Why are errors called bugs?

We’ve all dealt with problems with our computers or with what we are doing with our computers. It has become almost second nature to now to call those problems “bugs” so today we take a look at where that term comes from.

The term actually predates the computer and may actually have nothing to do with insects. The famous inventor Thomas Edison may have been one of the first to use the term describing them as little faults and difficulties with his work. US GI’s during World War 2 described mechanical problems as bugs. Isaac Asimov also used the term in his works about robots including I, Robot. It seems that the term did not have anything to do with insects but was derived from the Middle English word bugge which developed into the word bugaboo.

To fix the bugs another term had to be spawned. Debug entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1945 and was used in conjunction with testing aircraft engines. Its use with computers though may be accidental but is the most famous anecdote. Grace Hopper worked with the Bureau of Ships Communication Project at Harvard University during World War 2 and worked as a programmer on the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator or Mark I. After being released from active duty following the war she worked on the Mark II and Mark III computers at Harvard. While working an error was encountered and upon examination the culprit, a moth, was found in a vacuum tube by a co-worker and removed. The moth was taped to her log book and became the most famous error report of all time. Following that she joined the team developing the UNIVAC, our nation’s first large scale computer and is one of the early female computing pioneers in our nation’s history. The log book still exists and is a part of the Smithsonian collection at the National Museum of American History.

There has been numerous efforts to remove the term bug from the lexicon and replace it with another word. Anything from blunder, mistake, anomaly, fault, failure, error, exception, crash, defect, incident or side effect has been proposed but yet the term bug is still with us.

Perhaps the most famous modern bug was the Y2K bug. To save memory space on older computers the year was abbreviated to the last two digits. That was fine as long as it was 1995 but no one was quite sure what would happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999. Would nuclear missiles launch themselves? Would computer systems the world over crash? Would Skynet arise and enslave us all? OK, maybe not that last one but it was a real concern. Fortunately computer programmers set to work well ahead of time and there were few issues when the calendar turned to 2000.

So, as you sit back during this holiday season you can say that you learned something today.

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