The 5 Most Disastrous Typos In Human History
We've mentioned it once or twice before, but sometimes typos are a much bigger deal than you'd think. For every time your stupid thumbs missed a key while texting "first" and left you inadvertently offering to fist your own mother, somebody out there skipped a digit and damn near ended the world. Like so ...
An Extra Letter "S" Bankrupts A 124-Year-Old Company
All companies in the United Kingdom need to be registered with Companies House -- the government agency responsible for maintaining the Big British Book Of Bona Fide Businesses, which almost certainly is not what they actually call it. Back in 2009 they announced that Taylor and Sons, a 124-year-old engineering firm based in Wales, was about to go under. The company had 250 people in its employ, a brand new lifeboat-building contract in its pocket, and seemed to be doing pretty well on all fronts. The news came as a bit of a surprise to everyone -- up to and very much including Taylor and Sons itself.
As seen here.
The business that was in the process of going belly-up was called Taylor and Son; some unsung data entry clerk at Companies House had accidentally added an extra "s" in the Companies House papers. The House only took three days to figure out and correct their mistake, but the universe thought that was far too long and decided to punish everybody for it. See, before correcting their error, the House had sold the false information to credit reference agencies (like you do in this crazy privatized, for-profit system of ours) and sent anyone with a cursory interest in Taylor and Sons a clear message: Run from this leper business. Unclean. Unclean!
"To the lifeboats! Quickly! No, not theirs!"
When word got around that Taylor and his plural offspring were having problems, their orders suddenly started to dry up. The managing director of the lucrative company was having a casual holiday, celebrating his wife's 50th birthday, when the Phones Of Armageddon started ringing. All of Taylor and Sons' suppliers thought the company was in liquidation. That lucrative lifeboat contract disappeared, as did a recurring contract with a major steel manufacturer.
Within two months, Taylor and Sons were forced to go into administration. For real this time.
A Misplaced Comma Loses The Government The Equivalent Of $40 Million
In 1872, the US found out that Civil Wars were a bit pricey. Holding a war in your own backyard is very convenient (less commute time, for one) but it does come with a few drawbacks. As income taxes weren't a thing back then, President Ulysses S. Grant's administration put taxes on certain types of imports, instead.
Not alcohol, obviously.
Secretary of Treasury, William Richardson, deemed "fruit-plants, tropical and semi-tropical, for the purpose of propagation or cultivation" tax exempt. Which is totally fine. No one wants to be the monster making guacamole cost extra. Right, Chipotle?
Unfortunately, a copy clerk wrote the sentence down as:
"Fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical, for the purpose of propagation or cultivation".
Pay careful attention to that first comma because the government sure as hell didn't. Its inclusion turns the whole sentence into a list. Where the original phrase was about a particular type of fruit-plants for a particular use, the slightly modified version could be interpreted as all fruits and all plants being exempt from import tax.
Richardson initially tried to play the "come on, guys that was clearly a typo" card, but importers gleefully countered with the vaunted "nuh uh!" argument. And off to court they went. Judges agreed with the importers, and that errant comma ended up costing the government two million dollars in refunds from collected taxes -- around $40 million in today's money.
The battle over the Oxford comma has been even bloodier.
The costly comma proved so draining that by December Richardson gave up and just made all fruit officially free to import. Congress didn't take kindly to this -- they immediately passed a law that limited the Secretary of Treasury's power in situations like these, and reinstated the customs duties on imported fruit. This time, they treated every comma like it was worth 40 million bucks.
Misprinted Korans Bring Down A Government
Kuwait is a Middle Eastern country smaller than New Jersey, yet so rich its rulers eat gold and shit supergold. In 1999, the country decided to use some of its wealth to print a free, state-published edition of the Koran.
Probably written in gold ink.
This ... didn't go well.
The free Korans were printed with missing and/or misprinted verses. Which might not seem like such a serious mistake, until you remember that people take their holy books pretty seriously. To Muslims, the Koran isn't like other books. It's literally the word of Allah, and changing or omitting anything is basically telling God, "No, actually, we think you got this bit wrong."
"We added some dragons to make it more exciting."
The typo immediately exploded into political turmoil. The opposition members of parliament feuded bitterly with the cabinet over the faulty Korans and accused Ahmad al-Kulaib, the Minister for Islamic Affairs, of deliberately tampering with the copies in order to "disfigure the faith" of Kuwait. As al-Kulaib faced an inevitable vote of no confidence, the Emir of Kuwait himself had to step in to dissolve the government and call a new election. That's right, some poor clerk didn't drag the cursor far enough when copying, and pasted a whole government into oblivion.
A "6" Instead of A "D" Breaks Down 12 Million Phones
Back in the bad ol' days when cellphones weren't a thing and dinosaurs walked the Earth (Editor's Note: This was 1991, and that's not what Walk The Dinosaur meant), people had phones in their house connected to a wall by a wire. But even in those crazy primitive times the system was still controlled by computers. One day, a programmer at DSC Communications was patching the software that controlled the phone systems of no less than 12 million people ... when suddenly, they all started going down.
Have you ever typed a "6" instead of a "D"? We've stared at our keyboards for a while and frankly have no idea how it's even possible. Is there such a thing as finger dyslexia?
Maaaaaaaybe if it was a lowercase "d"?.
Regardless of how, the programmer managed to do precisely that. All it took was that single typo and down went a huge chunk of DSC's network. The faulty patch and the ensuing panicked attempts to fix the errors it was causing created a conga line of failure upon failure, causing a complete failure in DSC Communications routing. If you dialed your dear old mum (which you should, she worries), all they could do was basically just shrug and say, "Well, this could be for anyone." And that's how party lines were born. Probably.
The Term "Patient Zero" Was Born Out Of A Typo
"Patient Zero" is the first person to be infected with a disease. If zombies have taught us one thing, it's that. If they taught us two things, it's the term "patient zero," and, "Don't wander away from the group, Carl." The phrase stems from French-Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas, who was (falsely) thought to be the first to bring HIV to the USA. Although he died in 1984 and we now know it's extremely unlikely that a single person could have spread the virus to the extent it was spread, Dugas remains one of the most demonized patients in history.
Which is extra sad since he should really be remembered for his awesome fashion sense.
That name must have something to do with it, right? It sounds like a supervillain: Patient Zero. It clearly refers to the start of something, right? This guy was like, so the beginning that he's not even "Patient One." Wait, that sounds stupid now that we type it out ...
The Center for Disease Control was tasked with studying the first HIV outbreaks in California and designated Dugas as patient "O". As in, the letter "O", signifying the fact that he came from Outside Southern California. He did have an identification number, too. That would have been Case 057. Which starts with zero, true, but those numbers afterward do have some meaning. But "patient oh" just doesn't sound as cool, so the term stuck.
James doesn't have a Twitter or a website or anything fancy like that. He does have a Facebook but has heard about that thing you did that time and doesn't want to be your friend. You monster.
Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens: Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman: So simple, but so bad. Are there good versions of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien, and Katie Willert of After Hours on our next live podcast to find an answer, as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
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