The British East Africa Company came to regard Uganda as a white elephant when internal conflict broke out in 1892 and rendered the company ineffective in administration of the territory.
A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered without use or value.
The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The opulence expected of anyone that owned a beast of such stature was great. Monarchs often exemplified their possession of white elephants in their formal titles (e.g., Hsinbyushin, lit. "Lord of the White Elephant" and the third monarch of the Konbaung dynasty).
The tradition derives from tales that associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the recipient now had an expensive-to-maintain animal he could not give away and could not put to much practical use.
The expressions, "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant," came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century. The phrase was attached to "white elephant swaps" and "white elephant sales" in the early twentieth century. Many church bazaars held “white elephant sales” where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today. In general use a “white elephant” usually refers to an item that’s not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.
Alleged white elephant projects
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The Panzer VIII "Maus" Super-heavy Tank was commissioned under permission of Adolf Hitler in 1943 Nazi Germany. Designed to weigh up to 190 tons, this tank had up to 24 centimetres/10+ inches of armour in places but was of such great weight that there was no engine that could be contained in the tank that would have been powerful enough to give it a top speed of much more than 8 miles an hour in ideal conditions; too heavy to be supported by any bridge at the time, only one complete model was produced by the end of World War Two, which currently resides in the Kubinka Tank Museum in Moscow.
City of Faith Medical and Research Center. In 1977 evangelistic pastor Oral Roberts claimed to have a vision of God commanding him to build the City of God Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. Roberts sojourned to California after the death of his daughter and son in law. He conceived the solution of constructing a teaching and research hospital for adjacent Oral Roberts University. Throughout the four years of construction, Roberts raised the funds through donations that amounted to $120MUSD($309M, 2013). He claimed that God encouraged him frequently as he encountered gargantuan opposition by appearing in visions as he prayed, such as a 900 foot Jesus guaranteeing the completion. Roberts was opposed by state authorities skeptical of the feasibility of the facility, such as the overabundance of unused beds. Opponents denounced Robert's vision as a "product of his imagination" and the project as a hoax. A 60 ft 'praying hands' Bronze sculpture weighing 30 tons adorned the outside entrance. The hospital was intended to serve as a national world centre of healing, combining the disciplines of science and faith. The hospital was approved to support 294 beds and 8 operating theaters costing $55.2M. However Roberts disregarded the approval and the enlarged hospital was intended to support 777 beds and dozens of operating theaters. The hospital complex was composed as three diamond-shaped towers that were adorned with golden facades. The hospital operated on a deficit for nearly a decade, draining Robert's ministry of $30M-$40M per year. In an attempt to raise funds to save the hospital, Roberts claimed to have a vision where God commanded him to raise $8M or be "called home" (i.e., he would die). In a televised fund raising gala Roberts managed to raise $9M. However, the hospital ceased operations and the last patient was discharged on October 1989. Roberts sold 'City of God' in 1992 with costly financial obligations: $240K owed on property taxes and $10M mortgages.
Crazy Horse Memorial. A colossal statue of Oglala warrior Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse) pointing and mounted on a horse was commissioned by Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear as a memorial to Crazy Horse and the Lakota people. He disapproved of Mt. Rushmore as four non-native faces peering over his ancestral land. Work on the sculpture was commenced in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American architect who had worked under Gutzon Borglum, chief architect of the Mount Rushmore monument. However, unlike Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial is privately funded by donations and visitors. Ziolokowski refused government grants of $10M twice. Work on the structure was slow: as of 2012 (64 years later) only the face of 'Crazy Horse' was completed. As no historical reference such as photographs exists of Crazy Horse, a genotypical aboriginal persona visage was used as the model. Mt. Rushmore took only 14 years to complete. The project also encountered problems such as high iron deposits, making excavation difficult, and extreme weather delaying construction. Ziolokowski did not live long enough to see his work completed. Work on the memorial continued after Ziolokowski died, managed by his descendants through the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. Some Lakota natives object to the project as they claim that Henry Standing Bear never consulted the community – especially Crazy Horse's descendants – for a consensus as culturally required. Elaine Quiver, a descendant of Crazy Horse, also states that carving images into mountains was desecrating the natural beauty of the sacred Black Hills that serve as sacred and ancestral burial grounds. Some Lakota also claim that the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation attains millions of dollars by exploiting their culture and Crazy Horse's memory through gift shop sales and donations rather than putting the proceeds towards completing the monument. The foundation grants scholarships to Aboriginal students, and through a partnership with South Dakota University, it intends to construct a university campus centered around the Colossus of Crazy Horse called the Indian University of North America as an archive to preserve and research Aboriginal culture.
The incomplete Dragon Stele statue of Yangshan Quarry. The quarry provided the material used in many monuments of Nanjing then the capital of Ming Dynasty China. The Ming Yongle Emperor commissioned a grand project to honor the memory of his father. The stele was designed assemble from three giant components—a base, body, and head—with a combined weight of 30,000 tonnes. The engineers said they underestimated the scale of the project and it was impossible to move such massive objects, so the project was abandoned. The statue's body components are part of the archaeological attraction.
The incomplete Neuschwanstein Castle is one of many opulent retreats built for Bavarian King Ludwig II. Walt Disney used it as inspiration for the castle in his animated film Sleeping Beauty. It became the trademark of his company. Ludwig intended Neuschwanstein to be his principal residence, rebuilding the ruins of a fortress overlooking Hohenschwangau Castle, where he spent much of his childhood, but construction was expensive and was not completed until after his death.
Three Gorges Dam, Yangtze River, China is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, and was designed to control a once-in-a-thousand-year flood. The structure took 18 years to build, and provides 10% of China's hydroelectricity. In 2011 the Chinese government admitted to unforeseen problems the dam has caused: 1.4 million people had to be relocated, with an addition 300,000 more in the near future as they are at risk of landslides and future flooding. In 2002, two-metre deep cracks appeared on the facade of the dam, raising suspicion of "tofu construction". Sewage and litter from the cities and natural debris run off has accumulated in the reservoir and formed islands of garbage. Despite the intention for the dam's design to relieve drought, the dam may have altered the natural tributaries of the Yangze that feed lakes and other massive waterways causing the worst drought in 50 years in 2011. More than 1300 Classical Chinese heritage sites (including the ancestral homeland of the Ba people and the scenery that inspired classical Chinese literature) were submerged by the reservoir. The Three Gorges valley is geologically unstable and the dam is at risk of catastrophic failure in the event of a great earthquake. Environmentalist writer Dai Qing has criticised the dam for being more of a grand monument than an answer to electricity requirements, and during its early construction in 1993 she suggested that the project may turn into a white elephant.
Several airports built in Spain are considered as white elephants. Ciudad Real Airport, just south of Madrid, has been described[according to whom?] as the worst example of the many white elephants in that area. It promised 6000 new jobs and a boom for the local economy, but closed in 2012, only four years after opening. In a similar situation are the Castellón-Costa Azahar Airport north of Valencia and the Huesca-Pirineos Airport. The Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport is an airport in Vilanova d'Alcolea and Benlloch in Spain. The airport was opened by local authorities in March 2011 despite having neither airlines signed up to land, nor government approval to operate. Delayed for several years and at a current cost of €150 million, commercial flights were due to begin on 1 April 2012. As of June 2013, there has been none. A $375,000, 24-metre tall statue of Carlos Fabra, the formerly powerful local politician who was the driving force behind its construction, was erected in the airport. Fabra has been under judicial investigation in connection with several cases of corruption and tax evasion.
Kangbashi New Area, Ordos City, China. In the wake of a very prosperous coal rush in Inner Mongolia, the city government planned a grand city scheme as land was sold to developers and invested tremendous resources. State-of-the-art public facilities were planned, luxury apartments and shops intended to service the growing middle class. However, most of the apartment flats have failed to attract buyers, and much of Ordos is uninhabited as the trend of buyers acquire these properties as investments. Many Ordos residents have lost money in these prospects as they invested their compensation money into these empty properties. This ghost city phenomenon is not just localized for Ordos; as of 2010, there were an estimated 65 million vacant housing units across China in cities in similar circumstances.
China's ambitious CRH high-speed rail project has been beset with numerous technological and safety problems, and by allegations of corruption. The CRH has low ridership and high fares, and is encumbered with debt accounting for 70% of the assets of the China National Railways ministry. Because of these problems and corruption prior to a high profile trainwreck killing 40 people, it failed to attract funding from financiers and other sources within the Chinese economic apparatus. With exhaustion of funding from stimulus packages from 2009, and the Great Recession, China Railways has had trouble securing funding for future growth of the CRH network and future growth has been halted or delayed due to these problems. However in 2013 construction resumed.
The New South China Mall was the largest mall in the world, conceived to accommodate 100,000 visitors a day. The facility boasted an amusement park, themed retail spaces, a Gondola course inspired by the Venetian canals, go-kart track, and the world's first Teletubby Entertainment center. The mall has remained barren since opening in 2005. Poor logistics and consumer research were the reasons for the failure. The mall remains incomplete and a planned hotel extension by Shangri-la Hotels was never completed. Photo journalist Wade Shepard's videos of the mall depict a littered and derelict 'ghost mall'. Drapes cover escalators and barricades cordon off empty halls. According to Wade's video report, the mall stays in operation despite being 99% empty, as the entertainment facilities as the IMAX cinema and amusement park attract visitors.
The West Edmonton Mall was once the largest mall in the world, boasting a submarine ride, dolphin show aquarium, IMAX multiplex, amusement park, waterpark, hotel that offered luxurious theme based hotels, and theme based plazas. The West Edmonton Mall's early history was plagued: the Early 1990s recession, heavy debts consisting of unpaid taxes and loans, political complications from finance related lawsuit involving a CA#420 million bailout, and a lawsuit by Disney over the use of the name Fantasyland. Despite these setbacks, Triple 5, the parent company of WEM, recovered with additions to the mall instead of relying solely on retail. The company also plans a future phase 4 expansion in the near future
The U.S. Navy's Alaska-classcruisers were described as "white elephants" because the "tactical and strategic concepts that inspired them were completely outmoded" by the time they were commissioned – the Japanese heavy cruisers that they were designed to hunt down had already been destroyed. The primary use of those that were completed was as anti-aircraft escorts for carrier forces, a role that smaller, less expensive and less manpower-intensive cruisers could perform with equal effectiveness.
The U.S. Navy's Zumwalt-class destroyer. Lawmakers and others have questioned the Zumwalt class given it costs too much and whether it provides the capabilities the U.S. military needs such as air defense against ballistic missiles. Its costs have spiked to roughly $3.45 billion per unit and many of the technologies promised have yet to be installed or even built. Originally, the Navy proposed building 32 destroyers but reduced that to 24, then to 7 and finally 2 or 3 in order to make the program affordable.
SS Great Eastern, a ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her launch in 1858, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling, but was not a commercial success. Her hold was later gutted and converted to lay the successful 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable, an impossible task for a smaller vessel.
The Thai aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Nareubet has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses. It has spent little time at sea since being commissioned in 1997 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) due to her high operating costs. However, the ship has participated in training activities, and in disaster relief after the 2004 tsunami. Coincidentally, the Royal Thai Navy ensign features a white elephant.
Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29 was conceived on the basis of traffic projections made in the 1980s and 1990s that warned of impending strains on the airport and the national air traffic system as a result of predicted growth in traffic at the airport. The $1 billion runway expansion was designed in part to allow for simultaneous operations on parallel runways in bad weather. Construction began in 1998, and continued even after traffic at the airport declined following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the purchase of Trans World Airlines by American Airlines in April 2001, and subsequent cuts in flights to the airport by American Airlines in 2003. The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the demolition of approximately 2,000 homes in Bridgeton, Missouri. Intended to provide superfluous extra capacity for flight operations at the airport, use of the runway is shunned by fuel-conscious pilots and airlines due to its distance from the terminals. Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, deemed the project a "white elephant".
The Millennium Dome in London, built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in Greenwich in London to celebrate the millennium, was commonly termed a white elephant. The exhibition it housed was less successful than hoped and the widely criticised building struggled to find a role after the event. It is now The O2, an arena and entertainment centre.
Christ's Hospital railway station was constructed at great expense in 1902 to accommodate Christ's Hospital school, a large independent school that had relocated from London to the West Sussex countryside. The station had seven platforms and a magnificent terminal building. It was envisaged that the station would be busy due to the 850 pupils regularly using it, and also the foreseen westward expansion of the nearby town of Horsham. It was also the meeting point of three separate railway lines. However, the railway company did not realise that the school is a boarding school, so the station is only used by large numbers of pupils a handful of times per year, and the development of Horsham did not materialise. Two of the railway lines also closed down in the 1960s as a result of the Beeching Axe, and the station now has two remaining platforms (one northbound to London Victoria, one southbound to Portsmouth), and one train per hour in each direction.
Olympic Stadium in Montreal cost about C$1.61 billion. Since the departure of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 2004, it has had no main tenant. The debt from the stadium was not paid off until December 2006. Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe". The French-language term "gros bol de toilette" has also been applied as a pejorative.
Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, was one of Queen Victoria's favourite royal residences. She died there on 22 January 1901. In her will, she asked that it be kept in the Royal Family, but none of her family wanted it, so Edward VII gave Osborne to the nation. With the exception of Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, who each retained houses on the estate, the rest of the royal family saw Osborne as something of an inaccessible white elephant.
The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, designed as the world's tallest hotel, began construction in 1987. Due to financial difficulties, construction ceased prematurely in 1992. Since then, the structure has remained as unoccipied hulk. Construction resumed in April 2008.
Ada programming language, commissioned by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). It was designed to be a single, standard language, particularly suitable for embedded and real-time systems. The DoD mandated the use of Ada for many software projects in 1987, but removed the requirement in 1997. It is still used in many countries, especially for safety-critical systems such as air traffic control and subways. It came to be known as the "Green Elephant" for the color code used to keep contract selection unbiased. It became irrelevant for commercial applications, barely surviving the wave of free and successful tools such as C++ and Java. The introduction of the GNAT compiler and the Ada 95 and 2005 standards has to some extent mitigated the cost.
Several incomplete or badly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dam (Uganda) and Epupa dam (Angola). Most were constructed by foreign companies in the interest of foreign aid. Although the buildings do not meet expectations, if construction is completed or restarted, they could still provide a contribution to the local population.
Brisbane, Australia's Clem Jones Tunnel. The operating company Rivercity motorways posted a A$1.67 billion loss in 2010, largely due to overly optimistic traffic projections. Despite cutting tolls by up to 50% traffic volumes are less than half of the projected 60,000 vehicles a day.
The stadiums built in South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup have been dubbed "white elephants", citing a massive misappropriation of national funds to provide a spectacle for the sporting event that might have been directed toward the country's staggering poverty.
Shanghai Maglev Train or Shanghai Transrapid. The journey was designed to connect Shanghai Pudong International Airport quickly (approximately 7 min.) to the outskirts of central Shanghai where passengers could interchange for their final destinations in the city centre. Due to the proprietary technology the Maglev Trains could not be incorporated into the Shanghai Metro and became a "train to nowhere" as its final stop is another 20 mins connection to the city centre via the Shanghai Metro.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being increasingly viewed as a "white elephant" by the U.S. military, due to its price of $380 billion for nearly 2,500 aircraft in three differing versions, to equip nine nations' air forces, along with lower performance than originally anticipated. Airplane designer Pierre Sprey is highly critical of the project calling the plane too un-maneuverable to be a dogfighter, too slow to be an interceptor, too small to be a bomber and it can't loiter over a battlefield for hours at a time to provide close air support. The lifetime cost of the F-35 program has since been estimated by the Pentagon at $1.45 trillion.
The National Ignition Facility, a laser fusion research facility in the United States, has been described by opponents as a white elephant. The total cost for development and construction of the research facility was $3.54 billion. A common joke among opponents of the facility is that "the technology is always 20 years away". Proponents point out that fusion is the holy grail of energy science and that the research wouldn't be a grand challenge if scientists knew in advance when fusion would be achieved in a laboratory. Public perception aside, the primary mission of the National Ignition Facility is actually to help ensure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without underground testing. In this capacity, it serves as the keystone research facility for the Stockpile Stewardship program.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus in ancient Greece was intended to be the biggest temple of its time, but due to its high construction costs and human power demands, the temple remain unfinished for many centuries. Its construction was finally completed during the Roman times 638 years after the project had begun.
The Sagrada Família church in Barcelona has been viewed for many years as a monumental white elephant. The construction started in 1882 and until today the church still remains under construction. The lack of funds, the death of the architect Antoni Gaudí, the Spanish Civil War and the complexity of the project led to delays and interruptions over the years. Completion is not expected until at least 2026, although it functions as a church and tourist attraction in the meantime.
The Tupolev Tu-144 was the first supersonic transport aircraft in the world, two months ahead of the Anglo-French Concorde. The craft did not live up to expectations, as it had a limited range and a loud air conditioning system, and in 1974 a Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show. Air & Space magazine called the plane a "Mach 2 white elephant".
Cesana Pariol hosted the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton event for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. It was termed a "white elephant" due to its difficulty as a track. Homologation on the luge side was delayed until late 2005 to its safety, then its upkeep and the economic crisis in Italy led to the track being shut down in late 2011. The track is in the process of being dismantled as of 2013.
The Russky Bridge was built across the Eastern Bosphorus strait, to serve the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that took place in 2012. The bridge connects the mainland part of Vladivostok with the meeting venue on Russky Island. The world's then-longest cable-stayed bridge terminates in a dead end on the island – whose population of 5,000 lack access to telephones, public lighting and mains water – and was completed at a cost believed to have exceeded $1 billion USD: the total bill has not been published.
Maryland Route 200, whose cost in 2013 exceeded $2.5 billion, was funded through infrastructure bonds and the debt was expected to be paid off from tolls collected. The highway witnessed less than half traffic and revenue projected and had little impact in easing the capital area traffic congestion. Higher toll rates could cause even lesser usage, and the cost of the project is unlikely to be fully recouped from tolls. Consequently, the MTA raised tolls to in other locations to compensate, which caused an outcry from many citizens.
The Diözesanzentrum (Diocesan Centre St. Nicholas) in Limburg, Germany. In 2013 Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the ex-bishop of the Limburg Diocese, renovated a luxurious Bishopric of Limburg. The compound was renovated at a cost of €31M several times what was originally planned for. Elst, was in the habit of extravagant tastes, despite him preaching to the contrary that they should live modestly. His congregation nicked named him the "Bishop of Bling" and the "luxury Bishop" to express their frustrations with the double standards. The compound was nicknamed pejoratively as the Kabba of Limburg, so named for an obsidian colored rectangular chapel centrally within the complex. The complex is equipped with a private garden costing €783K, private residences with a bathtub costing €15K, a diocese museum, the Kabba-like chapel. An 800 square feet (74 m2) fitness room was planned, as well other unconfirmed facilities such as a sauna and wine cellar. City officials were denied permission to inspect the residence and confirm the rumors, also the construction crew vowed secrecy. Expensive materials were used in its construction and interior decorations such as $600K for artwork and $474K for carpentry and cabinets. Funding for the residence took a toll on the Limburg diocese, programs such as day care and maintenance overhead were denied funding. Elst never resided in his new residence as he was removed from his position as Bishop of Limburg by Pope Francis in October 2013 during a visit to Rome. Pope Francis advised him to take a leave of absence and leave the Limburg diocese as he was deemed unable to perform his ministration duties while an investigation was conducted. However Elst's critics such as disgruntled members demanded his resignation. Elst retreated to a monastery in Bavaria. The cities of: Bremen, Osnabrück, Paderborn, Passau and Regensburg reported three-fold increases of Catholic resignations via exemption of tax registry. The former members, have been disillusioned with the church by what church officials dubbed as the 'Tebartz-effect'.
The 63rd Street subway line in New York City was originally supposed to be part of a large super-express subway line that went to southeastern Queens when first planned in the early 1960s. Due to skyrocketing costs and numerous delays (with trackage costs alone estimated at $100,000 per foot), construction was only made as far as 21st Street – Queensbridge by the time it opened in 1989. For twelve years, the three-station 63rd Street Line was known as the "tunnel to nowhere", as it stub-ended just a couple hundred feet west of the IND Queens Boulevard Line, a very busy subway line, and did nothing to alleviate congestion on the latter line. In 1984, usage estimates for the mostly two-tracked, $530 million line were 220 passengers an hour. A useful connection to the IND Queens Boulevard Line was opened in 2001.
Another subway line in New York City also built in the 1960s and opened in the 1990s—the Archer Avenue Line—is similarly a white elephant. The line, which also contains three stations, was supposed to be part of the large subway line that also included the 63rd Street Line, and was to go to Laurelton, Queens. This line cost $295 million and essentially replaced the east end of the old BMT Jamaica Line.
The Korean International Circuit, built at a cost of 77 million dollars (88 billion won) to host the Formula 1 Korean Grand Prix in 2010. The circuit hosted few races each year, with the Formula 1 the only major international event held. The race was removed from the calendar following the 2013 race.