The saying, ”computers are only as smart as…”, seems to be the most appropriate phrase when describing something that has gone terribly wrong. Often times, errors spawn from a programmer overlooking a line of code; however, the most common computer errors can be found between the keyboard and the chair, and you’ll see, even the small mistakes can cost companies billions of dollars.
Here are our picks for the ten greatest catastrophes caused by PC carelessness:
10. In July 2006, a computer error in Verizon’s system led to the overcharging of nearly 11,000 customers in the mid-Atlantic region. The programming error led to extra charges that ranged from $200 to thousands of dollars. That’s one “extra charge” a customer can’t overlook.
9. In 1989, a computer related error resulted in over 40,000 Paris citizens receiving letters charging them with such crimes as murder, extortion, and organized prostitution. The letter was intended to be a simple traffic ticket.
8. Arguably the most renowned computer error comes from the Microsoft founder himself, Bill Gates. In 1998, during a public demonstration of Windows 98, Gates was left embarrassed after trying to simply plug a scanner into his PC. The audience anxiously watched as Mr. Gates’ own OS crashed.
7. Scientific America (November, 1998) reported the case where a crew member of the USS Yorktown guided missile cruiser mistakenly entered a zero into the system, causing a “divide by zero” error in the software. The errors cascaded throughout the cruiser, causing the shutdown of the propulsion system and leaving the Yorktown a sitting target for several hours.
6. In 1994, just one line of code caused a Chemical Bank in New York to deduct twice the amount that their customers withdrew from the ATM machines. The code sent a copy of the withdrawal to a second computer system, which deducted the money a second time. Around $5 million was mistakenly withdrawn from customers accounts due to the bank’s “software error.”
5. In the early 1980s, a device named Therac 25 was used to beam radiation at patients with cancerous tumors. In this case, the hardware had a fail-safe to prevent damage to a patient or doctor; however, the software did not. Even worse, technicians using the machine would often enter the wrong dose of radiation; many deaths and injuries were caused as a result.
4. Denver airport’s automated baggage handling system was delayed for a year in the mid 1990s, postponing the opening of the airport at a cost of $234m. The airport’s proclaimed “fully automated baggage system” consisted of 26 miles of underground track, thousands of luggage carts, which were all controlled by a mainframe programmed for “just in time” delivery. Bugs delayed the airport’s opening, and the system never completely worked. In an effort to prevent any further revenue loss, the entire system was abandoned.
3. In 1999, the $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter received a computer failure; which, today is accepted as “lost” by NASA officials. It turns out that NASA had not specified the system of measurement on the device, resulting in one team of engineers working in imperial measurements, while another team was using metric. When one module, on the device, passed information to another, the system was unable to process it and simply shut down.
2. In May 1992, Pepsi ran a promotion in the Philippines; in which, they offered a prize of one million pesos (which at the time was approx. US $40,000) for the lucky customer who found the number 349 stamped on the bottom of their bottle cap. Due to a “software error”, 800,000 bottlecaps were printed with the winning number instead of just one. Pepsi offered to pay only $20 to anyone with a winning cap; however, the public rallied, and threw bombs into Pepsi’s bottling plants. Two people died in riots, and Pepsi officials had to be flown out of the country. Some “winners” pursued their claim through the courts, which resulted in Pepsi paying out millions of dollars in compensation.
1. A “software bug” was determined to be the problems behind the worst power system failure in North American history, the 2003 Northeast Blackout. After examining millions of lines of code, the problem was found in ONE utility company’s power monitoring and management software; the failure forced 100 power plants to shut down operation and resulted in the loss of electricity to over 50 million homes. Losses were estimated at $6 billion.