Scariest coding errors in history

4 minutes reading

The first programming language was created in the ’50s. Over time, more advanced programming environments appeared, and new technologies started to thrive. If it weren’t for programming, we wouldn’t be able to explore the cosmos or even access the Internet. But, on the other hand, instances of a little bit of wrong code caused disasters on a significant level. Read on!

Millennium bug - a computer-induced apocalypse

Not many people know this, but a few really dark stories are connected to the programming. The millennium bug is definitely worth mentioning - the Y2K bug was a computer flaw that may have caused problems when dealing with dates beyond December 31, 1999. When complicated computer programs were being written during the 1960s through the 1980s, computer engineers used a two-digit code for the year. The “19” was left out. Instead of a date reading 1970, it read 70. Engineers shortened the date because computer data storage was costly and took up a lot of space. As 2000 approached, computer programmers realised that computers might not interpret 00 as 2000 but as 1900. Activities that were programmed daily or yearly would be damaged or flawed. Computer systems’ inability to distinguish dates correctly had the potential to bring down worldwide infrastructures for industries ranging from banking to air travel. There were very few issues in the end, but billions of dollars were spent to combat the problem.

Therac-25 - a true horror story

Errors in computer-controlled radiation therapy machines caused mass hysteria in the 80s. Therac-25, one of those machines, had a few severe code mistakes. As a result, patients were given massive radiation overdoses resulting in death or severe injury. What’s interesting, the example of Therac-25 is still used as an illustration of what can go wrong in a society that is heavily dependent on technology.

Mariner 1 - a 20 million-dollar mistake

Humans have always looked up into the night sky and dreamed about space. Once the technology had reached the proper level, NASA decided to try and examine Venus. In 1962, Mariner 1 rocket was built, costing almost 20 million dollars (it was a monstrous amount at the time). Its goal was to explore, analyse new planet and perform self-destruction if needed. Unfortunately, the mission failed because of a simple error in the code.

Soon after its launch, Mariner 1 veered off course. The faulty application of guidance commands made steering impossible, and the rocket had to be destroyed by range safety. The errors were soon traced to omitting a hyphen-shaped symbol from one of the guidance program characters. Media later described the error as “the most expensive hyphen in history”.

A mistake that started a zombie apocalypse

In 2003, almost 9000 people fake-died because of medical software errors. A hospital in Michigan started sending fake death notices to its patients due to a bug in the code. Their families also received those notifications, which caused massive confusion. Ultimately, no one died, and the story ended happily.

A good developer is not afraid of coding!

Errors in coding happen almost every day. However, most of them are pretty harmless - like a famous World of Warcraft virus that killed player characters as they became infected with a debuff transmitted between characters nearby. Others can cause severe consequences - that is why precision, alertness, patience and the ability to handle failures are essential features for a developer. There is not a single programmer in the world who wouldn’t have made a mistake - it’s crucial to learn, draw conclusions and constantly broaden your knowledge.


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