Late one Sunday night in 1898, an employee of The New York Times was setting the type for the next morning’s front page, unaware he was about to print a blunder that would take 102 years to rectify.
You can still see the legacy of the poor anonymous man’s screw-up today. If you have a copy of The Times nearby, take a look at the top left corner of the front page; you will see an issue number. Numbering well into the 50,000s today, this publisher’s tally has appeared in the exact same spot every day since the very first issue of The Times hit newsstands on September 18, 1851, stepping up by one every day the paper went on sale. That is, until February 7, 1898, when it stepped up by, well, quite a bit more than one.
That’s the night some unknown editor made a simple mathematical error. The February 6 paper, he saw, was issue number 14,499. Using only the simple mental arithmetic required of him, the employee added one—and got 15,000. The paper went to print, jumping 500 issues into the future overnight. And nobody noticed.
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The New York Times continued running its issue numbers like this, 500 editions ahead of reality, every day for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until the end of 1999 when an intrepid news assistant—a 24-year-old man responsible for, among other things, updating each edition’s issue number—began to question the system’s potential for error. After poring over thousands of archival issues, he found the hidden fluke from a century past. And so, on the January 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times, editors printed this correction:
“Because the 500-issue error persisted until yesterday (No. 51,753)… today The Times turns back the clock to correct the sequence: this issue is No. 51,254. ”
Typos have been responsible for some of the most expensive mistakes in history, but the price of this one, fortunately, was only a little embarrassment. “An article on March 14, 1995, celebrating the arrival of No. 50,000 was 500 days premature,” the correction added. “It should have appeared on July 26, 1996.”