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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Air Date: Week of

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


CURWOOD: Any day now, a couple of astronauts will have a problem with their computer.

BOWMAN: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

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

CURWOOD: More than 50 years before Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey chronicled the consequences of a computer gone awry, technicians at Harvard University found the first real computer bug. They extracted a crushed moth from a primitive number-crunching machine called the Mark II. It 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's a bug on the line whenever a strange noise emerged from equipment. Thomas Edison increased the bug's habitat by insisting that he would have an electric lightbulb 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, of course, there's a bug in the scheduling computer. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under)

HAL: This conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.



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