By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! People often confuse etymologists and entomologists — but today, I'm going to be a bit of both as I try to pin down the word “bug”.
For such a simple-seeming word, “bug” has a remarkably complicated origin story—coming, it seems, from at least two sources, the first being British folklore.
In Middle English, the word “bugge” referred to a terrifying creature out of folklore, like a hobgoblin, and this sense is still preserved in the related terms bugbear, bugaboo, bogey, and bogeyman, as well as a number of other similarly named creatures. All of these similar words refer to mischievous folkloric beings or spirits or ghosts, particularly in Britain or other northern European areas, and may stem from a similar folk belief in the middle ages. The earliest attestation of the word in Middle English actually refers to a scarecrow.
As to where this Middle English “bugge” comes from, one possibility is that this supernatural creature was once some kind of goat-like being, not uncommon in many folklores, and thus the word comes from the same Indo-European root that gives us the word “buck”. Alternatively, bug may come from an Indo-European root that means “to boil, swell, or puff up” which lies behind many other English words, not only boil and puff, but also big, pock, and booger (or bogey if you’re British).This swelling sense seems to lie behind the expression ‘bug-eyed’, though the usage isn’t attested in writing until the 19th century. In any case, the sense of ‘a frightening creature’ has evidently been watered down to mean something simply annoying, something that bugs you, just like ‘bugbear’ which now simply means an annoyance. And this less frightening sense may have something to do with another similar sounding word that seems to have merged with “bug”.
Old English budda meaning ‘beetle’, which is only attested in compound words such as scearnbudda meaning “dung-beetle”, sounds enough like “bug” that the two may have fallen together, and by 17th century the word bug starts to be used to refer to insects, initially bedbugs, and eventually any insect. One imagines that the fact that insects such as bedbugs are potentially frightening or at least annoying helped these words merge as well. It’s also uncertain where Old English budda comes from, but it might be connected with our modern English word bud, as in a shoot or seed pod, and might ultimately come from that same Proto-Indo-European root that means “to swell”.
In a formal scientific sense, the word bug now ought to refer only to the order of insects hemiptera, which includes bedbugs, but colloquially bug is used to refer to any insect, and sometimes even other non-insects such as spiders, as well as the sense pathogen or germ, which develops in the early 20th century from this insect sense.
In fact, there have been quite a few slang senses of the word “bug” over the years, and perhaps the most common now is referring to a computer bug, a flaw or malfunction in a computer’s software. The story behind this sense that’s often told is that shortly after WWII when celebrated computer scientist Grace Hopper, who is particularly known for inventing the first computer language compiler and for her role in the development of the COBOL programming language, was working on the Harvard Mark II computer in the US Navy research lab, she coined the term “bug” when it was found that there was a moth caught in the relay causing the machine to malfunction. However, the log book entry for this event, which even preserves the moth taped to the page, makes it clear that the term was already in common use and the scientists were simply joking that this was the “first actual case of [a] bug being found”. This sense of bug had actually been around in engineering circles for over 50 years.
It can in fact be traced back at least as far as the 1870s when inventor Thomas Edison used the word in his notebooks to refer to problems in the telegraph equipment he was working on. The telegraph was a system of sending a coded electrical signal, usually Morse Code, along a wire, the first electric telecommunication system. Morse Code was named after artist Samuel Morse, who turned inventor and helped to develop the single-line telegraph, the first really commercial;y viable system, out of grief after news of his wife’s illness reached him too late for him to return home while he was out of town. Edison, who began his career as a telegraph operator, soon began to work on improving the equipment and applying for various patents for his work. Whether Edison coined the term “bug” himself or whether it was already common in the telegraphy world is uncertain, and whether this new sense really grew out of the notion of an insect in the machine, or some sort of mischievous spirit in the machine (think bugbear), or simply a worrying or annoying problem is also unclear. What is clear is that this sense of the word made its public debut in an 1889 article in the Pall Mall Gazette on Edison’s work on the phonograph, his first really major invention: “Mr. Edison, I was informed, 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”. Edison is of course known for the many patents he held, 1093 in the United States, many of which were for work actually done by employees working in his famous Menlo Park research lab, and for some high-profile patent disputes with other inventors. But a word can’t be patented, and this new sense of the word that Edison pioneered spread quickly.
Speaking of the phonograph, Edison invented this first really viable sound recording technology in 1877. It recorded sound by etching small bumps in a groove on a cylinder that corresponded to sound vibrations. Some time later German-born inventor Emile Berliner, who emigrated to the United States to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, further developed sound recording technology with his gramophone, which used the record disc more familiar today. Berliner’s gramophone records took a while to overtake Edison’s early start, but eventually won this early format war, giving us the ubiquitous record albums of the 20th century.
And speaking of Edison and Berliner, and patent disputes, both men simultaneously invented the carbon microphone, the first design that was effective enough for use in telephone communication. It involves two plates of metal separated by granules of carbon. Sound vibrations against one of the plates causes a modulation of the electrical current passing through the setup, which can then be transmitted along a wire. After years of legal wrangling, Edison won the patent, so Iguess the Edison vs Berliner scorecard is even. But the funny thing is, neither of them was the real first inventor of the carbon microphone, which was first developed by English scientist David Edward Hughes. and what’s more he seems to have been the one to coin the term microphone (at least in its electronic sense). But unlike Edison and Berliner, Hughes chose not to patent his work, wanting it to be freely available for the good of scientific progress, a notion similar to what we would now call open source or public domain.
Of course the idea of patents is to allow inventors exclusive ability to profit from their inventions for a limited time, with the tradeoff that the technical specs will eventually be made public; the overall purpose is to foster innovation and development.
Modern patent law as we know it has its origin in the 15th century, but there may be a forerunner in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek colony Sybaris, located in what is now Italy, was so financially successful that the citizens became known for their feasting and hedonism, so much so that even today the word sybaritic means “devoted to opulent luxury”. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that cooks in Sybaris were apparently granted exclusive rights to any culinary recipe they invented for a period of one year, at least according to the Greek writer Athenaeus. Even if this report isn’t true, that the idea of intellectual property could be conceived of in the ancient world is an interesting milestone.
The first patent in the modern sense was granted in another city in Italy that became extremely wealthy and known for its opulence in the Renaissance, Florence. In 1421, the Florentine architect Filippo Brunalleschi, who is best known for developing linear perspective and thus transforming renaissance art, was granted a three year monopoly for a barge with hoisting gear for transporting marble. By 1450 the practice had become systematized in Venice, another economic powerhouse Italian city, with 10 year patents, and afterward gradually spread throughout Europe.
Etymologically, the term patent comes from the medieval term ‘letters patent’ or litterae patentes in Latin, which means “open letters”. Letters patent basically grant some special right or privilege, and the word patent was used in English in this broader sense from the 14th century, and from the16th century onward in the more restricted sense that we use now. The Latin verb pateo means “to be open”, so there is a certain irony that now the term patent stands in opposition to the idea of open source, as in the case of Edison, Berliner, and Hughes.
Getting back to the microphone then, its initial purpose was telephone communication — the microphone was originally termed a transmitter. Well-known is the story of Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell simultaneously inventing the idea of the telephone, and Bell beating Gray to the patent office by mere hours to be henceforth recognized as the “official” inventor of the telephone. But Bell and Gray had only crude versions of microphones, and it wasn’t until the carbon microphone of Edison (or Berliner or Hughes if you will), that the telephone became a viable technology. The microphone went on to be used for things such as amplification of sound and more sophisticated sound recording, and, most important to this story, the covert listening device commonly known as a bug, a slang use first found in the 1940s. So after inventors and engineers like Edison, Bell, and Morse worked the bugs out of the telecommunication technology, the spies but put them back in.
But where does this slang use come from? Oddly enough it may have transferred over from the burglar alarm, which was also referred to as a bug in 1920s criminal underworld lingo. A house was said to be bugged if it was equipped with a burglar alarm. This might be because it was something ‘annoying’ or ‘to be worried about’, or it might simply be a shortening of the word burglar itself, which is unrelated. But another possibility takes us back to the mythological bugaboo. Back in the 18th and early 19th century ‘bugaboo’ became a slang term for a creditor coming to collect money or a sheriff’s officer, according to a glossary of slang compiled at the time, and in 1828 the word made its mainstream literary debut in a novel by potboiler writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame. So from ‘bugaboo’ for actual police officer to ‘bug’ for the automated police officer, the burglar alarm.
The invention of the burglar alarm is also connected to this story. Of course guard animals have been used for centuries, and some had tinkered with mechanical noisemakers to signal forced entry, but it was in 1853 that Augustus Pope, a church pastor turned inventor, hit upon the idea of adapting telegraph technology to make an electric burglar alarm, which was often referred to as a burglar alarm telegraph. Pope developed his system using components from the Boston shop of Charles Williams Jr., the premiere telegraph equipment manufacturer. Williams supplied components to many of the inventors at the time, including Edison, and Bell conducted his work on the telephone in the upper floor of Williams’s shop, with the assistance of Thomas Watson (he of “come here Watson, I need you” fame), who was also one of Williams’s employees.
Unfortunately, due to declining health, Pope was unable to continue to develop his system, and sold the patent to one Edwin Holmes, sometimes mistakenly credited as its inventor, who up to that point was a sewing store owner known for making hoop skirts. Holmes took the idea from Boston to more crime-wary New York and made a big success of it. And having met Bell through his contact with Williams’s equipment shop, Holmes hit upon the idea of using existing telegraph and telephone lines to connect burglar alarms to a central monitoring station.
But getting back to the computer bug, though Grace Hopper didn’t coin the term bug or the notion of debugging (the word debugging was also already in use in engineering circles), she is definitely associated with the debugging of *computer* bugs, and her importance to the history of computer programming can’t be overstated. There’s a fairly direct line from Edison & Bell and the telegraph and telephone, through Hopper and the earliest computers to the internet of today—and the great advances in both software and hardware that have come both through patents and through their opposite, open source computing. In fact there’s a saying in open-source software development, which often relies on volunteers to check over code, that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. But, of course, there are always people more interested in making money for themselves than in contributing to innovation—like the people called ‘patent trolls’, who are known for buying up patents and trying to make money off them by suing companies for supposed infringement, without any intention of actually using or developing the technology themselves. And so the internet is haunted by a new type of monster, maybe just as scary as the bugbears we started with.
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