Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Of (mice) Moths and (men) Machines

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Of (mice) Moths and (men) Machines

Article excerpt

In vain we force the living into this or that one of our molds. All the molds crack, they are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them. Our reasoning so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground. (1)

Henri Bergson, 1911


on September 9th 1947 Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneer in early computing and inventor of the high-level programming language COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language), made an unusual entry into her daily logbook:

15:45 (3:45pm) Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay.

First actual case of bug being found.

Grace Hopper's Logbook. Smithsonian Photo # NH 96566-KN


Accompanying this brief entry is an actual celluloid tape-encrusted bug, or more specifically--a moth--fastened to the page of the logbook. According to Hopper, one of the technicians in her team solved a glitch in the Harvard Mark II machine (an electromechanical computer used by the US Navy for gunnery and ballistic calculations) by pulling an actual insect out from between the contacts of one of its relays with a pair of tweezers. Word soon went out that they had 'debugged' the machine and the phrase 'debugging a computer' entered our lexicon. (2) Although Grace Hopper was always careful to admit that she was not in the room when the bug was retrieved. After languishing for years in a state of ignominious display at the Naval Surface Warfare center computer museum in Dahlgren, Virginia this mythic moth was transported to the Smithsonian in 1991 where it now lies in archival state. (3)

While this inaugural sighting of a real bug in the machine has circulated widely within computing lore, the etymological history of the term bug actually predates this particular incident, something Grace Hopper herself was clearly aware of given the syntax of her notation 'first actual case of bug being found' [emphasis added]. Her wording suggests that the term bug with its connotations of apparatus defect was already in use, something she later acknowledged in confirming that the word bug was regularly applied to problems in WWII radar technology. Given this extant genealogy Hopper and her colleagues must have regarded the discovery of the moth with certain astonishment since mechanical defects were already called bugs. (4)

The 'living' to which Henri Bergson refers in the opening citation had inadvertently entered into the Harvard Mark II computer causing a computational glitch or crack in its machinic mold as its fluttering gesticulations interfered with the transmissional regimes of its relays. The moth's dynamic vitality introduced a kind of surplus or aberrant code into the machine, which in effect pushed the machine towards a state of chaos and breakdown. Its failure to act as desired, to perform the coding sequences of its programmed history suggests that even the mechanistic life of the machine can 'exceed itself, its past, its context, in making itself more and other than its history.' (5) Grace Hopper's diminutive invader testifies to the fragile ecosystem of the machine as a set of relational forces whose equilibrium is easily disturbed by nano-events of chance. Echoing Bergson's prophetic statement, the accidental commingling of nonorganic matter with the living matter of the moth not only transformed the machine but also inaugurated its estrangement to its own machinic genotype--its glitch no doubt causing some anxiety for the Hopper team as they intervened in an attempt to return it to a state of normalcy. 'Our reasoning so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground.'

The moth in refusing to conform to the principles of a closed system embeds it vital materiality with the circuitry of the computer releasing a new machine, which even in a state of complete system failure becomes an index of its potential to change, to become other. …

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