Our Daily Bleg: Where Did “Garbage” and “Bugs” Come From?

Here’s the latest bleg request from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. You can find his past blegs here and you can send blegs of your own here.

The past few weeks I have been blegging for information about famous computer quotations to help with future editions of the recently published Yale Book of Quotations. Can anyone supply evidence or clues or conjectures about the origin of any of the following?

  • “Do not fold, mutilate, or spindle.” The earliest reference I have now is from The New York Times in 1948.
  • “Garbage in, garbage out.” The earliest reference I have now is from a 1959 issue of Business Quarterly.
  • “Information wants to be free.” The earliest citation I have found attributes this quotation to Stewart Brand, quoted in a 1984 Washington Post article.
  • “That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” The earliest evidence I have found is a reference in the spring 1981 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly.
  • “To err is human. To really foul up — it takes a computer.” I have found this dating back to 1969 in The Newark Advocate.


as i recall the phrase "do not fold spindle or mutilate" was printed on punch cards and computer generated checks (which had litte rectangular holes punched in them). presumably any cards that were folded spindled or mutilated could not then be read by machine.


The concept that software might contain errors dates back to 1842 in Ada Byron's notes on the analytical engine in which she speaks of the difficulty of preparing program 'cards' for Charles Babbage's Analytical engine:
" ...an analyzing process must equally have been performed in order to furnish the Analytical Engine with the necessary operative data; and that herein may also lie a possible source of error. Granted that the actual mechanism is unerring in its processes, the cards may give it wrong orders. "

Usage of the term "bug" to describe inexplicable defects has been a part of engineering jargon for many decades and predates computers and computer software; it may have originally been used in hardware engineering to describe mechanical malfunctions. For instance, Thomas Edison wrote the following words in a letter to an associate in 1878:
" It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise-this thing gives out and [it is] then that 'Bugs'-as such little faults and difficulties are called-show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.[2] "

Problems with radar electronics during World War II were referred to as bugs (or glitches), and there is additional evidence that the usage dates back much earlier.
Photo of what is possibly the first real bug found in a computer.
Photo of what is possibly the first real bug found in a computer.

The invention of the term is often erroneously attributed to Grace Hopper, who publicized the cause of a malfunction in an early electromechanical computer[3] . A typical version of the story is given by this quote:
" In 1946, when Hopper was released from active duty, she joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where she continued her work on the Mark II and Mark III. Operators traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay, coining the term bug. This bug was carefully removed and taped to the log book September 9th 1945 [sic]. Stemming from the first bug, today we call errors or glitch's [sic] in a program a bug. [4] "

Hopper was not actually the one who found the insect, as she readily acknowledged. And the date was September 9, but in 1947, not 1945.[5][6] The operators who did find it (including William "Bill" Burke, later of the Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren Va. [7]), were familiar with the engineering term and, amused, kept the insect with the notation "First actual case of bug being found." Hopper loved to recount the story. [8]

While it is certain that the Mark II operators did not coin the term "bug", it has been suggested that they did coin the related term, "debug". Even this is unlikely, since the Oxford English Dictionary entry for "debug" contains a use of "debugging" in the context of airplane engines in 1945 (see the debugging article for more).



the "garbage in garbage out" I have never seen used in context of computers in any serious application--always by "laymen" in a metaphorical context


@mgroves: You're joking, right?


I'm a professional ITer and back in the day we used to say GIGO. We knew it meant garbage in garbage out but saying the phrase was just too time consuming.

Now we use PEBKAC, ID-10-T, and ESTO.


I would consult Eric Raymond's Hackers Dictionary for sources on computer/geek/nerd sayings. http://www.ccil.org/jargon/jargon_toc.html

John Huey

A Hollerith card had 80 columns of information. There was also a Powers card which used round holes and had 90 columns of information. The Powers card was used on UNIVAC systems and was abandoned in a mostly failed attempt to compete for clients with IBM.
The use of GIGO by IT pofessionals goes back at least to the 1950s as I can attest.


Curious (although not surprising) that two of your computer quotations can be attributed to Stewart Brand who also produced the CoEvolution Quarterly, published as the quarterly supplement to the late, great Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, and his numerous contributors, were on the cusp of the personal computing scene ...


For awhile checks were printed on IBM cards that were processed by machine when they were returned. If the card was folder or mutilated it would jam the machine. It was interesting to see a check turned into confetti when they ran it through a high-speed sorter. They then added the message "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate" to the check. Eventually they realized that it was a dumb idea to use IBM cards and they printed the bar code on the check that is optically scanned.

I was surprised that they did it in the first place and even more surprised that they used IBM cards for checks as long as they did. However IBM had a lot of clout in those days.

There were 80 columns with 12 binary bits per column so the storage capacity was 960 bits per card and accounting offices had rows upon rows of card storage cabinets. A memory stick is the equivalent of a big warehouse full of IBM cards.

James Curran

"GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out)" is a play on the terms "LIFO (last in, first out)" and "FIFO (First in , first out)", which, respectively, describe the behavior of two standard computer programming data structures, the Stack and the Queue, both of which, in turn, take their names from similar "real-world" situations.

Brant Serxner

The one I use with systems implementation customers is a warning about data quality and is a GIGO variant: Garbage In, Gospel Out.