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This is the amazing story of the most expensive typo in history ever!

I

t was the year of 1962, quite an era for space dreaming! On the 1st day of January Beatles’ Decca audition went pretty badly, later on, a bear became the 1st creature to be ejected at supersonic speeds and on the 22nd of July a missing hyphen became what the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke described as “the most expensive hyphen in history.” The story goes like this: The unmanned Mariner 1 probe was intended to collect a variety of scientific data about Venus during a flyby around our closest neighbor in the solar system. It was a festive day in Cape Canaveral but only few minutes after the launch, an onboard guidance antenna failure caused fallback to a backup radar system that should have been able to guide the spacecraft. 

However, when the equations that would be used to process and translate tracking data into flight instructions were encoded onto punch cards, one critical symbol was left out causing a major fatal flaw in the software of the guidance system. Essentially, it was the lack of that over bar or over line, which is often confused in ensuing years with a hyphen, that caused the guidance computer to incorrectly compensate for some otherwise normal movement in the spacecraft. As the New York Times reported days after the launch: “The hyphen symbol, called a 'bar,' if officially fed into the computer on its punched card instructions, tells the machine not to worry about this normal veering movement. The spacecraft landed up manoeuvring in a way that it shouldn’t have and which put it on a path to crash, possibly into inhabited areas. For safety purposes, then, 293 seconds into the mission it was destroyed on command”.

Somehow a hyphen had been dropped from the guidance program loaded aboard the computer, allowing the flawed signals to command the rocket to veer left and nose down.

This sort of inconsistency was encountered in many other variations of the story, official and otherwise. Up until today, the “missing hyphen” version of the story is strong among NASA officials as Oran Ricks reports 23 years after the incident, “the guidance antenna on the Atlas performed poorly, below specifications. When the signal received by the rocket became weak and noisy, the rocket lost its lock on the ground guidance signal that supplied steering commands. The possibility had been foreseen; in the event that radio guidance was lost the internal guidance computer was supposed to reject the spurious signals from the faulty antenna and proceed on its stored program, which would probably have resulted in a successful launch. At this point a second fault took effect. Somehow a hyphen had been dropped from the guidance program loaded aboard the computer, allowing the flawed signals to command the rocket to veer left and nose down. The hyphen had been missing on previous successful flights of the Atlas, but that portion of the equation had not been needed since there was no radio guidance failure”.

Although typography can be a liberating force for our creative kind, it should be used with utmost precision when it comes to coding humanity’s progress.

Of course, just like in any other urban legend, other versions of the story claim that the bug consisted of a period that was typed in the place of a comma, a missing comma or an extraneous semicolon. But let’s not be strict on the poor writer who missed the infamous superscript bar. In a way he unintentionally proved us that although typography can be a liberating force for our creative kind, it should be used with utmost precision when it comes to coding humanity’s progress.

This Ray Bradbury poem is dedicated to the hyphen that never was

By Loukas Karnis