Feb 12


“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”  –Paul Ehrlich

Software errors cost the U.S. economy $60 billion annually in rework, lost productivity and actual damages.  We all know software bugs can be annoying, but faulty software can also be expensive, embarrassing, destructive and deadly.  Following are 20 famous software “disasters” in chronological order:

1.  Mariner Bugs Out (1962)

Cost: $18.5 million

Disaster: The Mariner 1 rocket with a space probe headed for Venus diverted from its intended flight path shortly after launch.  Mission Control destroyed the rocket 293 seconds after liftoff.

Cause: A programmer incorrectly transcribed a handwritten formula into computer code, missing a single superscript bar.  Without the smoothing function indicated by the bar, the software treated normal variations of velocity as if they were serious, causing faulty corrections that sent the rocket off course. (more)

2.  Hartford Coliseum Collapse (1978)

Cost: $70 million, plus another $20 million damage to the local economy

Disaster: Just hours after thousands of fans had left the Hartford Coliseum, the steel-latticed roof collapsed under the weight of wet snow.

Cause: The programmer of the CAD software used to design the coliseum incorrectly assumed the steel roof supports would only face pure compression.  But when one of the supports unexpectedly buckled from the snow, it set off a chain reaction that brought down the other roof sections like dominoes.  (more)

3.  CIA Gives the Soviets Gas (1982)

Cost: Millions of dollars, significant damage to Soviet economy



Disaster: Control software went haywire and produced intense pressure in the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline, resulting in the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in Earth’s history.

Cause: CIA operatives allegedly planted a bug in a Canadian computer system purchased by the Soviets to control their gas pipelines.  The purchase was part of a strategic Soviet plan to steal or covertly obtain sensitive U.S. technology.  When the CIA discovered the purchase, they sabotaged the software so that it would pass Soviet inspection but fail in operation.  (more)

4.  World War III… Almost (1983)

Cost: Nearly all of humanity

Disaster: The Soviet early warning system falsely indicated the United States had launched five ballistic missiles.  Fortunately the Soviet duty officer had a “funny feeling in my gut” and reasoned if the U.S. was really attacking they would launch more than five missiles, so he reported the apparent attack as a false alarm.

Cause: A bug in the Soviet software failed to filter out false missile detections caused by sunlight reflecting off cloud-tops.  (more)

5.  Medical Machine Kills (1985)

Cost: Three people dead, three people critically injured

Disaster: Canada’s Therac-25 radiation therapy machine malfunctioned and delivered lethal radiation doses to patients.

Cause: Because of a subtle bug called a race condition, a technician could accidentally configure Therac-25 so the electron beam would fire in high-power mode without the proper patient shielding.  (more)

Wait, there’s more… Continue to Part 2

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Article published on February 12, 2008




60 Responses to “20 Famous Software Disasters”

  1. DotNetKicks.com Says:

    20 Famous Software Disasters…

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  2. 20 Famous Software Disasters - Part 4 : DevTopics Says:

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  5. bmora96 Says:

    Thanks for the knowledge..Among 20 the most shocking is the Mariner Bugs Out and Hartford. It made me think a lot about computer programming and its defects. Anybody tell me of a good open source project that provides security over software piracy. Someone recommended the site “paragent.com”
    Any suggestions or opinions about this would be great.
    Thanks In advance,
    Shaun

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  10. mCw Says:

    Oh, how I would _hate_ to be the programmer that made one of these mistakes. How heavy must it lie on their conscience — that is, of course, if the programmer knew that _they_ made the mistake.

    It’s one thing to have a bug in a program, but when that program is used for situations where a bug could cause death, it’s a totally different matter.

    That’s why I’d never write programs that would be used in such situations. Mistakes cannot be prevented from happening. :/

  11. Twenty Famous Software Disasters | foojam.com Says:

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  12. k10 Says:

    please visit http://www.microsoft.com to check on more such disasters ;-)

  13. Eric Says:

    So how is the Hartford collapse considered a ‘software disaster’?
    *Was there a flaw in the CAD software?
    *Was the CAD software ‘running’ when the roof collapse?
    *If it had been designed using traditional methods (pencil, ruler, compass and paper) would that make it a ‘drafter disaster’?
    *Wasn’t the CAD ‘programmer’(??) actually the structural engineer who should have known better regardless of the technology used to capture his/her design?

    This doesn’t meet the same criteria as the other examples. And yeah, I’m a thin-skinned programmer ;-)

  14. links for 2008-02-15 -- Chip’s Quips Says:

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  15. مدونة مؤيد » أرشيف المدونة » أخطاء و مشاكل برمجية مدمرة Says:

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  16. penyux Says:

    woagh nice post,progammer also human :D, every human can make a mistake :D

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  25. Gary Says:

    Its scarcely world-famous, but we had a fun one with the Navy’s standard missile system in the 1970s, when we tested a “last ditch” defense mode against sea skimmer missiles. After a year of asking, we got permission to launch two war shots at a drone using the mode. We no sooner launched the missiles when the radars slewed to their stowed position and turned themselves off, thanks to a bug in the program for the then-new Mk 152 computers. Our two missiles, having lost all return signal, self-destructed. “Boom” goes a quarter million 1975 dollars. Our tech-reps looked a little bit harried for the rest of that trip….

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  36. james Says:

    title says 20 but I got only 5. I think it’ll be great to have all list in one part instead of few parts. But it’s great info. I’ll going to use as a reference for my next science assignment.

  37. ufon Says:

    Programmers will always make mistakes and introduce bugs, there is nothing you can do about it. The project leader should always subject the outcome to rigorous testing to make sure it performs as expected, thats in my opinion where the responsibility lies.

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  42. orjin krem Says:

    Very nice suggestions.

    Thanks man

  43. altın çilek Says:

    title says 20 but I got only 5. I think it’ll be great to have all list in one part instead of few parts. But it’s great info. I’ll going to use as a reference for my next science assignment

  44. altın çilek Says:

    Programmers will always make mistakes and introduce bugs, there is nothing you can do about it. The project leader should always subject the outcome to rigorous testing to make sure it performs as expected, thats in my opinion where the responsibility lies.

  45. formula 21 Says:

    site 20 desastres famosos de software você pode ver esses e outros desastres provocados por erros de software, ou melhor, erros dos

  46. UK Bingo Promotion Says:

    Number three sounds like something the CIA would do. Thats one of those, what were they think? Umm they weren’t

  47. Esc Says:

    altın çilek, you are right, but programmers need to grow up and accept their part in killing people.

    Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.

    We are currently seeing companies race to create electronic health information systems with profoundly unqualified developers. In a domain where the data dictionary is a few hundred million rows, the reference information model has 25 classes, made from 75+ different data-types (not counting the huge range from collections, mix-ins, and template/generic types) you don’t want people emailing a standards organization for help with questions like:

    “I just was asked to implement a [standard, very basic summary of a persons health history] CCD/C32—do I have to read all of the standard or can someone tell me what to do?” (Answer: no, hire someone who knows what they are doing and keep your hands in your pockets)

    “What is Schematron” (Answer: http://www.google.com/search?q=schematron)

    Wait until these developers start getting named as individuals in malpractice lawsuits as perpetrators of pain/suffering/loss of life/loss of family; and software engineers loose their house and cars….whoo…hoo…hoo, won’t that be a change. Malpractice insurance is probably pretty cheap now, better lock in a quote. They will even get your favorite undergrad CS professor in their testifying that you were already reckless and they warned you to be systematic, oh how they warned you. ;)

    Welcome to healthcare. Start coding like you will get sued for every-time a mistake causes harm. Betcha double check those threads for deadlock and race awful carefully.

    Writing some types of software is not a late-at-night hacking on your own. Sometimes sprinting between scrums leaves a hell of a lot of details, modeling, test-first work undone.

    For critical systems (e.g. healthcare) formal code review, red-team testing, model drive development, internal validation, monitoring/logging every class, guarding every method, catching all exceptions, validating input before it is sent and after it is received need to be the normal day-to-day method for writing electronic health records systems, order entry systems, pharmacy systems, etc. etc. etc.

    This isn’t a game. Although the industry desperately needs people with computer game design–nobody does better user interfaces than game designers. Hard to play = pink slip! Ha. Wish I could do that with my team.

  48. Episode 134: Release It with Michael Nygard | redbey Says:

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  50. supratall Says:

    title says 20 but I got only 5. I think it’ll be great to have all list in one part instead of few parts. But it’s great info. I’ll going to use as a reference for my next science assignment

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  55. Biggest bugs in history « Laura's thoughts Says:

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  56. Kit Merker Says:

    Number 4 is my favorite. Way too scary, glad someone was there to prevent automation from killing humanity…

  57. BUgs | The mind of a programmer Says:

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  60. Famous Computer Failure | Gen Tech Says:

    […] A programmer made a fatal error in the code of Mariner 1. The code was being transferred from a page where it was handwritten to the computer.  The writer missed writing a superscript bar that made the software in the rocket think that minor variations of velocity were serious and sent the rocket off course. This failure in software caused a $18.5 million dollar failure. This information was accessed from this website.  […]

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