This is 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-vaunted snippet of cyberfolklore that the first computer bug was literally a bug. A crushed moth, to be precise. Like many anecdotes that find their way into modern legend, this story seems to be grounded in truth, but some retellings of the story may have muddled the details a bit.
Here’s how the story goes, according to researcher 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, an electromechanical computer that was tested for the US Navy.
One of the brightest sparks working on this project was Grace Hopper, a computer pioneer and US Navy Rear Admiral who holds the exceptionally rare honor of being a mathematician named after a warship.
The IT team noticed that Mark II was playing. After looking at the hardware, they saw that the problem was caused by an unfortunate moth sandwiched between relay 70 of panel F.
The battered moth was removed and Cooper placed the specimen in the day’s journal sheet using tape with the notation: “First actual case of insect discovery.”
In 1988 the logbook was rediscovered at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum in Virginia and the butterfly was still taped to the sheet, perhaps a bit dusty but otherwise in good condition.
This part of the story seems true. At least there’s no reason to assume it was made up. However, some interpretations of the story go further 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 none other than Thomas Edison as early as 1878 when he wrote to fellow inventor Theodore Puskas. His letter reads: “Bugs – as these small flaws and difficulties are called – show up and months of intense observation, study and work are required before commercial success or failure is certain. achieved.”
Similarly, Shapiro writes that the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “bug” as “a defect or fault in a machine, plan, or the like”. The dictionary definition cites an 1889 journal which reads: “Mr. Edison…had been up the previous two nights to discover a ‘bug’ in his phonograph – an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that an imaginary insect was secreted inside and is causing all the trouble.
Thus, it seems that the word “bug” was used to describe an unexpected hiccup, particularly relating to machinery or electronics, for over half a century before the infamous case of the Mark II computer.
It is also impossible to say whether this anecdote could be considered the first computer bug. Granted, computers were still in their infancy in the 1940s, but it’s unclear if this issue was the first time a computer error was labeled a bug.
Nonetheless, few would argue that the legend of the squashed moth isn’t a great story worth telling, wherever the exact truth lies.
[H/T: Victtor Ciferri on Twitter]