Why are computer errors called “bugs”

Bugs are malfunction of computer programs. Translated, they are called “beetles”. There are many critical bugs:

  • Y2K bug
  • Ariane 5 bug
  • Patriot software bug

But why are computer errors actually called “bugs”? The name originated at a time when there were no computers. In the past, a bug was thought to be a failure in systems such as electrical circuits. This term was a slang word used by American engineers.

There have been bugs before

Peggy Kidwell, the science historian of the National Museum of American History, reports on the name, which can already be read in a newspaper article from 1889.

The name can also be found in a letter from 1887, which was written by the inventor Thomas Edison. He invented both the first recorder, a so-called phonograph, and the first electric incandescent lamp.

In the letter, Edison describes his anger over the bugs. Whenever he wanted to implement a new invention, bugs kept appearing and prevented the idea from being realized. It becomes clear that Edison did not come up with the name himself:

“Bugs’ – as such little faults and difficulties are called […]”

Translated into German it means: Bugs – small errors and difficulties are referred to as such.

According to Kidwell, the engineers chose this term because of its brevity and diversity. A bug could be any number of different bugs. In addition, it was a euphemism, as “mistake” sounded much harsher – especially in front of customers or other business people.

Transfer to the programming language

But how did it come about that the word bug is used as a synonym for computer error these days? Computer experts at the time adopted the term in the 20th century.

Harvard University scientists and IBM engineers pioneered the use of the word “bugs” as a synonym for error. IBM engineers also developed the first programmable mechanical calculating machine in the 1940s.

The word “bug” never stood for beetles or insects, which caused errors. In 1947, however, there was a case in which a moth flew into a calculating machine. This case has been documented and is now on display at the National Museum of American History. The moth was immortalized and next to it is the sentence:

“First actual case of bug being found.”

In German this would read: The first actual case in which a bug was found.

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