Just One More in a Long History of Costly Typos

The BBC had a story today about Norway’s Olympic team that received 15,000 eggs, instead of the 1,500 they thought they had ordered.

While some of the Norwegians claimed it was a translation error from Norwegian to Korean, the most likely culprit simply seems to be a typo, accidentally adding on an extra 0 at the end.

Fortunately the team was able to return the extra 13,500 eggs, but there have been other typos that have caused significant problems.

  • In 1997, Larry Page and Sean Anderson brainstormed names for a massive data-index website. Anderson suggested “googolplex,”one of the largest describable numbers. Page shortened the word to “googol.” Anderson immediately went to check the availability of the domain, but when he typed the name online, he made a few mistakes. Anderson typed “google” instead. Fond of the name, Page immediately registered the site for himself and Sergey Brin. The rest is history.
  • In 1870, a German chemist named Erich von Wolf accidentally printed the decimal point in spinach’s iron content one spot too far to the right. 3.5 grams of iron suddenly became 35 grams. People started to tout the idea that spinach contained just as much iron as red meat. For example, Popeye’s creator made the sailor man obsessed with the leafy green.
  • In 1962, NASA’s Mariner 1 mission intended to fly by our closest neighbor in the solar system, Venus, and gather information. But control had to abort (read: blow up) the spacecraft nearly 5 minutes after liftoff. In testimony before Congress, Richard Morrison, NASA’s launch vehicles director, said a single typographical error in a computer equation caused the spacecraft to veer off course. The culprit? An omitted overbar — which sort of looks like a hyphen above a letter or number. The mishap cost the government about $80 million dollars.
  • In 2010, then-director of Chile’s minting department, Gregorio Iniguez, okayed production on 1.5 million 50-peso coins that spelled the country’s name incorrectly. The coins read “C-H-I-I-E”.
  • In late June and early July 1991, 12 million people across the country (mostly Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) lost phone service. A study by DSC Communications Corporation and Bell Communications Research shows that a typographical error occurred in the software that controls signals regulating telephone traffic. One (known, but anonymous) employee typed a “6” instead of a “D.” The phone companies essentially lost all control of their networks.

We’ve all made typos, most times there are few, if any, repercussions from such mistakes. But obviously that’s not always the case.

But if part of the reason google is so successful is because of their name, and the same might not have happened if it were googol, it may be that the positive benefit from that one typo outweighs the negative consequences of all other typos that have ever been made, considering the market value of Google ($722 billion).

So don’t worry about your next typo; even if it doesn’t lead to the creation of a multi billion dollar company but instead leads to some type of negative outcome, there’s still a lot of money to draw from on the positive side of the typo ledger.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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