A white elephant is a possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness. 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).
White elephants are linked to Hindu cosmology, the mount of Indra, king of the Vedic deities is Airavata, a white elephant. White elephants are also intricately linked to Buddhist cosmology, the mount of Sakka's (a Buddhist deity and ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven) is a three-headed white elephant named Airavata. Albino elephants exist in nature, usually being reddish-brown or pink.
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.
In the West, the term "white elephant" relating to an expensive burden that fails to meet expectations, was popularized following P. T. Barnum's experience with an elephant named Toung Taloung that he billed as the "Sacred White Elephant of Burma". After much effort and great expense, Barnum finally acquired the animal from the King of Siam only to discover that his "white elephant" was actually dirty grey in color with a few pink spots.
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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- 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 who disapproved of Mt. Rushmore as four non-native faces peering over his ancestral land.
- Several airports built in Spain are considered as white elephants. Ciudad Real Airport, just south of Madrid, has been described 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, both currently have no scheduled commercial flights.
- The New South China Mall was the largest mall in the world, conceived to accommodate 100,000 visitors a day.
- The West Edmonton Mall once the largest mall in the world. and a lawsuit by Disney over the use of the name Fantasyland.
- The U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruisers 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.
- 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.
- Hughes H-4 Hercules (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 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.
- Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is North America's largest airport, but has been abandoned as a passenger airport due to its awkward location and lack of traffic. The name of the project's most-notable supporter Pierre Elliott Trudeau was subsequently used for Dorval Airport, which Mirabel was intended to replace.
- The Philadelphia Athletics baseball team was referred to as a "white elephant" by rival New York Giants manager John McGraw prior to their meeting in the 1905 World Series. Although the Athletics lost that series, in defiance they adopted an elephant as an alternative team logo and eventually as a full-fledged mascot.
- 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.
- 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 unoccupied 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.
- In 1907, author Henry James described the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, USA 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.
- The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway (CGB), a public transit project in East Anglia, whose high construction costs far exceed even the most optimistic projections of revenue. Because the 50,000 tons of concrete used to build the busway is itself white, the project is often referred to as a white elephant.
- 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.
- 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 Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania was built by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu as the world's second largest building (second to The Pentagon). After the 1989 overthrow, the cost of demolishing the palace would have been higher than the cost of finishing it.
- The City of Culture of Galicia in Spain is a complex of buildings designed by a group of architects led by the American architect Peter Eisenman, exceed its original planned budget by four times, and in 2013 fourteen years after the project set up, construction was halted.The final two planned buildings out of six remain unfinished.
- 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".
- 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. 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 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.
- The International Space Station has been described by former Apollo program commander Jim Lovell as "almost a white elephant".
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