Legend has it that the first computer bug, or error, was generated by an insect. More precisely, bugs would have received this name precisely from insects, which are the main meaning of the word “bug” in English. Unlike other legends, this one started from a real incident, even if some details got mixed up along the way.
Here’s how it all actually happened, according to the scientist 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 being tested for the US Navy.
One of the brilliant minds who worked on this project was Grace Hopper, a pioneer of computer innovation and US Navy rear admiral, who holds the exceptionally rare honor of having a warship named after her.
What does the legend say about the first computer bug?
The team of computer scientists noticed that the Mark II was behaving strangely. After looking at the components, they saw that the fault was caused by an unfortunate moth that got caught in relay 70 of the F panel.
The errant moth was removed and Cooper placed the specimen in the day’s log sheet using duct tape, along with the notation: “First actual case of finding a bug.”
In 1988, the logbook was rediscovered at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum in Virginia, and the moth was still stuck to the sheet, if perhaps a little dusty.
This part of the story seems to be true. At least, there’s no reason to assume it was made up. However, some interpretations of the story of the first computer bug go further and suggest that the term was derived directly from this incident. This is definitely not real.
Who first used the term “bug”?
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 says: “Bugs, as such small errors are called, exist, and months of intense watching, study and work are required before commercial success or failure can be definitely attained,” he quotes IFL Science.
Similarly, Shapiro writes that the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “bug” as “a defect or failure in a machine, plan, or the like.” The dictionary definition cites an 1889 newspaper as saying: “Mr. Edison … lay awake two nights in a row, discovering a ‘bug’ in the phonograph, an expression for solving a difficulty, and suggesting that an imaginary insect had gotten inside and was causing all the trouble “.
A story worth telling
So it seems that the word “bug” was used to describe an unexpected problem, especially with machinery or electronics, over half a century before the famous case of the Mark II computer.
It is also impossible to say whether the incident in this anecdote could be considered the first computer bug. Computers were in their infancy in the 1940s, but it is not known if that was the first time a computer error was called a “bug.”
However, the legend of the crushed moth is a great story that is definitely worth retelling, no matter what the exact truth is.