#69 – Canadian Storytime, Part Three: The Therac-25

English Canada has forgotten about one of the most horrific accidents in the history of software engineering despite the minor detail that one of its companies created said accident.

It created said accident in the usual way Canada produces anything – laziness begetting complete fuck-up. The Therac-25 series, a radiation therapy machine created by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), had the unfortunate side-effect of irradiating patients because nobody bothered to look at the software that was running the machine after removing the interlock system. This produced a mildly-undesirable effect colloquially referred to as microwaving cancer patients like one would a fucking hot-dog and medically referred to as “holy shit fucking stop!”

Given that microwaving your patients is discouraged even in the cacophony of idiocy that is Canada and certainly in the modestly-more aware United States, the incident proved to be a bit of a disaster. Being a Crown Corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada proudly and boldly leapt to the rescue after the second case of radioactive funtimes by guessing at the problem (they couldn’t replicate the scrotum-zapping majesty of the Therac-25 in the lab) and declaring the machine to be safer “by at least five orders of magnitude”, a zesty claim in the context of not being able to recreate the issue in the first place. Oh, and denying that the machine could pump an overdose into a patient.

The AECL knew that Canadian products were perfect and amazing and thus didn’t bother having any ability to follow-up on the first case of nukery. The first patient was injured in June of 1985; a 61-year old woman who unknowingly put her faith in the hands of Canada (never a good idea) claimed that she could feel the radiation burning her as she was zapped. The technician behind this particular incident of human cookery accidentally fired 20,000 rads of Canadian therapy where 200 is the norm – clearly, the machine could never do that despite the patient being obviously burned and eventually losing control of her arm. This issue was dropped by the AECL until it became obvious even in Canada that the Therac-25 was a menace.

Shockingly and incredibly enough, the guesswork changes to the Junk-Jammer 9000 after the second incident of nuclear bukkake failed to amuse those who discovered that the Canadian government’s business was unable to follow even the basics required by the Canadian Radiation-Emitting Devices Act. This law was passed in 1971; the Therac-25 menaced North American genitals starting in 1985. But Gordon Symonds and his recommendations from the Canadian Radiation Protection Bureau were ignored save for a single fix.

Then the AECL pulled a full Canada by lying through its fucking teeth. A lawsuit filed from the first patient had been filed in October of 1985 listed the AECL as a defendant, mostly because of the whole massive dose of radiation thing. After a dude got nad-nuked in Yakima, Washington, the clinic there wrote to the AECL to say that their latest error could be a radiation problem. The AECL said that an overdose was impossible and that they had never had a problem before.

Yeah. The first and second patients weren’t damaged by bad equipment! They just didn’t want to be cured enough!

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