Top 8 Software Disasters from History You Should Know


It was around ten years ago that UK Revenue & Customs lost the personal records of around 25 million child benefit recipients, which was an incident the government was quick to resolve while learning much about mismanagement of technology.

While technology wasn’t exactly the cause of the problem, there are tons of incidents in the past which showcase examples of faulty software disasters and hardware whipping up a storm for a particular organisation, costing them both in finances and reputation.

software disasters

Here is a list of some of the worst software disasters to date. These incidents are listed randomly:


1. AT&T Network Collapse (1990)

Over 70 million phone calls across United States of America in 1990 went unanswered, this was the result of one switch at AT&T’s switching centre suffering a mechanical failure, this ultimately led to the shutdown of the centre.

When AT&T was able to get the centre back up and running again, they sent out a message to all the other centres to shut down and reset.

The cause of the problem was found to be an error in a single line of code, not an individual or computer hacker, as some people thought at the time. The line of code itself had been added during a complex software upgrade.


2. Mariner 1 (1962)

Basically the Mariner 1 rocket, after being launched diverted from its intended flight path, which was Venus. As a result Mission Control was forced to destroy the rocket several minutes after launch.

The cause of the problem was found to be a programmer who put a formula into the computer code, missing a superscript bar. This small piece of code resulted in the rocket flying off course the moment it was launched and that is what made it one of the most worst software disasters.



3. CIA Soviet Gas Incident (1982)

Control software malfunctions and starts to produce an intense pressure in the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline, this resulted in a large man-made explosion.

The cause of the problem was said to be a CIA operative who planted a bug inside a Canadian computer system which was purchased by the Soviets and used to control the gas pipeline. The purchase of the computer system was seen as a strategic move by the Soviets to acquire sensitive US technology. When the CIA found out that the Soviets were about to buy one of their computer systems, they sabotaged it.

4. Killer Medical Machine (1985)

This incident starts with a radiation therapy machine, created by the Canadians, malfunctioning, resulting in a large dose of lethal radiation being admitted to patients.

The cause of this incident was found to be a bug, which essentially led to the device being configured to omit an electron beam without the usual patient shielding, resulting in many deaths.



5. Mars Climate Observer Metric Incident (1998)

This incident involved a Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbitor, which were both part of a space program, which was setup to study the weather, climate, carbon dioxide and water content in Mars atmosphere. But a navigation error resulted in the lander flying too low in the atmosphere resulting in its destruction.

This incident was created by a simple mistake, imperial units (used in America) was used in place of metric units (used in Europe).


6. LA Airport Grounded Flights (2007)

This incident also recorded as one the worst software disasters, where over 17 thousand planes were grounded at the LA International Airport over a decade ago, because of a software issue. The problem, which occurred in the United States Customs and Border Protection, was caused by the purchase of cheap equipment.

The device that caused it was a network card, which instead of shutting down, instead sent out the wrong data across the network. This data was then propagated across the network, bringing it down. Entry in and out of airports in the country was suspended for close to 8 hours before they were able to get things under control.



7. Soviet Early Warning System Incident (1983)

The threat of the next world war being started by computer systems, is something that stays fresh in our minds, due primarily to movies, however this is basically what happened in this case, caused by a software glitch. If you do any sort of research on this subject, you’ll find many different conflicting details, but such is the nature of dealing with any issues that involves the military.

However, the most consistent story says that the incident occurred in 1983 and was the result of a bug in the software of the Soviet Early Warning System. Basically, the Early Warning System told them that USA had launched five missiles at them. However, one of the duty officers that was there at the time reasoned that if USA were truly attacking them, they would have been a lot more efficient and sent far more than five missiles.

The cause of this near apocalyptic incident was traced back to a fault in the software that was supposed to filter out false missile detections, caused by sunlight reflecting back at the satellites off cloud-tops.

8. Explosion at Ariane 5 (1996)

Europe’s unmanned satellite-launching rocket (Ariane 5) was blown up several seconds after its first flight. The total development cost of Ariane 5 was put at $8 billion. Ariane 5 was made up of four scientific satellites which were created specifically for studying and measuring the Earth’s magnetic field and Solar Winds.

According to media reports, the destruction of the Ariane 5 was said to have been caused by a software bug, which led to it trying to store a 64-bit number into 16-bit of space.


About Author:

Uchenna Ani-Okoye is a former IT Manager who now runs his own computer support website