Since I talked about pioneering women earlier this week, how about examining the Entomological/Etymological connections of Grace Hopper?

I should give her the proper title–Rear Admiral Hopper.  (A biography described her as “Admiral of the Cybersea.”) Hopper received a PhD in Mathematics from Yale University in 1934, which could not have been easy. She left a faculty position at Vassar to join the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to work on the “Mark I Electromechanical Computing Machine.”  It was 51 feet long, 8 feet high, and 8 feet deep.

From there, she went on to work in academia, industry, and the military, staying on the cutting edge of computing. Her best known innovation is the compiler, but she is also responsible for COBOL, FORTRAN, and many other computing innovations.

Whether or not Hopper was the person that coined the term “computer bug” is a source of some controversy.  The Navy seems to support the idea that it was Hopper that squashed the first computer bug;  there is an actual photo of the offending insect on Hopper’s US Navy webpage:

Moth found trapped between points at Relay # 70, Panel F, of the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator while it was being tested at Harvard University, 9 September 1947. The operators affixed the moth to the computer log, with the entry: “First actual case of bug being found”. They put out the word that they had “debugged” the machine, thus introducing the term “debugging a computer program”.
In 1988, the log, with the moth still taped by the entry, was in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum at Dahlgren, Virginia.

Somehow, “computer moth” just doesn’t have the same resonance.

If you dig a little deeper, though, it appears the use of “bug” to describe a technical problem has a complex history–and in fact, may not have originated with Grace Hopper at all.

“The OED Supplement records sense (4b) of the noun bug (“a defect or fault in a machine, plan, or the like”) as early as 1889. In that year the Pall Mall Gazette reported (11 Mar: 1) that ‘Mr. Edison … had been up the two previous nights discovering a ‘bug’ in his phonograph–an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.’….

This meaning was common enough by 1934 to be recognized in Webster’s New International Dictionary:  ‘bug, n…. 3. A defect in apparatus or its operation… Slang, U.S.'” (citation)

So, the “actual bug” notation in the lab notebook above probably reflects the amusement of the technician at finding a physical bug, when the word bug was already in use as slang for a problem.

It does appear that the term “debugging” came into use around that time period, but I haven’t seen any evidence firmly tying it to this particular moth.  Oh well.

BTW, The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is the largest technical conference for women in computing.  The deadline to apply for scholarships to attend the conference is May 31, 2011.  Go and find some new computer bugs!

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. I <3 your blog.

  2. =/

    This certainly doesn’t take anything away from what an amazing woman Admiral Hopper was, but for some reason makes me a little sad.

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