Most of us have encountered bugs in hardware or software, those defects that prevent computers from operating properly. But the term existed long before the age of computers. It has its origins in the shop of perhaps the greatest innovator of the industrial age.
The term was coined in the lab of Thomas Edison, perhaps by the man himself. Edison is the first to be recorded using the term in 1878. From Matthew Josephson’s 1959 Edison: a Biography which quotes the man himself:
“Bugs"—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of anxious watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success...is reached.1
By the 20th century, bug was in fairly widespread use, meaning an error or fault, as witnessed by the quote in the New York Times from Mayor Fiorella La Guardia on 22 July 1937:
“No building code or any code of that kind can be drawn up without bugs, defects or jokers,” [La Guardia] commented. “The only thing to do with this code is to try it and be ready to amend it as soon as the bugs, defects and jokers appear. It is exactly like the airplane motor which looked perfect on the drafting board and which will not fly.”2
There is, however, a very popular etymology (or perhaps it is entomology in this case) that credits Grace Hopper, naval officer and computer pioneer, with coining the term bug for a computer defect when she discovered an insect in a malfunctioning computer. It’s a fun story, and it’s even true, except in that it is not the origin of the term. Hopper (or perhaps one of her colleagues) did discover an insect in a computer, but as we have seen bug meaning defect dates from the nineteenth century.
At 1545 hours, 9 September 1945, computer workers on the Harvard Mark II machine at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia found a moth in a relay of the machine. They taped the insect into their logbook and recorded it as:
Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.3
Clearly, the computer workers were making a joke. It was the first actual bug found in a computer.
1Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 198.
2”La Guardia to Sign New Building Code,” New York Times (New York), 22 July 1937, 27.
3IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 1981): 285-86.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton