Mmmm. Computers. We tech geeks love them, but we also love to hate them when they don’t operate as intended. Whether due to an actual bug, or a glitch introduced by human error, the world has seen countless computer glitches, some of which have had dramatic implications. Here we take a look at ten of them. We’ll use a loose definition of the word "glitch" to mean a situation in which a computer didn’t operate as intended, whether through hardware failure, software failure, or user error that the computer didn’t catch.
1. The Northeast Blackout of 2003
On August 14, 2003, the Northeastern United States, Midwestern United States, and Ontario Canada suffered a massive power outage that affected 55 million people. Investigators attributed the main cause to be the failure of FirstEnergy Corporation to trim trees in parts of Ohio, causing power lines to come in contact with the trees, and bringing about a cascading effect that forced the shutdown of more than 100 power plants. However, a software bug also stalled FirstEnergy’s control room for more than an hour, preventing system operators from detecting audio and visual alerts. This led to a server failure, followed by the failure of a backup server. Because of the lack of alarms, operators dismissed a call from another power company about issues with a shared line.
Image by amir taj.
2. Google Flags the Entire Internet as Malware
One of the features of Google’s search engine is that it protects you from harmful sites, by warning you if a site in its search results is known to contain malware that could infect your system. In January of 2009, though, Google went a bit haywire, and flagged every site on the internet as malware. What happened? When updating the list of suspected malware sites, the URL of “/” was accidentally included. Every site on the internet uses this symbol, so every site was flagged as malware.
3. The Murderous Hal 9000
Computer glitch #3 isn’t a real-life glitch, but one that arose in a book and a movie. HAL 9000 was a mega-computer onboard the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey (both the novel and the film). HAL, which was like a sixth crewmember, attempted to kill all of the other crew members due to a programming contradiction. Specifically, HAL was programmed for "the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment," yet his orders required him to keep the purpose of his flight secret, for reasons of national security. This contradiction caused Hal to become paranoid, and led him to murder most of the crew.
Photo by zzellers.
4. First Space Shuttle Launch Aborted
The Space Shuttle Columbia is known for the tragic breaking apart during reentry in 2003. Columbia was also the first space shuttle, and its maiden voyage was scheduled for April 10, 1981. As the clock ticked down towards liftoff, with thousands watching, the launch was delayed due to a computer glitch. The glitch involved the synchronization between Columbia’s main and backup computers (for a detailed explanation, check out this PDF file).
Image by jurvetson.
5. The First Bug
According to pop culture, the term "computer bug" arose on September 9, 1947, when a primitive computer experienced problems due to a moth being trapped between the points of a relay. The moth was removed, and affixed to a log, with an entry that read "first case of bug being found." The term "bug" actually, in a technological sense, dates back to the 1800’s. That bug from 1947, though, will be forever famous, even if erroneously so.
Image by orangeacid.
6. Asteroids Bug
You 40-somethings out there probably have fond memories of the video game, Asteroids. In Asteroids, the player controls a spacecraft in an asteroid field, and shoots at the asteroids and at flying saucers. In early versions of the game, players could hide their spacecraft behind the score area of the screen, and avoid being hit.
Image modified from original at Wikipedia.
7. Nuclear War Averted
On June 3, 1980, inbound missiles appeared on computer screens at Strategic Air Command and at the Pentagon, indicating that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed towards the United State. Seconds later, an increased number of Soviet launches were indicated. The problem was determined to be a computer glitch, but not before Strategic Air Command directed crews to B-52 bombers, and land-based missle crews were put on a higher state of alert. The cause of these false alerts was traced to the failure of a single chip in a computer that was part of a communication system.
Photo by fuzzcat.
8. The Cloud Crashes for Sidekick Users
In October 2009, T-Mobile and Danger, a Microsoft subsidiary, announced that they had lost all user data that was being stored on Microsoft’s servers, due to server failure. Users were therefore at risk of losing all of their data if they removed their batteries, reset their Sidekicks, or lost power. PC World reported that, of the million Sidekick users, thousands could have lost their personal data. A few days later, Microsoft confirmed that, in fact, it had recovered most, "if not all," customer data. That didn’t erase the heart failure already suffered by Sidekick users, when they thought that they had lost contacts, photos, calendars, and to-lists that weren’t locally backed up.
Photo by dannyman.
9. The AT&T Network Crash of 1990
On January 15, 1990, a failure of a switching system at AT&T caused a wave of failure that spread across the entire AT&T long distance network. The fault was in the code of new software that AT&T had loaded into its switching systems a few weeks earlier. Over a 9 hour period, 70 million telephone calls went uncompleted, and AT&T alone lost $60 million in unconnected calls.
Photo by blmurch.
10. The Y2K Bug
The Y2K bug arose from the practice used by computer programmers of abbreviating a four-digit year to a two-digit year. The theory was that this practice would cause date-related processing to operate incorrectly after January 1, 2000. Despite predictions of doom and gloom, the Y2K bug turned out not to be so bad, possibly due to the hard work of programmers around the globe to correct the situation.
Based on image from 91RS.
So what did we miss? If you can think of any other infamous bugs, let us know in the comments.