Changing the outcome of historical events with ChatGPT

I’m a big fan of history and it is always interesting to think of the ‘what if?’ scenarios. In fact there are plenty of tabletop war games and a lot of video games dedicated to playing out alternative scenarios and also some great books on the subject. ChatGPT offers another way of exploring alternative scenarios and well.. re-writing history. At the moment, it isn’t too sophisticated.

Changing history also has political implications – describing events in a slightly different way can give a different slant. It is rarely objective and is almost always based on an incomplete version of the exact facts. Outcomes are mostly undeniable however.

I got ChatGPT to run through a couple of scenarios during the American War of Independence or the Revolutionary War as it is also known. One pivotal moment was the Battle of Trenton on the 26th of December 1776. The Hessians (German auxiliaries to the British forces) were defeated in a surprise attack by the Continental Army which re-invigorated morale and inspired others to join the cause. It also inspired this famous painting of George Washington on his way to the battle, crossing the icy Delaware:

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Luetz, Metropolitan Museum of Art (wikimedia commons)

The story goes that the attack began at daybreak and the Hessian garrison were caught by surprise and overwhelmed by Washington’s Continental Army. Some say they were drunk after Christmas festivities but this seems to have been misinterpretation. There is even a webpage dedicated to myth-busting things about the battle.

Changing the outcome of the Battle of Trenton

So back to ChatGPT – would a different result in this battle have resulted in a different outcome to the War of Independence? I asked it to create a new wikipedia page based on the Hessians winning at Trenton. It is interesting what tack is taken – in the hypothetical ‘win’ scenario Colonel Rall on the Hessian side receives intelligence about Washington’s attack. Note that this was a factor in Washington’s real victory – he had a spy in the Hessian camp that had played down the state of the Continental Army (this was a small factor and it was also true that the Continental Army soldiers barely had shoes, even with the freezing conditions). ChatGPT does clearly present it as an alternate scenario (although I asked it do this – my prompt was: “Create a wikipedia page about the battle of trenton, but in a scenario where the hessians win”). The text broadly sticks to the facts of what happened, with the alternate twist being that the Hessians are not surprised by the attack and are ready and waiting (disciplined as they were).

Interestingly ChatGPT also states that it would not have changed the outcome, so the timeline reverts back to the real world outcome by the end of its text. This is an interesting position to take because of course the path of the war after that is non-deterministic, but the body of real-world text brings the world back to one where the Americans achieved their independence.

Here’s the real wikipedia page about the Battle of Trenton and below is my generated one:

Battle of Trenton (Hessian Victory)

The Battle of Trenton was a pivotal engagement that took place during the American Revolutionary War on December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey. In this alternate scenario, the battle resulted in a resounding victory for the Hessian forces under the command of Colonel Johann Rall, instead of the historical outcome where the American forces emerged triumphant.


After several early defeats in the war, General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, sought to rally his demoralized troops by planning a daring attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. The Hessian mercenaries, led by Colonel Rall, were stationed in the town and played a crucial role in supporting British forces in the region.

Deployment of Forces

In this alternative scenario, Colonel Rall had received intelligence about Washington’s planned attack. Recognizing the threat, he ordered his troops to adopt a more cautious and defensive position, fortifying key positions within Trenton. Rall made use of the town’s natural defenses, such as the Assunpink Creek and the houses along the streets, to create strong defensive positions for his forces.

On the American side, Washington’s plan to launch a surprise attack relied heavily on the element of surprise. However, in this scenario, the Hessian defenses, combined with their knowledge of the American plan, made the task much more challenging.

The Battle

As dawn broke on December 26, 1776, the American forces, numbering around 2,400 troops, attacked the Hessian positions in Trenton. However, they were met with a stubborn and well-prepared defense from the Hessian forces, which numbered around 1,500 soldiers.

The American assault faced fierce resistance as they attempted to breach the Hessian defenses. The Hessian soldiers, well-disciplined and fighting from fortified positions, repelled multiple American charges. The Continental Army suffered heavy casualties in their attempts to break through the Hessian lines.

Despite their initial setbacks, Washington’s troops continued to press the attack, but the Hessian defenders held their ground. Colonel Rall skillfully directed his troops, countering American maneuvers and maintaining the cohesion of his forces. The Hessian soldiers fought with determination, inflicting heavy losses on the American forces and frustrating Washington’s attempts to gain a decisive advantage.

Hessian Victory

After hours of intense fighting, the American forces, depleted and demoralized, were forced to withdraw from Trenton. Colonel Rall’s strategic defenses and the resilience of his troops secured a resounding victory for the Hessian forces.

The Hessian victory at the Battle of Trenton had significant implications for the course of the American Revolutionary War. The loss dealt a severe blow to the morale of the Continental Army and dampened the spirits of American supporters. The successful defense of Trenton bolstered British and Hessian confidence and consolidated their control over the region, hampering American efforts to gain momentum in the war.


Following the Hessian victory at Trenton, the British and Hessian forces expanded their control over New Jersey, further stabilizing their hold on the region. The loss at Trenton forced General Washington to reevaluate his strategies and consider alternative approaches to challenging British and Hessian dominance.

Although the Hessian victory at Trenton temporarily halted the American momentum, it did not ultimately alter the outcome of the Revolutionary War. The conflict would continue for several more years, with the American forces rebounding and achieving significant victories in subsequent battles, eventually leading to their independence from Great Britain.

The Battle of Trenton, in this alternative scenario, stands as a testament to the effectiveness of Hessian defenses and the formidable resistance they put up against the Continental Army. It remains a noteworthy event in the annals of military history, showcasing the complexities and uncertainties of warfare.”

The great thing about ChatGPT is that having established this context in the conversation you can ask follow-up questions. I asked it what Washington’s next steps would have been and it generated what I would say was a relatively generic (classic GPT style) response. I think that highlights the limitations of where were now with this kind of AI, but if supplied with additional context it does provide very quick analysis – much faster than a human being could perform. However, it does require the human to understand what actually was going on at the time to help correct it. If you do understand some of the facts on the ground, then you can use these as modifiers to help play out other sub-scenarios. Here’s another time I was looking at this – I asked ChatGPT what it thought about the decisions at the time (there was a huge blizzard). The answers are pretty much what you or I would come up with if we thought about it, so in that sense there is the magic of the clairvoyant at play if you don’t think too hard. I’ve constrained the options significantly (both for those originally on the ground and for the AI):

So the benefit is a rapid playing out of different scenarios but again you do need to correct it. Here there is some ‘AI hallucination’ – it confidently states that the outcome of the battle was determined only by strategic factors and the actions on the ground, not the fact that it was Christmas. For context here – there is no clear answer to why they were caught unprepared – it was probably a combination of things including Christmas festivities and crucially the Hessians had been warned that there may be an attack. When I pointed this out (and this has happened a few times when I have tried this), it feels like there is a lot of back-tracking (of course this is just the reader’s perception):

ChatGPT can be useful in thinking about things where you may not have explored them yourself (and quickly). For example, the Hessians didn’t use their artillery in the battle, so I sought ChatGPT’s opinion on why. Again the caveat is that it will not necessarily consider ‘every’ factor available in history books – but you can certainly imagine a future where it will:

Finally – we can jump around the theatre of war to other points – for example – the Caribbean islands were very strategic when it came to French re-supplies:

There are many different scenarios that can be played out that could have helped the British which they clearly didn’t pay enough attention to at the time – of course very easy with the benefit of hindsight. We’re also not considering the huge number of almost uncontrollable factors that were playing out at the same time – whether it be dealing with the French, the Dutch merchants or the opinion of parliamentarians.

Polluting the datasets or erasing history…

So in summary, ChatGPT is quite a nice tool for exploring alternative scenarios in history, but it has limitations right now. It is not difficult to imagine modern-day commanders utilising AI in their decision-making, but just as we see above, context and accuracy are crucial and that’s all without an active adversary that may just be polluting the data with other alternative facts or even changing history… It will be ever-more important that original historical sources are preserved and protected from change or destruction.

For some further reading on the Revolutionary War, I recommend the excellent books ‘The First Salute‘ by Barbara W. Tuchman and 1776 by David McCullough.

The Wireless Telegraph and the Titanic

Today, the 15th of April 2022, marks the 110th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic.

In 2013, I gave a Pecha Kucha talk in the Titanic museum after the CSIT security conference on the role of the wireless telegraph during the disaster. It’s both a good and bad story – it highlights the many (many!) failings, but it also demonstrated the benefits of wireless communications during a disaster.

Just to give you a flavour of the multitude of things that went wrong or contributed to the sinking – the locker in the crows nest that held the binoculars was locked and inaccessible due to an officer leaving the ship in Southampton on the 9th of April and taking the key with him. This was seen as a contributing factor to the disaster.

I’ve posted the script with the images from the talk below (with some small additions).

The Role of the Wireless Telegraph During the Titanic Disaster – David Rogers Pecha Kucha talk

This is the last picture taken of the Titanic as it left Queenstown. The priest who took it could have stayed on board, but after seeking permission his superior sent him a telegram ordering him to “GET OFF THAT SHIP”. He spent the rest of his life telling people “it was the only time holy obedience ever saved a man’s life”.

Marconi and the telegraph

This is Guglielmo Marconi. He made the first transatlantic transmission and commercialised a lot of his work heavily. His company provided the telegraph aboard Titanic.

Marconi was due to travel on the Titanic but instead travelled earlier on the Lusitania, another yet to be infamous ship.

Wireless operators

These two gentlemen were Titanic’s telegraph operators. John “Jack” Phillips, 25, known as sparks because he could send morse so fast, and Harold Bride, his junior who was just 22.

Messages would include getting the news, passenger’s personal messages and information from other ships such as ice reports, fog and reports of derelicts.

Marconi rooms

This is the only known picture of the ‘Marconi room’, the radio room onboard the Titanic.

The wireless equipment of the Titanic was the most powerful of any merchant vessel. Communication range was up to 400 miles and at night range often increased to 2000 miles.

Titanic’s wireless…

Here you can see Titanic’s wireless antenna, running from bow to stern, with a section in the middle.

The radio room was some 40ft away from the bridge down a corridor and despite being connected to 50 telephone lines there was no phone line to the bridge.

Additional note here: the plan below (I took the photo in the Titanic museum in Belfast) shows where the Marconi room was in relation to the bridge:

Ice Warnings

Titanic had a number of radio warnings about ice. Only one warning was put on the officers’ notice board, but none of them were taken up to the Bridge to Captain Smith. Shortly after the last warning the Titanic struck an iceberg at full speed.

These pictures are thought to be the actual iceberg that Titanic hit, taken the day after streaked with red paint.

The Californian

The SS Californian was very close to Titanic and sent that last warning, saying they were surrounded by ice. But on the Titanic, Phillips was busy with a backlog of passenger messages to Newfoundland and told the Californian to “keep out and shut up” because his wireless reception was being drowned out by the strong transmission of the closer ship.


It was over half an hour after they’d hit the ice berg before Captain Smith ordered the sending of the distress call. At 12.20pm the first SOS was sent from the Titanic.

After the first CQD (the old type of distress call), Bride said to Phillips: “Send S.O.S. !  It’s the new call and it may be your last chance to send it”.

Californian continued…

The Californian’s only wireless operator had turned off his set and went to bed about 15 minutes before Titanic struck the ice berg. The two ships were only 6 miles apart. Crew on the Californian apparently saw lights and rockets but assumed there was a party. At 5am their wireless operator was woken up and only then did they learn the fate of the Titanic.

Wireless response

SOS had no specific meaning other than that it was easy to tap out and understand. However, many different meanings were attached e.g. ‘save our souls’, ‘send out succor’ etc.

As you can see here, a number of different ships responded to Titanic’s strong SOS.

Hostile messages

A lot of ships were sending messages to the Titanic. Not all of these were helpful! The first message here is from the German ship the Frankfurt whose wireless operator worked for Marconi’s fierce competitor, Telefunken. You can see the strong response from the Titanic, just a few minutes before it actually sunk. At the time not even emergency messages were shared with the competition!


Apparently the SOS sent by the Titanic was also picked up by a radio ham in Wales. He reported it to the local police who predictably didn’t believe him!

The sheer quantity of non-critical messages was huge. Marconi would make a lot of money from passengers sending messages during the voyage and they didn’t come cheap!

Leaving the Titanic

About 2:20a.m, the last SOS message was sent from Titanic. “We are sinking fast”. Bride and Phillips were told to leave by Captain Smith. They had 3 minutes before the ship sunk.

Bride made it onto an upturned lifeboat which was washed out to sea as the bow of Titanic went under. It is not clear what then happened to Phillips.


At this point, the ship apparently broke apart at about the aft Grand staircase (about where we’re standing) [additional note: there is a replica of the grand staircase in the museum]. Out of 2223 passengers, over 1500 died. With too few lifeboats and a cancelled drill the day before, it was a mess. Lifeboat One had a capacity of 40 but only had 12 people in.


The RMS Carpathia was the only boat to pick up survivors arriving at, two hours after Titanic had sunk. Harold Bride was seriously injured but helped the wireless operator of the Carpathia send out messages. There was some difficulty sending survivor lists because of clogs in traffic and the sheer length.

Arrival in New York

Carpathia arrived in New York on the 18th of April, three days after the sinking. Here Harold Bride is helped off the ship, with one foot partially crushed and suffering from severe frostbite. The wireless operators were heroes.

Sale of the story

Marconi was a very PR savvy man. He arranged for Harold Bride to have an exclusive interview with the New York Times for which Bride was paid $500. It could be seen as damage limitation however it is true that everyone would have died if it wasn’t for the wireless telegraph. This is Bride putting Philips’ lifebelt on.

Reporting the sinking

Reporters offered to pay vast sums for the stories of the sinking and of the famous people onboard, whilst Carpathia was still at sea. Telegraphs to the ship offered at least five hundred dollars a column, with one offering an unlimited quantity, however many of these messages just didn’t get through due to higher priority traffic.

Cyber Titanic

I’ve shown a number of failings here. Cyber themes today would include issues of incident handling, standardisation, new technology, drills, internationally understood procedures, warning escalation and the pain of media involvement, however I wonder what a “Cyber Titanic” would look like and what would it be?
Thanks for listening.

Some additional thoughts

I really recommend visiting the Titanic Museum in Belfast, it is really well done and incredibly interesting both for learning about the tragic events of the 14/15th of April 1912 and also the social and engineering history behind Titanic and its passengers. They also have a section on the telegraph messages that night too.

I also highly recommend visiting the Titanic Exhibition in Las Vegas at the Luxor. I couldn’t take any pictures inside the exhibition, but it is really something else – a lot of recovered artefacts including a huge part of the side of the ship give a real insight into what it was like, again well worth a visit if you’re in Vegas.

Last, but definitely not least is the book ‘Titanic Calling: Wireless Communications During the Great Disaster‘, edited by Michael Hughes and Katherine Bosworth, and published by the Bodleian Library in Oxford which is where the Marconi archive lives. This was published to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster and is an incredible insight into all of the communications between the different ships.

Here’s my tea cup from dinner at the Titanic Museum in Belfast.