When computers go wrong

When computers go wrong

Stewart Mitchell charts the world's ten most calamitous computer cock-ups

When computers go wrong, they often go spectacularly wrong.

In most cases, catastrophic failures are blamed on “computer bugs”, although human error is normally the root cause for embarrassing failures.

No-one really knows where the term “bug” comes from. Some say it dates back to Thomas Edison’s pioneering work in the 19th century; others claim it refers to a moth that was evicted from the computer of one Grace Murray Hopper at Harvard University in 1947. What we do know is that bugs can make a mess of the best-laid plans.

Here, we look at ten IT disasters that highlight the precariously fickle nature of computers. Although our top ten mistakes may have caused lasting damage to the finances or reputations of those involved, nobody was physically harmed in the making of this list.

Gas pipe piracy

By the early 1980s, the Soviet Union was searching for better technology for its industrial control systems, and the simplest and cheapest way to develop state-of-the-art software was by pinching it from the West. This, however, was to prove a costly mistake.

The USA – deeply troubled by the emergence of Russia’s gas pipelines as a major economic beating stick to wield over Europe – learned of the Soviets’ intentions to steal software, and thought the opportunity of giving them bogus code was too good to pass up.

In a classic piece of espionage that would earn a standing ovation from John Le Carré, the CIA uncovered a KGB operation to harvest technical details and set up a counter-intelligence sting

In a classic piece of espionage that would earn a standing ovation from John Le Carré, the CIA uncovered a KGB operation to harvest technical details and set up a counter-intelligence sting.

Working on a tip-off from a French connection who had defected from Russia, US agents planted a specially modified version of the pipeline software at the Canadian company the KGB was targeting.

The time bombs in the software were so cunningly hidden that the code passed Russian inspection and went into the master control system for a pipeline designed to carry over 40 billion cubic metres of gas a year to Europe.

The software wreaked havoc with the pipes. As valves, pumps and turbines turned on and off at random, internal pressure reached bursting point, rupturing the pipe and causing an explosion that could be seen from space. Remarkably, no-one was hurt, but the tactic was the sort of copyright protection the record industry would kill for.

Pentium flunks long division

Q: What do you get when you cross a Pentium PC with a research grant?

A: A mad scientist.

This is just one of the science community’s in-jokes after a glitch in Intel’s Pentium processors meant they spat out incorrect answers to calculations.

Intel had been promoting Pentium chips heavily in the early summer of 1994. Professor Thomas Nicely was using one of the early models to run a program that generated prime numbers, and their twin, triplet and quadruplet prime relatives.

Taxing work at the best of times, but actually impossible if your calculator is on the blink.

Nicely noticed anomalies in the results of his research, but it took him five months to trace the problem, and he was understandably catatonic to learn that the mistake came from his state-of-the-art processor.

Unlike previous CPUs from Intel, the 486DX and Pentiums included a floating-point unit (FPU) – also known as a maths co-processor – that was used for calculating maths problems using floating-point numbers (numbers too large to be represented as integers).

Read more

Analysis

Pages