Who let the ‘bugs’ out? It’s probably not who you think

Software bugs are annoying. Anyone who has to go through the tedious task of debugging knows that. But why do we call it ‘bugs’ in the first place?

Many think that the term ‘bug’ came to life with the dawn of the information age. The term is often attributed to the famed computer science pioneer Grace Hopper.

The story goes that an operator noted an issue with the electromechanical computer Mark II back in 1947. After a quick investigation, the engineers discovered a moth stuck in a relay and identified the insect as the primary issue.

As a joke, the engineers took the moth and taped it to their logbook, following the gnarly entry with a cheeky label: ‘first actual case of bug being found’ (pictured in the featured image of this article).

Hopper, who later became United States Navy rear admiral and other engineers who were involved in the ‘discovery,’ retold the funny countless times, engraving the 9 September 1947 as the first time a computer bug was mentioned. The famous log entry is even a part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

This story is often confused as the origin story of the term ‘bug’ so frequently used by every developer around the globe. However, as the label next to the poor moth suggests, engineers in 1947 were perfectly aware of the term ‘bug’ and its meaning. It was only the first time, they joked, a bug was found where an error was present.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison. Image by Shutterstock.

A century too late

Computer bugs, obviously, could not predate the machines whose developers they annoy. Computer engineers, however, are far from the first to use the term ‘bug’ to describe an annoying issue interfering with their and their project’s wellbeing.

It’s likely that bugs have been bugging engineers since the beginning of the second industrial revolution in the mid-19th century.

The earliest written example of the use of the term ‘bug’ to date belongs to the famous inventor Thomas Edison. In an 1878 letter to the head of Western Union William Orton, Edison wrote, ‘I did find a ‘bug’ in my apparatus, but it was not in the telephone proper,’ further explaining other reasons for the delayed project.

Later the same year, Edison mentioned ‘bugs’ in yet another letter. In an exchange with a Hungarian inventor Theodore Puskas, Edison explained his engineering troubles, the ones that so many modern professionals could relate to.

“It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise—this thing gives out and then that “Bugs”- as such little faults and difficulties are called- show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached,” Edison wrote.

Even though it's not clear whether Edison was the first to coin the term ‘bug,’ by the late 19th century, ‘bugs’ have infested the minds of engineers completely. An 1892 Standard Electrical Dictionary by Thomas Sloane already defined ‘bug’ as ‘any fault or trouble in the connections of electric apparatus.’

Thus, by the mid-20th century, engineers were well aware of ‘bugs,’ repurposing the term for a Third industrial revolution involving ‘mechanical calculators’ that will come to define the age we live in today.

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