Small things do make a difference!

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