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ave you ever wondered why we call computer errors “bugs”? It seems that this jargon twisted around small parasites such as bugs or viruses has stuck in the IT world, but why is that? All names and meanings are not just given out of a magic hat, but due to real-life experiences. Although some people consider this story to be a legend, it does kind of make sense, but everyone is their own judge,

Scholar Fred R Shapiro who published an article in the American Speach Journal, entitled, “Etymology of the Computer Bug: History and Folklore” showed evidence of an event that led to the first computer bug and how this name was given.

“One day in the 1940s, Harvard’s famed Mark I – the precursors of today’s computers (computers from the 80s) failed. When the Harvard scientists looked inside the computer, they found a moth that had lodged in Mark I’s circuit. They removed the moth with a parid of tweezers, and from then on, whenever there was a problem with the Mark I, the scientists said they were looking for bugs in the system. The term has stuck through the years.”

(Dun’s Business Month, Feb. 1983: 125)

The moth or insect that is mentioned in the text can be seen in the primary picture of the article and it has been stuck to a piece of paper which was a report done to record the “bug” of Mark I. Rather than writing bug or moth the scientists chose to actually stick the evidence to the report.

Other sources that presented the same story mentioned that the moth which was discovered inside the circuit also inspired Harvard scientists to speak of debugging the computer. You may think, how exactly do so many bugs end up in a computer? Well, the first generation of computers from the 1940s were very big and usually, the circuit was open to avoid overheating and for easy access in case something went wrong. Here is a photo of the Mark I in 1943 just to understand why so many insects ended up inside the system.

IBM Mark I computer inside Harvard institute in 1943 (Source: Harvard Archives)

The Mark I spaned over 50 feet (15 meters) long and was made up of 750,000 components. That is a lot of components for insects to get lodged into. 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.

However, some historians argue that the term “bug” indicating an error of some sort was used much earlier, even before the creation of computers. Some say that the term was first used by Thomas Edison as early as 1878 as it has been mentioned in a letter he wrote to his fellow inventor, Theodore Puskas.

“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 achieved,”

(Quote by Theodore Puskas)

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 I computer. Was the incident with Thomas Edison only a coincidence, yet from a philosophical perspective why would someone consider insects an error? This is why most people stick to the idea that the term had been crafted inside Harvard institute.

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