Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Intel Technology

The Big Technical Mistakes of History 244

An anonymous reader tips a PC Authority review of some of the biggest technical goofs of all time. "As any computer programmer will tell you, some of the most confusing and complex issues can stem from the simplest of errors. This article looking back at history's big technical mistakes includes some interesting trivia, such as NASA's failure to convert measurements to metric, resulting in the Mars Climate Orbiter being torn apart by the Martian atmosphere. Then there is the infamous Intel Pentium floating point fiasco, which cost the company $450m in direct costs, a battering on the world's stock exchanges, and a huge black mark on its reputation. Also on the list is Iridium, the global satellite phone network that promised to make phones work anywhere on the planet, but required 77 satellites to be launched into space."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Big Technical Mistakes of History

Comments Filter:
  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @05:30AM (#31996500) Homepage

    Rim shot...!

  • Iridium? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @05:34AM (#31996516)
    There was no technical flaw in Iridium. It was stated what it would do. It did it. Someone screwed up the business plan, but there was no technical mistake. They knew it took 77 satellites for what they wanted. And they launched them all and they worked flawlessly. Now, if only they had sales to match the business plan, they'd be billionaires. But again, unrelated to any technical issue.
    • Re:Iridium? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:33AM (#31996854) Homepage Journal
      The sales problem was that in the interim between concept and completion, the world filled up with mobile phone towers. All of a sudden, their potential market got a lot smaller.
      • I read somewhere that between the initial idea and implementation that some 13 years had passed. Motorola first started the project in 1985 if I'm not mistaken. While it would have been a good idea when it was conceived, cell phone and their towers became more practical in the intervening years. No one however thought about revising the plan when the times have changed.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Now, if only they had sales to match the business plan, they'd be billionaires.

      They had a great sales plan. Make your primary customer the US Military, build a massive satellite network, declare bankruptcy after it's built, reform Iridium LLC, and continue operations through today offering satellite phone service at a price comparable to US international roaming prices.

      Satellite will always have limitations until we can get congress to raise the speed on light (stupid greenies worried about photon pollution), can get rid of the line-of-sight issue, and can build the very strong radio

    • They knew it took 77 satellites for what they wanted.

      Is that even a problem? There are 30 GPS satellites apparently, plans to upgrade it, and Europe wanted to launch its own alternative system too. I'm not sure if the better military GPS is using different sats currently. We've also invested in a ton of phone cell masts, satellite phones, etc. Taking an uninformed guess, might not Iridium have worked out cheaper, when the final bill was added up?

      • by vlm ( 69642 )

        I'm not sure if the better military GPS is using different sats currently

        The "military GPS" uses the same satellites. aka P signals are transmitted with 10 times the resolution and on two frequencies. The civilian C/A is transmitted at 1/10 the resolution of the military and only one frequency.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System#Navigation_signals [wikipedia.org]

        Note that from an EE perspective, there is no design tradeoff between high accuracy, and encryption, that's just how the chips fell.

      • It may have been cheaper but you don't even want to know what the 3g data plans were going to cost!

    • Re:Iridium? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fpitech ( 1559147 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @08:01AM (#31997520)
      The article does seem to confuse strategic mistakes with technical mistakes. The history is full of well engineered products that failed because of strategic or marketing reasons.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by swilver ( 617741 )

      Latency with satellite communication would make this an annoying way of having a phone conversation. I wouldn't like it.

      • Re:Iridium? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Troed ( 102527 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @08:38AM (#31997818) Homepage Journal

        You're probably having it quite often without even knowing it. Latency to low-earth isn't the same as geostationary.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by idontgno ( 624372 )

          But latency through multi-hop LEO is potentially as bad as geostationary. Absolute distance may be less, but add per-hop packet store-and-forward times.

          In my (admittedly limited) first-hand experience, the US military tends to use Iridium for data comm. Stuff which, 20 years ago, would have been landlines with modems. Except you can't really string landline to some mountain in Upickastan, can you?

    • Re:Iridium? (Score:4, Funny)

      by Muad'Dave ( 255648 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @09:40AM (#31998614) Homepage

      Actually it only took 66 satellites [wikipedia.org] due to changes in orbit configuration that increased coverage. They didn't bother to change the name to Dysprosium.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dnsdude ( 1713006 )
      I have an Iridium phone (the original Motorola 9500). Not only does it work flawlessly (as long as you're outdoors...), it only uses 66 active LEOs. They vastly underestimated the number of people who want/need one, but it's the only (handheld) phone system in the world that works *everywhere* in the world: North pole, south pole, everywhere.

      The only "flaw" (besides the multi-billion-dollar goof in estimating the market size), was the name: They knew they really only needed 66 satellites, but who's goi

    • by upuv ( 1201447 )

      Um. Iridium didn't actually work that well at all.

      1. By the time it was operational mobile / cell phones could be carried in your pocket. An Iridium handset was a brick. It was HUGE. Flaw here is that they did not factor in current / future accepted form factors. A blatant missing requirement. AKA a technical flaw.
      2. They don't work indoors. Yep you heard me right the system does not work in doors. Again someone didn't bother with that requirement. A fairly major one as it turns out.
      3. Very poor ope

      • As well as not working indoors, not working well in cities, and having a huge handset (mostly because of the huge antenna), there is also the issue that the satellites need to have a very low and hence unstable orbit. Hence, they burn up on a regular basis, and need to be replaced regularly. This is enormously expensive.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by dnsdude ( 1713006 )
        >Um. Iridium didn't actually work that well at all. Perhaps you missed my post. It works flawlessly. It was never going to compete with cell phones, nor was it designed to. It works where cell phones *don't*, not where they already do. Tall buildings? Why would you need a satellite phone if you're near a tall building? Your cell phone doesn't work in the middle of the desert (technical flaw?). Nor in the middle of the Sargasso Sea. Nor in most of the places in the Pacific Ocean. My Iridium phon
    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by careysub ( 976506 )

      There was no technical flaw in Iridium. It was stated what it would do. It did it. Someone screwed up the business plan, but there was no technical mistake. They knew it took 77 satellites for what they wanted. And they launched them all and they worked flawlessly. Now, if only they had sales to match the business plan, they'd be billionaires. But again, unrelated to any technical issue.

      They launched 66 satellites, not 77 (which was the original plan), as they came up with a cheaper orbital configuration. The cool-sounding name "Iridium" was taken from element 77, since the 77 satellites reminded people of its 77 electrons. When they reconfigured the constellation to 66 I was disappointed that they did not rename it "Dysprosium".

  • Therac-25 (Score:5, Informative)

    by alanw ( 1822 ) <alan@wylie.me.uk> on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @05:50AM (#31996606) Homepage

    Don't forget the Therac-25 [wikipedia.org]

    Poor software design and development led to radiation overdoses for 6 patients being treated for cancer, with 3 dying as a direct result.

    Sadly, mistakes still keep on happening [bbc.co.uk].

    • Patriot Missile (Score:5, Informative)

      by Bakkster ( 1529253 ) <Bakkster.man @ g m a i l .com> on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @09:40AM (#31998622)

      Yeah, I would immediately classify any error that caused deaths to be more important.

      Another interesting case was the Patriot Missile failure [umn.edu]. The system clock counted in 1/10th second increments. However, it added 0.1 to a floating point number. Unfortunately, 0.1 in binary is a repeating number, similar to 1/3rd in binary being 0.333333333...

      So, ten times every second the time drifted just the tiniest bit. The missile that missed had been running for days, so its clock was one third of a second off, and a Scud travels a long way during that time.

      Let that be a lesson to all of you: use an integer counter, and divide by 10 to get the time in seconds.

  • The article is right about FDIV. The chance of it happening was infinitesimal and it was really any worse than other bugs in contemporary CPUs of that time. A bug in Excel is a much bigger issue for most folks and I for one never bothered to have my P60 replaced.
    • by asdf7890 ( 1518587 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:52AM (#31996984)

      The problem Intel had with the FDIV bug was one of PR. The Pentium range was the first CPU family to be directly marketed to the general public in a big way.

      While anyone with knowledge of the chip design and production processes understood that such bugs are not particularly uncommon (many much simpler chips have well documented errata and workarounds for unintentional behaviour, like the 286's "gate A20" bug that actually turned out to be useful) the general public and the popular press had no such understanding so were very surprised - they assumed that all CPUs were (or should be) completely 100% perfect and therefore taking issue with what they saw as being sold defective goods.

      Before the first generation Pentium FDIV issue, such relatively minor problems were dealt with by the error, including any extra side-effects and possible workarounds, being documented, those errata being sent to the chip makers customers and relevant software developers, and things would get patched up without the general public ever being aware there was an issue in the first place aside perhaps from a small number of users who by shear chance were noticeably affected by the one-in-a-few-billion problem before their software was patched (those people would be given replacement chips and/or other recompense). A costly replacement program simply wouldn't have been needed in this case.

      • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @09:05AM (#31998100) Homepage

        Though wasn't the issue in case of Pentium FDIV bug specifically that Intel didn't publish the errata or...any other information after Intel researchers discovered the error? It took one independent one, to whom Intel didn't even respond initially...

        • Though wasn't the issue in case of Pentium FDIV bug specifically that Intel didn't publish the errata or...any other information after Intel researchers discovered the error? It took one independent one, to whom Intel didn't even respond initially...

          I could be remembering wrongly, as much time has passed and I'm not in a position to spend time double checking right now, but I have the impression that the delay in acknowledging the problem was mainly due to being very slow to verify and analyse it and not wanting to acknowledge it until the analysis was complete. While failing to acknowledge the issue in a timely manner was bad, it was more due to slowness/stupidity than actively trying to cover it up. That is part of it being a PR issue as much as anyt

      • by eulernet ( 1132389 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @10:36AM (#31999364)

        One-in-a-few-billion problem ?

        At that time, I was programming a network game about trucks, and when when replaying a demo on the network, the players desynchronized after a few minutes.

        I spent a lot of time looking into the logs, and discovered that there was a floating point error that desynchronized the trucks.
        I still believe that the FDIV bug was much more frequent than publicized, and it had more impact than what Intel originally described.

        Intel released a software patch to Watcom C++ library, but the patch was terrible, with the FDIV replaced with a lot of instructions just to detect the cases where the bug might appear, and use shiftings instead of FDIV.

        I think that the bug was much publicized because it was the beginning of Internet, where a lot of new information went unfiltered, and Intel completely missed their communication on this bug discovered by Thomas Nicely.
        Here is the whole story behind this bug:
        http://www.trnicely.net/pentbug/pentbug.html [trnicely.net]

  • by cobbaut ( 232092 ) <paul.cobbaut@nospam.gmail.com> on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @05:57AM (#31996642) Homepage Journal

    They forgot the cd protection cracked with a black marker...
    http://www.zeropaid.com/news/1069/black_marker_cracks_cd_protection/ [zeropaid.com]

  • ... and you still use it to do rocket science?
  • by seasunset ( 469481 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:17AM (#31996742) Homepage

    When I saw the title, I immediately imagined the Maginot line [wikipedia.org]. Thousands more examples could come to mind.

    Could somebody please explain to the author of the articles that Technology is more than computers/gadjets and older than 10 years? It is an epic history that goes along with mankind.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @07:40AM (#31997354)

      Nope - the Maginot Line did *exactly* what it said on the tin: persuaded the Germans to avoid a frontal assault on France & invade Belgium instead.

      The problem was that the strategy didn't think through the next move, which is that the Germans would continue into France via Belgium.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by brufleth ( 534234 )
      Reading that article it sounds like the technical mistake wasn't really a mistake but the reality of the Germans hitting the most well defended spot with a creative attack that effectively countered the defense design. That's more of a lack of guessing what the future would bring. The line was effective against what it was built for.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DoctorFuji ( 1331807 )
      Maginot was built to fight WWI technology and tactics. In the interim, mechanized infantry and tanks had advanced so that the blitzkrieg could actually be accomplished. In the history of warfare, haven't alot of changes in tactics been decided on the advances in technology that the loser did not forecast or plan for?
      • by jcr ( 53032 ) <jcr@@@mac...com> on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @09:04AM (#31998098) Journal

        Maginot was built to fight WWI technology and tactics. ...and today, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a navy which is ideally suited to win world war two. A carrier can be sunk with missiles that cost vastly less than even one of its fighter planes.


        • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @02:07PM (#32002472) Homepage

          So how do you protect against a missile?

          Anti-missile systems, of course. We have those, and we're working on better ones.

          But what you fail to realize is that carriers are for a lot more than just planes landing and taking off from the water. Carriers are the modern US military's pack mules: if something is going from A to B and not by C130 or similarly large aircraft, it's going by ship. If it's going by ship, that probably means it's on a carrier.

          Food, water, ammunition, gear, and various other supplies travel on carriers. The things have weeks if not months of supplies for their fleet in reserve, as well as excess for things like emergencies (see: hurricane/tsunami relief). They are self-contained international emergency response units and, aside from wielding immense military power, are the biggest thing keeping the teeth in the US military's international and sea presence.

          A city can be destroyed by a missile that costs less than what a single city skyscraper would cost, but that doesn't (necessarily) make cities an antiquation.

    • Technology is anything that didn't exist before you turned 20.
  • IBM PS/2 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:18AM (#31996746) Homepage

    I had some of those growing up and it wasn't really an engineering failure, it was a mentality failure. IBM didn't built PCs, they built tanks. Their keyboards are infamous and still equally usable today 20 years later as when they were new.

    That was equally much the case with the rest of their PCs, using very high quality equipment operated under very less than ideal random home/office conditions and with very much consumer software of consumer quality, not server quality. In short, it made no sense.

    The result was that IBM priced themselves way out of the market of cheaper clones. It was cheaper and better to buy a clone, throw it out if it failed and buy another. You just don't do that with big iron or servers, but with desktops hell yeah.

    Like the article said, it wasn't more of a failure than that PS/2 ports become the dominating keyboard/mouse connector. If there was every a silly move by IBM there it was giving away the software market to Microsoft, but the average desktop market was doomed long before the PS/2.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Linker3000 ( 626634 )

      Have to disagree to a point. The PS/2 range sold big time in the business/corporate and education worlds (at least in the UK until RM/Viglen got their toe in the door). Built like tanks, yes - but they were very reliable in my experience.

      The biggest failing within the PS/2 world was the licencing arrangements for the MCA (microchannel architecture) bus which made it expensive for other manufacturers to use and so few did. MCA was technically great, but the way IBM brought it to market ended up with is getti

    • by Zedrick ( 764028 )
      Their keyboards are infamous and still equally usable today 20 years later as when they were new.

      In other words, they're famous. I'm typing this on an IBM 1391411 (Swedish version of the PS/2 1391401) - best keyboard I've ever had. I got it about 3 years ago after many many "modern" keyboards of different kinds and I'll never go back to some low-profile, "high tech" (=useless mediakeys) keyboard.
  • Capacitor Plague? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Suzuran ( 163234 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:35AM (#31996870)

    What, no Capacitor Plague? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague [wikipedia.org]

  • by Errol backfiring ( 1280012 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:49AM (#31996964) Journal
    The technical error here was that there was no test on the real thing. The company that made a part of the telescope had only a separate testbed that was made to specifications. Alas, these specifications were exactly one inch misunderstood, so the result was a part that was incredibly accurately one inch out of position.
  • Of all time?!? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gabrill ( 556503 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @06:50AM (#31996968)

    Seriously, we have got to stop with the hyperbole before our children don't know the difference between a War on Drugs and a War in Iraq.

    We we say of all time, I think of things like lead plumbing in Rome, or the suspension bridge that got tore apart by a mere breeze.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning#History [wikipedia.org]

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3932185696812733207# [google.com]

  • I'm lost (Score:4, Interesting)

    by WinstonWolfIT ( 1550079 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @07:21AM (#31997188)
    Where's Microsoft Bob? Novell Groupwise? Lotus Word Pro? Lantastic?
  • Digital watches. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dangitman ( 862676 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @07:39AM (#31997334)

    "Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea." - Douglas Adams.

    There's that, and there's also the whole "the world is flat" and "disease is caused by imbalances in the four humours of the body" ideas. The article's examples seem pretty trivial in comparison.

  • OMG Internet BBS (Score:5, Interesting)

    by arielCo ( 995647 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @07:39AM (#31997346)

    The virus is thought to have been developed in 1986 by two brothers in Pakistan named Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, who were looking to protect some medical software they had written from disc copying. They had found some suitable code on an internet bulletin board site and adapted it so that if someone used the software then the malware would be installed.

    I'm guessing "Iain Thomson" is not a day over 25, not very versed on the history of the Internet, and too busy to look up the meaning of "BBS". Am I right?

    • You certainly are!

      I can mow it while I'm standing here, if you like.
    • I think your sig isn't quite true for that one - the title of your post sounds sarcastic, and the content surely was derisive.

      Of course, mine's wrong too - I actually wanna be treated like a cat: food, sunbeams, naps and belly-rubs on demand.

  • Ob (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @07:49AM (#31997418) Homepage Journal

    the infamous Intel Pentium floating point fiasco, which cost the company $450m in direct costs

    When I tried to work it out it came out as $449.9999867' million.

  • We still live in a world of CPUs that are either little endian or big endian: affects binary compatibility and performance (from having to swizzle).

    We still live with the primitive C/C++ type system with code like this in just about any SDK:

    #ifndef _BOOL
    typedef unsigned char bool;
    #if !defined(true) && !defined(false)
    enum {false,true};
    #endif // true and false

    #endif // _BOOL

  • Tank body castings. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jcr ( 53032 ) <jcr@@@mac...com> on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @08:58AM (#31998034) Journal

    A man I worked for many years ago, one of my engineering mentors, told me about a mistake made during World War Two, where a large number of very large castings were discarded because the specification called for a much smaller tolerance on the location of an exhaust port than was actually necessary. As I recall, the spec allowed it to be 1/4" away from its nominal location, but it actually was connected to a flexible hose and it could have been a couple inches off in any direction without causing any problem. This mistake wasn't discovered until several millions of dollars worth of tank bodies had been scrapped and melted down unnecessarily.


  • HP-35 (Score:3, Informative)

    by SteveWoz ( 152247 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @09:58AM (#31998854) Homepage

    HP-35 calculator 2.02 log/antilog problem.

    Not big in a disaster sense but noteworthy.

  • ...have negative charge. To be fair to Franklin though, it was a 50/50 chance.

  • by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 @10:55AM (#31999622) Homepage Journal


    It turned out that while most of the programming and mission planning had been done in units of measurement from the Imperial system used in the US, the software to control the orbiter's thrusters had been written with units of measurement from the metric system.

    And that is WRONG! It was the software that had the archaic units, and the rest of the spaceship was built with international units.

    The software was working in pounds force, while the spacecraft expected figures in newtons; [wikipedia.org] 1 pound force equals approximately 4.45 newtons.
    The software had been adapted from use on the earlier Mars Climate Orbiter, and was not adequately tested before launch.

    I did not read the rest of that article, since they're not fact-checking their mocking of people's inability to double-check things.

  • Unix (Score:2, Informative)

    by ka9dgx ( 72702 )

    The biggest failure to date which didn't get mentioned is Unix. If we had Multics, with it's B2 security rating, we might have actually had secure operating systems in the hands of the public at this point in time. We wouldn't be dealing with spam, or virii.

    But no..... it was soooooo complicated.... K&R had to stick us with a piece of insecure crap... and everyone else was stupid enough to copy it.

Ya'll hear about the geometer who went to the beach to catch some rays and became a tangent ?