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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Living on Earth Almanac

Air Date: Week of September 8, 2000

This week, facts about the first computer bug. It was 55 years ago this week that first actual computer bug was physically extracted from a primitive number cruncher.


(Music up and under: Richard Strauss, "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

CURWOOD: Next year, a couple of astronauts will have a problem with a computer named Hal.

BOWMAN: Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

CURWOOD: But 55 years ago this week, technicians at Harvard University found the first real computer bug when they extracted a crushed moth from a primitive number-crunching machine called the Mark II. That was the first known instance of a real insect causing a computer glitch, but the term "bug" had long been used to describe mechanical malfunctions. Early telegraphers would say there was a "bug" on the line whenever a strange noise emerged from the equipment. Thomas Edison increased the bug's habitat by insisting that he would have an electric light bulb up and working any day. He just had a few bugs to work out. Electrical engineers then picked up the term, using "bug" to mean any flaw in an electrical system. Etymologists, not entomologists, recall that even Shakespeare used the word "bug" to connote a disruptive event. One example of just how powerful these little computer bugs can be: in 1962, a single omitted hyphen in its computer code caused NASA's space probe Mariner I to fall back to Earth. The missing punctuation cost tens of millions of dollars. But if you want to see the original, head to the Smithsonian Institution, where Harvard's infamous moth is preserved and can be seen by appointment -- unless there's a bug in the scheduling computer. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

HAL: This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.



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