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A white elephant in 19th century Thai art.
A white elephant is a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

Background

The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burmamarker, Thailandmarker, Laosmarker and Cambodiamarker. 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 tradition derives from tales which associate a white elephant with the birth of Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a 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 both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the animal had to be retained and could not be put to much practical use, at least to offset the cost of maintaining it.

The Order of the White Elephant consists of eight grades of medals issued by the government of Thailand.

Examples of alleged white elephant projects

  • The U.S. Navy's s 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.
  • Bristol Brabazon, an airliner built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1949 to fly a large number of passengers on transatlantic routes from Englandmarker to the United Statesmarker.
  • Concorde, a supersonic transport built by Aérospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation, intended for high-speed intercontinental passenger travel. Only fourteen production aircraft were built, though it was planned that development costs were to be amortized over hundreds of units: the British and French governments incurred large losses as no aircraft could be sold on commercial terms. Concorde flew the transatlantic route for over two decades, and it did at least make a big operating profit for British Airways.
  • 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.
  • HTMS Chakri Naruebet, a Thai aircraft carrier that has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses.
  • Hughes H-4 Herculesmarker (or "Spruce Goose"), often called Howard Hughes' white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes' associate Noah Dietrich called it a "plywood white elephant".
  • Lambert-St. Louis International Airportmarker 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 9/11 attacks, 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, Missourimarker. 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 Domemarker 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 initially housed was less successful than hoped and the widely criticised building struggled to find a role after the event. It is now The O2marker, an arena and entertainment centre.
  • Montréal-Mirabel International Airportmarker is North America's largest airport, but has been abandoned as a passenger airport.
  • New York Giants manager John McGraw referred to the Philadelphia Athletics as a "white elephant" prior to their meeting in the 1905 World Series. Although the Athletics lost that series, in defiance they adopted an elephant as an alternate team logo and eventually as a full-fledged mascot.
  • Olympic Stadiummarker in Montrealmarker 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 wasn't paid in full until December 2006. Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe", "Uh-O", and "The Big Mistake".
  • Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wightmarker, England, was one of Queen Victoria's favourite royal residences. She died there on January 22, 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 Hotelmarker in Pyongyang, North Koreamarker, 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 a massive concrete hulk, unfit for habitation. Construction resumed in April 2008.
  • Ada programming language, commissioned by the United States Department of Defensemarker (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 new free and successful tools such as C++ and Javamarker.
  • Several incomplete or badly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dammarker (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.
  • In 1907, author Henry James described the mansions in Newport, Rhode Islandmarker as being "white elephants" and "witless dreams" because they were summer homes for the wealthy and were unoccupied for most of the year. Thorstein Veblen invented the term conspicuous consumption to describe the mansions.
  • In "Hills Like White Elephants", a short story by Ernest Hemingway, an unborn child is viewed as a white elephant.


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