The story of the first computer bug is probably not the one you know


You surely know the story of the first computer bug, that of this insect electrocuted by a computer discovered by Grace Hopper in 1947. Although very popular, this anecdote is however inaccurate.

Grace Hopper in 1960

© CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

It’s a story as old as that of computers. The first “bug” in history, or “bug” in good French, would be due to the intrusion of an insect which would have come to roast its legs on the printed circuits of a computer. To be precise, it is a moth that would have come crashing into the bowels of the Mark II, a computer used since 1946 by the American army to perform ballistic calculations. Even better, it would be computer legend Grace Hopper herself who discovered the poor beast and gave rise to the term “bug” (“insect” in French) by telling the story in one of her notebooks. .

An anecdote distorted over the years

Unfortunately, this discovery is not due to Grace Hopper, who is also not the first person to have used the word “bug” to qualify a malfunction. If the computer scientist did indeed work in the team responsible for the development of the Mark II, it was not she who found the insect stuck between two processors. As the Smithsonian Museum tells it, the handwriting in the notebook does not match that of the engineer. Grace Hopper herself explained that she was not at the origin of the discovery, even if the story quickly became one of her favorite anecdotes.

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illustration bug

The Notebook (1947) with the poor moth taped to the page

© Naval Surface Warfare Center – Public domain

The use of the term bug also appeared long before this macabre discovery. We find traces of the word since the end of the 19th century at least. In a letter to one of his associates, Thomas Edison wrote: “It has been so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition […] then difficulties arise […] and that’s when the “bugs” — as these little glitches and glitches are called — show up. Months of observation, study and intense work are necessary before commercial success or failure is definitively recorded.

The origin of the term “bug” debated

Long before the disastrous end of the famous moth, we find other occurrences of the term “bug” here and there. The first pinball game, released in 1931, boasted of being “bug free“, while the film Flight Command of 1940 also spoke of a “bug” present in the cockpit of an airplane. The author Isaac Asimov, known for his works of science fiction, also used this term in the short story Catch me that bunny published in 1944. The exact origin of the term “bug” to qualify a malfunction is the subject of debate, but it could be linked to a brand of semi-automatic telegraphs – Vibroplex to be exact – which had adopted as a logo the image of an insect. Complex machines to master, which often produced frying on the line. These scrambled messages were then qualified as bugs, in reference to the device which sent them.

The inscription “first discovery of a real bug” noted in the famous notebook of 1947 was therefore a pun on the double meaning of the word bug. The anecdote will then be distorted to give birth to the story that we know.

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