Behold, the world’s first computer bug. Image credit: Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, VA./US Naval Historical Center Online Library Photograph/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
It’s an oft-reported snippet of cyber folklore that the first computer bug was literally a bug. A rubbed moth, to be precise. Like many anecdotes that find their way into modern legend, this story appears to be based on fact, but some retellings of the story may have a little confusion in the details.
Here’s how the story goes, according to scholar Fred R Shapiro: On September 9, 1945 (some sources say 1947), Harvard engineers were working on the Mark II, also known as the Aiken Relay Calculator, a electromechanical computer tested for. the US Navy.
One of the bright sparks working on this project is Grace Hopper, a fiery computer pioneer and rear admiral of the US Navy who holds the unique honor of being a mathematician with a battleship named after them.
The team of computer scientists noticed that Mark II was playing. After looking at the hardware, they found that the glitch was caused by an unfortunate moth stuck between relay 70 on panel F.
The broken moth was removed and Cooper put the specimen on the day’s log sheet using some sticky-tape with the notation: “First actual case of a bug found.”
In 1988, the log book was rediscovered at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum in Virginia and the moth was still glued to the sheet, perhaps a little dusty but fine.
This part of the story seems to be true. At least, there is no reason to think that it was made. However, some interpretations of the story persist and suggest that the term “computer bug” is directly derived from this incident. This is certainly not the case.
The term “bug” was used by Thomas Edison as early as 1878 when he wrote to fellow inventor Theodore Puskas. His letter reportedly read: “Bugs – as small errors and difficulties as they are called – showed themselves and months of intense observation, study and work were necessary before reaching the commercial success or failure.”
Similarly, Shapiro writes that the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “bug” as “a defect or error in a machine, plan, or the like.” The dictionary definition cites a newspaper from 1889 as saying: “Mr Edison… woke up two nights ago to discover a ‘bug’ in his phonograph—an expression for solving a difficulty, and means that some imaginary insect has hidden itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”
Thus, it appears that the word “bug” was used to describe an unexpected hiccup, especially regarding machinery or electronics, for more than half a century before the unfortunate case of the Mark II computer. .
It is also impossible to say whether this anecdote can be considered the first computer bug. In fact, computers were still in their infancy in the 1940s, but no one knows if this glitch was the first time a computer error was called a bug.
However, few would argue that the legend of the crushed moth is not a good story worth retelling, regardless of the exact truth.
[H/T: Victtor Ciferri on Twitter]