Thursday September 9, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Computer Bug

On this Day:

In 1945, the first “bug” in a computer program was discovered by Grace Hopper; a moth was removed with tweezers from a relay & taped into the log. But Grace didn’t actually find the moth but she did find the bug.

A software bug is an error, flaw or fault in a computer program or system that causes it to produce an incorrect or unexpected result, or to behave in unintended ways. The process of finding and fixing bugs is termed “debugging” and often uses formal techniques or tools to pinpoint bugs, and since the 1950s, some computer systems have been designed to also deter, detect or auto-correct various computer bugs during operations.

Most bugs arise from mistakes and errors made in either a program’s design or its source code, or in components and operating systems used by such programs. A few are caused by compilers producing incorrect code. A program that contains many bugs, and/or bugs that seriously interfere with its functionality, is said to be buggy (defective). Bugs can trigger errors that may have ripple effects. Bugs may have subtle effects or cause the program to crash or freeze the computer. Other bugs qualify as security bugs and might, for example, enable a malicious user to bypass access controls in order to obtain unauthorized privileges.

Some software bugs have been linked to disasters. Bugs in code that controlled the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine were directly responsible for patient deaths in the 1980s. In 1996, the European Space Agency’s US$1 billion prototype Ariane 5 rocket had to be destroyed less than a minute after launch due to a bug in the on-board guidance computer program. In June 1994, a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre, killing 29. This was initially dismissed as pilot error, but an investigation by Computer Weekly convinced a House of Lords inquiry that it may have been caused by a software bug in the aircraft’s engine-control computer.

In 2002, a study commissioned by the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that “software bugs, or errors, are so prevalent and so detrimental that they cost the US economy an estimated $59 billion annually, or about 0.6 percent of the gross domestic product”.

The Middle English word bugge is the basis for the terms “bugbear” and “bugaboo” as terms used for a monster.

The term “bug” to describe defects has been a part of engineering jargon since the 1870s and predates electronic computers and computer software; it may have originally been used in hardware engineering to describe mechanical malfunctions. For instance, Thomas Edison wrote the following words in a letter to an associate in 1878:

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 [it is] 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.

Baffle Ball, the first mechanical pinball game, was advertised as being “free of bugs” in 1931. Problems with military gear during World War II were referred to as bugs (or glitches). In a book published in 1942, Louise Dickinson Rich, speaking of a powered ice cutting machine, said, “Ice sawing was suspended until the creator could be brought in to take the bugs out of his darling.”

Isaac Asimov used the term “bug” to relate to issues with a robot in his short story “Catch That Rabbit”, published in 1944.

A page from the Harvard Mark II electromechanical computer’s log, featuring a dead moth that was removed from the device.
The term “bug” was used in an account by computer pioneer Grace Hopper, who publicized the cause of a malfunction in an early electromechanical computer. A typical version of the story is:

In 1946, when Hopper was released from active duty, she joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where she continued her work on the Mark II and Mark III. Operators traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay, coining the term bug. This bug was carefully removed and taped to the log book. Stemming from the first bug, today we call errors or glitches in a program a bug.

Hopper did not find the bug, as she readily acknowledged. The date in the log book was September 9, 1947. The operators who found it, including William “Bill” Burke, later of the Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren, Virginia, were familiar with the engineering term and amusedly kept the insect with the notation “First actual case of bug being found.” Hopper loved to recount the story. This log book, complete with attached moth, is part of the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The related term “debug” also appears to predate its usage in computing: the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology of the word contains an attestation from 1945, in the context of aircraft engines.

The concept that software might contain errors dates back to Ada Lovelace’s 1843 notes on the analytical engine, in which she speaks of the possibility of program “cards” for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine being erroneous:

… an analysing process must equally have been performed in order to furnish the Analytical Engine with the necessary operative data; and that herein may also lie a possible source of error. Granted that the actual mechanism is unerring in its processes, the cards may give it wrong orders (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Why don’t Vikings like to send emails over their computer? They prefer to use Norse code!

Second, a Song:

Kazowar uploaded a video “Computer Error” to, set to “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major), K. 525, a 1787 composition for a chamber ensemble by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The German title means “a little serenade”, though it is often rendered more literally as “a little night music”. The work is written for an ensemble of two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is often performed by string orchestras (per Wikipedia).

Here is Kazowar’s “Computer Error”. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“No computer is ever going to ask a new, reasonable question. It takes trained people to do that.” – Grace Hopper

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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