The Jargon File on Bugs (was Cord Board Anecdote)

The Jargon File on Bugs (was Cord Board Anecdote)

Post by Mark Brad » Sun, 12 Apr 1992 14:44:00



Quote:> [Moderator's Note: Is that where the expression 'have you got a bug up
> your switchboard' (or something like that!) came from?  :) Seriously
> though, the term 'bug' as used in software programming does come from
> the late 1940's when the old vacuum tube style computers had large
> relays in them into which insects would crawl to hide; wind up getting
> squashed and cause the relays to malfunction.  PAT]  

Not so.  At least one such incident did happen, but the term "bug" was
already established.  From the Jargon File, release 2.9.9:

 :bug: n. An unwanted and unintended property of a program or
    hardware, esp. one that causes it to malfunction.  Antonym of
    {feature}.  Examples: "There's a bug in the editor: it writes
    things out backwards."  "The system crashed because of a hardware
    bug."  "Fred is a winner, but he has a few bugs" (i.e., Fred is
    a good guy, but he has a few personality problems).

  Historical note: Some have said this term came from telephone
    company usage, in which "bugs in a telephone cable" were blamed
    for noisy lines, but this appears to be an incorrect folk
    etymology.  Admiral Grace Hopper (an early computing pioneer better
    known for inventing {COBOL}) liked to tell a story in which a
    technician solved a persistent {glitch} in the Harvard Mark II
    machine by pulling an actual insect out from between the contacts
    of one of its relays, and she subsequently promulgated {bug} in
    its hackish sense as a joke about the incident (though, as she was
    careful to admit, she was not there when it happened).  For many
    years the logbook associated with the incident and the actual bug
    in question (a moth) sat in a display case at the Naval Surface
    Warfare Center.  The entire story, with a picture of the logbook
    and the moth taped into it, is recorded in the `Annals of the
    History of Computing', Vol. 3, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 285--286.

    The text of the log entry (from September 9, 1945), reads "1545
    Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay.  First actual case of bug being
    found".  This wording seems to establish that the term was already
    in use at the time in its current specific sense --- and Hopper
    herself reports that the term `bug' was regularly applied to
    problems in radar electronics during WWII.  Indeed, the use of
    `bug' to mean an industrial defect was already established in
    Thomas Edison's time, and `bug' in the sense of an disruptive
    event goes back to Shakespeare!  In the first edition of Samuel
    Johnson's dictionary one meaning of `bug' is "A frightful
    object; a walking spectre"; this is traced to `bugbear', a Welsh
    term for a variety of mythological monster which (to complete the
    circle) has recently been reintroduced into the popular lexicon
    through fantasy role-playing games.

    In any case, in jargon the word almost never refers to insects.
    Here is a plausible conversation that never actually happened:

    "There is a bug in this ant farm!"

    "What do you mean?  I don't see any ants in it."

    "That's the bug."

    [There has been a widespread myth that the original bug was moved
    to the Smithsonian, and an earlier version of this entry so
    asserted.  A correspondent who thought to check discovered that the
    bug was not there.  While investigating this in late 1990, your
    editor discovered that the NSWC still had the bug, but had
    unsuccessfully tried to get the Smithsonian to accept it --- and
    that the present curator of the History of American Technology
    Museum didn't know this and agreed that it would make a worthwhile
    exhibit.  It was moved to the Smithsonian in mid-1991.  Thus, the
    process of investigating the original-computer-bug bug fixed it in
    an entirely unexpected way, by making the myth true!  --- ESR]


[Moderator's Note: Mark, my special thanks for taking the trouble to
prepare and send this along. It made my day!   PAT]

 
 
 

1. An Anecdote From the Cord-Board Days

I just heard a story from someone who was a telephone operator during
the 1950's.

It seems that some kind of insect, possibly a silverfish was attracted
to the wiring. [Maybe it was the cotton they used for insulation?]
The operators used to try to shock the insects by touching the plug to
the insect and ringing to cord.  One lady unitentionally rang
someone's phone when she was trying to kill am insect, and when the
man at the other end answered the phone she said, "I'm sorry Sir, I
was trying to kill a bug [that was] in your hole."


UUCP: ...!rwsys!ricksys!rick,   {backbones}!ricksys.lonestar.org!rick

[Moderator's Note: Is that where the expression 'have you got a bug up
your switchboard' (or something like that!) came from?  :) Seriously
though, the term 'bug' as used in software programming does come from
the late 1940's when the old vacuum tube style computers had large
relays in them into which insects would crawl to hide; wind up getting
squashed and cause the relays to malfunction.  PAT]  

2. SPAM: (may be forged)

3. The Jargon File

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