Five Biggest Software Fails

By Mike Wheeler

It’s amazing how much trouble a bunch of zeros and ones can cause, but such is the way of modern life with software driving almost every aspect of our lives – whether it be train stations, electricity grids, water supply, or the military.

By Mike Wheeler

It’s amazing how much trouble a bunch of zeros and ones can cause, but such is the way of modern life with software driving almost every aspect of our lives – whether it be train stations, electricity grids, water supply, or the military. It’s not totally unexpected for there to be failures in our systems, after all software programs were created by people, so the chances of things going wrong on occasion is pretty high. Here are our top picks of the costliest – and almost deadliest – software fails of all time

5. The Most Expensive Hyphen In History
One of the earliest software fails occurred in 1962 with NASA’s Mariner 1 spacecraft, which was on its way to Venus. Before it even left the Earth’s atmosphere, ground control deliberately set off the self-destruct  button because of a steering problem. Rumour has it that there was an errant hyphen in the software program that caused the problem. Whatever caused it, it ended up with a then $18 million ($134 million in today’s money) project ending up on the scrap heap. 

4. Windows 98 Fail
This goes down as probably one of the most embarrassing on record, not so much because it was a live display of the Windows 98 operating system, but because Microsoft maestro Bill Gates was the person being shown the demonstration. As Microsoft marketing guru Chris Capossela was showing to the audience how to connect drivers for a scanner utilising Windows 98, the dreaded  Blue Screen Of Death appeared. The Blue Screen of Death is non-recoverable and thus the system crashed. To his credit Gates quipped “That must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.” He was laughing at the time – what he really felt, or what Capossella’s stomach was doing, we’ll never know.

3. 2003 Blackout In North America
It’s hard to believe that a tiny, itsy bitsy software bug in an alarm system caused one of the biggest blackouts in history. More than 55 million people in Canada and the United States were affected by the failure in a control room at a power station in Ohio. In simple terms an alarm at the FirstEnergy Corporation was supposed to sound to alert technicians that power needed to be redistributed before there was an overload. The software driving the alarm failed, which had a knock-on effect in that is caused a power surge that knocked out power to large tracts of North East North America.

2. Y2K ‘Bug’
This wasn’t so much a fail, more like a fail to materialise. For a decade or so leading up to the year 2000 some software engineers and other nay sayers were telling the public that LANS, WANs and home PCs were in danger of critical failure as the turn of the millennium approached. The intrinsic problem was that most computer software programs only had two digits when representing a year. For example, when date stamping something 97, we all knew it was 1997. However, when the roll over occurred and the year 01 appeared, we assumed it would mean 2001 however some computers might see it as 1901. This caused all sorts of strife whereby payrolls wouldn’t be met, files would get lost in the ether of date confusion and it might even lead to critical infrastructure collapsing and planes falling out of the sky as the clock struck midnight on January 31, 1999. Millions were spent trying to fix the problem, and eventually it was solved , the most common fix being to expand two digit years to four digit years in programs, files and databases.

1. World War III Averted Due To “Gut” Feeling
A sceptical Soviet Union army officer was all that stood between peace and all out nuclear war back in 1983 as the country’s early-warning satellite system got it wrong. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov thought something was amiss when the USSR’s missile defence system said that five United States Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were heading for the Motherland. Instead of telling his superiors and firing back at the USA, his ‘gut’ told him that it was the archaic defense system that was the issue. It turned out he was right as they found out it was caused by software interpreting the sun reflecting off clouds as missiles being fired. And why did Petrov have this gut feeling? Because he believed that if the USA was going to fire nukes at the USSR there would have been hundreds, not a paltry five.

What do you think have been the biggest software fail of all time?

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