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What Do You Mean, There Was a Computer Bug?

When a computer or computer program unexplainably malfunctions, it is said to be a computer bug. Have you ever wondered how this idiom came into being? After all, if you think about it, it doesn’t sound like something people would have come up with even as a slang term. There really is an origin to “computer bug”.

In 1945, the US Navy had built the first large-scale computer system. A problem occurred shortly after the system came online, however. The problem was totally unexplainable at first and it took a number of days to track down the cause. It seems that a large moth had become wedged between the circuits, frying the moth and causing the system malfunction.

Ever since that time, unexplained computer glitches have been called ‘bugs’. Just think, if people had realized that a moth isn’t actually a bug, we could be calling unexplained glitches ‘moths’ or ‘lepidopteras’. Small wonder that many people prefer the way that Microsoft used to refer to glitches. Microsoft called them “undocumented features”.

Almost as surprising, the term “computer bug” has been used for over 70 years now!

What do you think?

18 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. Interesting to know. I remember back at university learning computer terms and language and these huge computers in the basement going beep beep bop bum. I was terrified of them but had to learn to do programming. Once I had to put in a term in the computer’s language and it booped and bobbed and finally came out a long piece of paper. I don’t know what I told it but it told me that I would soon get married and that was years before I did. lol

    • Hahaha…I remember the old computers that filled a room, with reel to reel magnetic tape for storage and computer punch cards for inputting data. The first one of those monstrosities I ever saw was when I toured a college when I was still in high school in 1972. I later when to school at that college. The truly amazing thing is that the computer I’m using at this moment has more memory and calculating power than that computer that took up a number of rooms at college. :))

  2. I learned about this when I was teaching 6th grade English class from the the ECB book Panorama. Thay have the story in simple English along with pictures. Then later after I taught the class I looked it up on Google and I found the original lab report that the engineers wrote. They taped the dead moth to the paper.

    • That is way cool! Yes, the original report still exists. I can imagine the difficulty they had in isolating the problem, too. As a technical engineer, I did troubleshooting on a lot of computer bugs, but I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of an insect as being only of those things that I’ve ever looked for, specifically. LOL

  3. It’s a good story, but it’s not how the word bug came to be used for machinery malfunctions. Back in 1889, Thomas Edison wrote that he had been “up the two previous nights searching for a bug in his phonograph”.

    • The problem is that the term wouldn’t apply to a computer, as far as most engineers and developers are concerned. Grace Hopper, who led the development team that produced that first large-scale computer, was actually very detailed in regard to how and why “computer bug” came to be.

        • Although a computer is technically a machine, most people don’t think of it as a machine. At any rate, it is interesting to note that while this was the first large-scale computer system, it was definitely not the first computer or computer system and nearly all of the preceding computers/computer systems had glitches of one sort or another, yet this instance is the first time that “computer bug” was a term that was used and it has been used from that time until now, for unexplained behavior.

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