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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June, 2005, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Progress... pah!
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

A classic marriage of Victorian engineering and design, London's Tower Bridge fell victim to a distinctly modern problem last week - a software error. Curse you technology!

Wasn't life so simple before computers, we tell ourselves when another major tech-headache makes the news. In a nostalgic way, it's as if the cyber age has single-handedly resigned "the good old days" to the delete box.

While this overlooks the countless advantages computers have brought, technological hiccups remain conspicuous because if progress means anything, it's that things will get better.

Try telling that to motorists caught in chaotic traffic jams in London last week when Tower Bridge was closed. The iconic bridge's arms - properly known as the bascules - were stuck open for 10 hours. The problem was blamed on a software error.

Motorists caught in the jams would be forgiven for wishing they could turn back the clock. For the first 82 years of its life, the hydraulics of Tower Bridge were driven by steam engines. Then in 1976, steam was replaced by oil and electricity. In 1998, electronics were introduced to give more control to the lifting of the bridge and to ease the pressure on the steel shafts holding up the arms.

The 1.7m "state of the art" refurbishment has succeeded in those aims, but Thursday's problem was the fourth in three months.

Electronic votes

Technology is often thought of as the solution to knotty problems - something which happened after the hanging chads controversy in Florida.

The federal government passed legislation encouraging the use of touch screen voting machines and about 25% of the US electorate voted electronically in last November's presidential election, up 10% from 2000. Many others used mechanical voting devices instead of ballot papers.

But some people were unhappy that some versions of the electronic technology failed to provide a verifiable record for recounts and could not tell the voter who they cast their ballot for.

In recent years there has been a spate of disputes over local election results across the US involving voting machines.

In the air

Thousands of air passengers have been delayed by problems which have dogged the new air traffic control computers.

Air traffic control West Drayton
Before computers, the pilot used maps
The National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) is in the final stages of its protracted move from West Drayton, near Heathrow, to its new flagship 623m headquarters at Swanwick near Southampton.

There have been several IT problems which have caused the suspension of flights, particularly at times when the software needs upgrading.

In October 2002, a jumbo jet and a Boeing were accidentally put on a collision course, averted by pilots, which prompted a software change 16 months later.

Some staff complained they could not read the font on the new computer screens at Swanwick.

Nats says a 1bn investment over eight years will improve the reliability and contingency of the system.

Before radar technology was introduced in the 1960s, the pilot and controllers relied on radio communications and maps.

On the buses

Technological advance, of course, can work in your pocket as much in the skies. Smartcards, which are about the same size as a credit card and have an embedded microchip, are considered to be the future for transactions.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, introduced them for travel purposes as Oystercards. They are more durable than the tickets, quicker to scan at stations and enable passengers to pre-pay for journeys.

But in March a software glitch stopped the readers working and tens of thousands of pre-pay Oyster passengers in the capital had free journeys.

The fault occurred, a Transport for London spokeswoman said, because of a large computer file. This is sent daily with the latest information about which cards had been disabled.

She denied this was a taste of things to come, but conceded "things will happen like this".

Software upgrades

The biggest single failure to hit welfare is thought to have been at the Department of Work and Pensions, where 80% of computers were affected in November.

A routine software upgrade affected desktop computers so users could not access some information, and fax replaced e-mail as the method of communication. Some cheques were reportedly written by hand.

Before that, a new 456m computer system at the Child Support Agency, introduced in March 2003, was blamed for a backlog of 170,000 cases.

Later that year, EDS lost the 3bn IT contract at the Inland Revenue after being blamed for a catalogue of errors over tax credit payments. But there are still problems - the deadline for electronic tax returns was extended in February when the website crashed.


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