A simple typo can have massive consequences.
Mistakes happen. Most of the time, they don’t really affect things in a meaningful way—you might be slightly embarrassed if you misspell a few words or swap out some homonyms, but you probably won’t suffer too terribly. Hey, everyone screws up; you forgive, forget, and move on.
That’s not always the case. Just ask Lynne Lambert. Her company, NYC Subway Line, is a small business that assigns data entry duties to a single employee. Accuracy is crucial because each invoice represents a fairly significant portion of the company’s revenue. A mistake can have serious ramifications, even if it appears fairly innocuous.
“We had a person in that job who would swing from very good to terrible within a day,” Lambert says. “One day, we discovered two errors on invoices she’d made for our biggest customer. I pointed them out and asked [her] to correct them, then resend the invoices via email with an apology.”
Lambert checked up on the employee later to make sure that she’d followed through.
“The invoice was correct, but the note said, ‘We are sorry for the incontinence,’” Lambert recalls. Flabbergasted, she pointed out the mistake to the employee, who blamed it on spellcheck (probably an appropriate explanation, since if it wasn’t a misspelling…well, never mind). She gave the employee another chance.
“She then sent the corrected invoice with the exact same note within two minutes of the first,” Lambert says. “That’s when I knew she was out of chances. We had to let her go.”
In a sense, Lambert was fortunate. While that typo cost an employee her job, the most significant typos in history have had more far-reaching consequences. We looked into the stories behind a few of the most costly typographical errors of all time.
1. A missing hyphen destroyed a NASA spacecraft.
In 1962, NASA launched Mariner 1, a spacecraft intended to fly by Venus and send vital scientific data back to Earth on its infinite journey into the cosmos. Instead, it veered off course, forcing a safety officer to detonate it about five minutes after launch.
A review board later determined that a missing hyphen in the Mariner 1’s coded instructions played a major role in the disaster. The typo caused an issue with the spacecraft’s tracking mechanism.
If you’re picturing some programmer missing a key while setting up the Mariner 1’s software, that’s not exactly the case; at the time, NASA coded computers with punch cards. The hyphen—referred to as a “bar” in NASA’s parlance—should have told the computer to ignore veering movements resulting from a radio guidance failure without attempting to correct course.
The “bar” had been missing from other successful flights that relied on the same software, but radio failure compounded the problem for the Mariner 1. In other words, the missing hyphen wasn’t the only issue with this spaceflight, just the most significant preventable error.
“[The radio guidance failure combined with the missing hyphen] caused the computer to swing automatically into a series of unnecessary course corrections with erroneous steering commands, which finally threw the spacecraft off course,” NASA wrote.
Fortunately, the Mariner 1 was an unmanned mission. Still, the error cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $80 million—in 1962. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $663 million today. That’s a lot of money for a single hyphen.
2. In 1988, an unfortunate typo led to a $10 million lawsuit.
The plaintiff: Gloria Quinan, owner of the Banner Travel agency in Sonoma, California. She placed an ad in the Yellow Pages, but as you might have guessed if you paid attention to the title of this article, the phone book’s copy editor apparently skipped a day.
The ad was supposed to advertise “exotic travel.” Instead, it promoted “erotic travel.” To some tourists, that’s certainly an intriguing offer, but it wasn’t the type of promotion that Banner Travel had intended to promote.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Quinan says she developed severe health issues due to stress from the misprinted ad. She claimed that her business was effectively ruined. Unsurprisingly, the defendant, Pacific Bell, declined to comment (though we’re sure they offered a sexy, sexy apology at some point).
”Her older clients, which was most of her business, want to avoid her now,” Quinan’s attorney, George Altenberg, told the Associated Press.
In accordance with California law, the records regarding the case were destroyed—understandable, given its age—so we’re not sure of the outcome. Regardless, it wasn’t great press for Pacific Bell, and it certainly wasn’t great press for the Banner Travel agency. We’re sure it also disappointed a few frisky travelers.
3. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a memorable advertising campaign in 2013.
That year, the MTA was forced to dispose of up to $250,000 worth of new subway maps. The reason? They didn’t display accurate fare information.
“[The MTA] is very embarrassed about this,” an anonymous source told The New York Post at the time. “They were frantically calling the booths, trying to get these maps back.”
The maps listed minimum prices for pay-per-ride cards as $4.50 instead of $5. That’s a minor mistake, right? Not quite. The entire purpose of the campaign was to print maps with accurate pricing.
“They weren’t coming out with a new map because they were changing the map,” said Paul Flores, an MTA station agent, in 2013. “They were coming out with a new map because they were changing the price. That was the sole purpose. And they couldn’t even get that right.”
How does that sort of mistake happen? You’d think that someone would catch the typo during the printing process.
“When a document is extremely important, it goes through hundreds of hands,” says James, a freelance copy editor who recently edited the quarterly report for a Fortune 100 company. “You essentially have to edit the document while it’s being printed, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
“Ironically, we see more of these mistakes with massive campaigns since everyone assumes that someone else has looked over the document—or in this case, the map.”
By MTA union estimates, 80,000 incorrect maps were erroneously printed.
4. Back in 1631, a misprinted Bible ruined its publishers’ lives…and gave readers some terrible advice.
Religious typos are particularly unfortunate because the mistakes can ruin important messages. This Easter, for example, a UK church printed a celebratory banner that hadn’t been through spellcheck. It reportedly read: “Chris is Risen.” That’s great news for Chris, we suppose, but it was a massive waste of money for the church.
Still, that embarrassing blunder pales in comparison to an infamous 17th-century printing error. Royal publishers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas sent out 1,000 copies of the Bible without noticing a fairly striking misprint: When listing the seventh of the Ten Commandments, the book left out the word “not.”
The resulting verse read “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
The Anglican Church wasn’t thrilled, as the Bible was intended to represent the faith of the royalty. King Charles I ordered the Bibles destroyed, but several survived the censorship. Recently, The Telegraph reported that one of 10 known copies of the “Wicked Bible” went to auction and was expected to sell for around $21,000; it sold for about $44,000.
Unfortunately, the publishers didn’t fare so well. They lost their printing license and faced heavy fines for their mistake. According to one text, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“I knew the time when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially. Good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and letter rare and fair, every way of the best. But now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned.”
That’s the 17th-century equivalent of saying, “Your Bible is bad, your editing is bad, and you should feel bad.”
5. An erroneous trade nearly ruined a major banking firm.
Granted, we’re not usually interested in stories of corporate stock trading, but try to put yourself in the shoes of a Mizuho Securities employee in December 2005.
The company attempted to sell 610,000 shares of J-COM Co., Ltd., a staffing services company, at one yen each. That was an amazing deal—at the time, a single share of J-COM went for 610,000 yen. The issue compounded throughout the day, eventually resulting in estimated losses of 27 billion yen (roughly $255 million).
As you might have guessed, someone at Mizuho Securities had attempted to sell a single share for 610,000 yen, but somehow, the values for “value” and “number of stocks” switched. The error probably occurred due to an issue with the firm’s electronic trading system, and in 2009, a court determined that the Tokyo Stock Exchange was 70 percent liable for the mistake.
That wasn’t the only time a human error created a massive disaster on the stock market. In 1994, Chilean stockbroker Juan Pablo Davila lost his company $30 million when he accidentally entered a trade as “buy” instead of “sell” on his computer. In an attempt to rectify his mistake, Davila made additional (unauthorized) trades…and lost $175 million by the end of the day.
Davila served three years in prison for his catastrophic series of bad decisions, and today, the word “davilar” is part of the Spanish language. Its meaning: “to botch things up royally.”
6. An extra comma cost the United States government millions of dollars.
What do you do if you’re a major government and you’re recovering from, oh, a massive Civil War?
If you answered “tariffs,” congratulations, you’re the United States during Reconstruction (also, how are you reading this article?). The Tariff Act of 1872 was intended to restore the economy by changing some of the taxes on imported goods. It was a crucial piece of legislation, since the United States didn’t have a federal income tax at the time; in some years, tariffs provided for up to 95 percent of the federal budget.
The Ulysses S. Grant administration enacted the Tariff Act of 1872 to reduce rates on manufactured goods while maintaining other tariffs. Unfortunately, it included an enormous error: an extra comma.
Like previous tariff acts, the legislation had an extensive list of duty-free products. People wouldn’t have to pay taxes when importing these items. Here’s the important line that made its way into the act:
“[Exempted from the tax are] Fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”
The language was supposed to read “fruit plants,” referring to plants that were imported specifically to grow in the United States. Because the comma made its way into the document, however, all fruits were exempted from tariffs—and imported fruits were big business. When importers noticed the error, they pounced (and here, we’re using “pounced” to mean “slowly litigated their case in a boring legal way that probably doesn’t need much further explanation”).
In total, the United States was forced to refund $2 million in collected fruit tariffs, which was about 0.65 percent of the government’s entire federal budget in 1875. Despite a public outcry, nobody could figure out how the comma made its way into the document, but needless to say, it was removed in subsequent tariff acts.
7. A car dealership sent out scratch-off tickets…and all of them were winners.
Technically, this is a printing error rather than a typo, but we think it’s painful enough to include in this list.
If you’ve ever lived in any place ever (and we’re guessing you have), you’ve probably received junk mail from car dealerships. You throw most of them away—except the scratch-off tickets. Everyone loves scratching their way to a prize, even if that prize is something lame like a free test drive or a short conversation with an oddly aggressive used car salesperson.
But for one New Mexico car dealership, the stakes were substantially higher. In 2007, Roswell Honda sent out 30,000 scratch-off tickets to local drivers—and each one was a winner. Recipients believed that they’d won a $1,000 grand prize, and within days, the dealership was swarmed by excited “winners.”
The winning tickets were, of course, not real winners; they were misprinted.
“Unfortunately, they missed it in the proofreading,” Jeff Kohn, Roswell Honda general manager, told The Associated Press.
Adding that his dealership was making a “full-faith effort” to investigate the error, Kohn said that he was able to stop 20,000 more mailers from reaching his potential customers.
“[This is] not how we portray ourselves or our community,” he said.
Kohn blamed the mistake on Atlanta-based ad agency Force Media Group, which issued a press release shortly after the mailers made the news.
“It was a printing error,” said Force Media Group spokesperson Jim Fitzpatrick. “Instead of only one ticket in 50,000 having the winning notification under the scratch‐off, they all did. We’re going to make up for that in this new sweepstakes by actually increasing both the value and number of prizes offered as well as by dramatically increasing the chances of winning. The dealer and Force looked at the situation and decided we had to make it better to make it right.”
8. An airline offered its passengers a once-in-a-lifetime fare.
In 2006, Italian airline Alitalia (try saying those last three words three times fast) offered an incredible opportunity: For only $33, travelers could fly from Toronto to Larnaca, a small resort town in Cyprus.That was a shocking discount, since business-class fares between the cities usually cost around $2,500.
Alitalia quickly sold hundreds of tickets, which would have been great news if they’d actually intended to sell them in the first place. Someone at the airline had messed up, pricing the tickets at 1 percent of their actual value.
The company suspended ticket sales within a few hours, but the damage was done. To their credit, Alitalia honored 509 of the bookings (the rest, which hadn’t been ticketed, were refunded).
“It was a human mistake,” Alitalia’s spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal. “We hope that people will appreciate the effort we are making.”
At normal rates, the tickets would have meant about $1.32 million for the airline. Instead, Alitalia received about $16,797.
9. An extra “s” ruined a business that had operated for more than a century.
In 2009, Welsh engineering firm Taylor & Sons was doing well. The company had operated for 124 years and employed 250 people. Unfortunately, that changed rapidly thanks to a clerical error.
Companies House, the United Kingdom government institution responsible for registering businesses, reported that Taylor & Sons Ltd. had been officially dissolved. Suppliers jumped ship, customers cancelled their orders, and banks refused to issue loans to the failing business—but the business wasn’t failing. Companies House had meant to report the dissolution of Taylor & Son Ltd. (no “s”), a completely different company.
To make matters worse, Taylor & Sons managing director Philip Davison-Sebry was on vacation when the news broke, and some clients believed that he’d skipped the country.
“I felt physically sick. Back at the business the phones were ringing out, it was like Armageddon,” Davison-Sebry said. “Everyone wanted to be paid. People were queuing up for money. Equipment was being taken off site.”
“We lost all our credibility as all our suppliers thought we were in liquidation. It was like a snowball effect.”
While Companies House corrected the error three days later, the damage was done. Taylor & Sons wasn’t able to recover and officially liquidated in 2014.
“I was so close to a nervous breakdown,” Davison-Sebry said in 2015. “I was terrible with the stress of it. I could see everything disintegrating before my eyes and it was not very pleasant … I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Well, except the bloke who nicked my boat.”
The firm sued Companies House and eventually won; they’d asked for £9 million (roughly $11.6 million USD). We could not find an update on who stole Davison-Sebry’s boat.
10. An antique ale sold at auction for much, much less than it was worth.
In 1852, explorer Sir Edward Belcher led an expedition to the Arctic, and like all good 19th century explorers, he took some strong drinks with him. That included Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, specially brewed in Staffordshire, England for Belcher and his men.
These days, a pristine bottle can fetch more than $500,000 at auction—provided that you spell its name correctly. In 2007, an eBay seller made a costly mistake by listing a bottle of the stuff as “allsop’s arctic ale. full and corked with a wax seal.”
That missing “p” prevented the bottle from showing up in most collectors’ searches. A buyer named collectordan placed the winning bid of $304, then turned around and resold it on the same auction site for a whopping $503,300. We’re not sure whether or not anyone ever drank the expensive brew, but we’re guessing you don’t spend that type of money on an after-dinner drink.
11. A man was sentenced to death (partially) due to a missing word.
While the other typos on this list are serious, at least they didn’t endanger someone’s life. That’s not the case here.
In 1987, Bruce Wayne Morris (who was not Batman, as far as we can tell through cursory research) was found guilty of killing a man who picked him up while he was hitchhiking in 1985 (okay, definitely not Batman). The jury could choose between two punishments for the crime: life in prison with no possibility of parole, or a death sentence.
However, the written instructions given to the jury inaccurately said “with possibility of parole.” Jurors were left with a difficult decision; either they sentence Morris to death, or they allow for the possibility that he could eventually rejoin society. They sentenced him to execution.
That kicked off a legal battle that undoubtedly cost California taxpayers quite a bit of money. A federal court eventually reversed the sentence because it found that the mistake “is too obvious, the likelihood of prejudice too great, and the stakes are too high to conclude the error was harmless.”
Bruce Wayne Morris was freed from prison, became a billionaire, and is using his spare time to build a high-tech batsuit with…oh, actually, we typed the wrong name into Google. Bruce Wayne Morris is probably still behind bars.
12. An embarrassing typo on a ballot led to expensive reprints.
In 2006, Ottawa County in Michigan spent about $40,000 to reprint 170,000 ballots with an unfortunate spelling error in the text of a proposed amendment to the state constitution.
Here’s how the proposal should have read:
“A proposal to amend the State Constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes.”
Granted, it’s pretty dry and boring, but that’s a competent description of the ballot measure. Unfortunately, someone left off the “l” in “public,” which, ahem, substantially changed the meaning of the sentence. The county clerk’s office had proofread the ballot several times, but somehow, the error made it through.
“It’s just one of those words,” county clerk Daniel C. Krueger said. “Even after we told people it was in there, they still read over it.”
The proposal ultimately passed, prompting a lengthy Supreme Court case questioning the ballot initiative’s constitutionality. The law was found to be constitutional, and we should note that the court’s decision correctly spelled the word “public” 73 times. Maybe spelling isn’t that difficult.
13. The URL mistakes you’re making every day are earning someone money.
Make a tiny mistake while typing our name, and you might find yourself at healthway.com, a manufacturer of air purifiers.
Those are honest mistakes, but some companies intentionally try to take advantage of typos by setting up “typosquatting” websites. Add a stray vowel while typing a popular site’s URL into your address bar, and you’ll likely end up at one of these sites; the advertisements on the side of the screen will collect a tiny amount of revenue from each accidental view.
[Editorial note: Because many typosquatting websites have malicious intent, we don’t recommend intentionally mistyping the names of well-known websites to try to find typosquatters. Trust us, they’re out there.]
About 57 percent of typosquatting websites feature Google pay-per-click ads; the others make their money via other means. According to an estimate from Harvard Business School associate professor Ben Edelman, Google makes about $497 million from typosquatting on the top 100,000 domains every year.
“In fact, comparing domain parking sites to ordinary search results, we expect that the parking sites (including typosquatting sites) have a higher click-through rate,” Edelman writes. “… If so, advertisers’ costs for typosquatting placements could easily exceed our estimates by a factor of two or more.”
That means that every time you make a mistake while typing a URL, you’re likely contributing to a multi-billion dollar industry. See—we all make mistaekes.
Wait, we meant mistakes. We’re fired, aren’t we?