Diana Demarest on bugs and spam

Have you ever wondered where some of the technology terms we use came from? Some have interesting, even humorous, origins. Here are two examples:

“Bugs”
We always hear about “bugs” in the system. The term “bug” to characterize a system problem was found as early as 1896 in a handbook used back in the days of Thomas Edison. The term described a defect or problem with electrical devices designers thought should be working.

“Bug” also was used to describe glitches with the electronics in radar systems during World War II.

The term “bug” in relation to computers was born when, in 1947, former Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, then a Harvard faculty member, was working on a college computer and the system malfunctioned.

Computer operators investigating the problem discovered a moth had lodged itself in one of the relays.

After removing the moth, the computer technicians taped the insect to their report, saying it was the “first actual case of bug being found” and adding that they had “debugged” the system.

Today, “bug” usually refers to a software problem. When programmers make a mistake in a line of code, an error message is displayed and the program quits or freezes.

Programmers use a “debugging” software tool that allows them to watch a computer program operate line by line to see what line of code is causing the problem. Then they can fix the code and get the software working again.

“Spam”
If you have an email account, you’ve received mass emails about buying Viagra, making money from home and getting rich quick. I have received 10 or more of the same email in a single day from the same sender. We call this unwanted email “spam,” of course.

The term “spam” in relation to email is widely believed to have gotten its start from a Monty Python skit. In the skit, every selection on the restaurant menu included the canned meat product, Spam, and the word was repeated over and over again.

Back in the early days of the Internet, there was an application called USENET. This was essentially a message board where people could discuss various topics. You would join the USENET list by submitting your email address and choosing from a list of topics you had an interest in. When people posted topics of your interest, you would receive the posting via email.

Soon, however, enterprising marketers started posting advertisements like “Make Money Fast” or “Lost Weight Fast” or, better yet, “How to get rid of spam.” They would post them repeatedly, and USENET subscribers would be flooded with adts in their email inbox. Hence, the term “spam.”

If I had to guess, I would bet Hormel is not too happy about its product being synonymous with an undesirable like unwanted email.

Photo Credit: U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum, Dahlgren, Va.

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