Excerpts from Stephen Pile's "The Book of Heroic Failures": The Greatest Mathematical Error ------------------------------- The Mariner 1 space probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on 28 July 1962 towards Venus. After 13 minutes' flight a booster engine would give acceleration up to 41 544 kmh; after 44 minutes 9 800 solar cells would unfold; after 80 days a computer would calculate the final course corrections and after 100 days the craft would circle the unknown planet, scanning the mysterious cloud in which it is bathed. However, with an efficiency that is truly heartening, Mariner 1 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean after only 4 minutes after take off. Inquiries later revealed that a minus sign had been omitted from the instructions fed into the computer. "It was human error", a launch spokesman said. This minus sign cost $8 560 000. The Worst Computer ------------------ It is widely suggested that computers improve efficiency. Lovers of vintage chaos might remember the computer installed by Avon County Council to pay staff wages. The computer's spree started off in a small way, paying a school caretaker $150 an hour instead of $1.50. Then it got ambitious and did not pay a canteen worker at all for seven weeks. Before long it got positively confident and paid a janitor $5 200 for a week's work. He sent the cheque back and received another for the same amount by return of post. There was now no stopping it. A deputy headmistress received her year's annual salary once a month; heads of department earned less than their assistants, and some people had more tax deducted in a week than they earned all year. In February 1975 two hundred and eighty employees on the Council payroll attended a protest meeting. Of these, only eight had been paid
the correct salary. They all went on strike.