Does Not Compute

Fact: The term ‘bug’ in computing comes from an adventurous moth.

When software doesn’t work properly, we might call it a glitch or a malfunction. But most of all we think of it as a ‘bug’ – remember the millennium scare of the Y2K bug, which some thought would cause a total collapse of the world’s computing systems (spoiler: it didn’t).

But where does this term come from? Trace it all the way back to its first mention and you reach the mystical days of Thomas Edison, who applied the term to difficulties and roadblocks that pop up when developing an idea. But the story for how this term came to be used in computing is far more entertaining.

In 1946 Grace Hopper, a pioneering American computer scientist, was troubleshooting errors in her new, cutting edge Harvard Mark II computer. Eventually her operators came to her with the cause of their troubles- not a mistake in the complex programming or a slight misconnection of wiring, but a bug. A moth, to be specific, which had found its way into the internals of the computer and disrupted its delicate operation.

The moth was taped into Grace’s logbook and thus term ‘bug’ was coined to describe malfunctions in computer software. That makes it perhaps the most famous insect in the world – if you want to catch a glimpse of this unlikely celebrity, get over to the Smithsonian Museum, where it is on display.

Credit to Lottie Swift for the story!

Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science
Image under creative commons license

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