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Will famous 'bug' land at Dahlgren?
The most famous "bug" in computer history might one day return to Dahlgren.

 Harvard technician Bill Burke taped the moth to this daily computer maintenance log from Sept. 9, 1947.
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Date published: 5/24/2012

By Ed Jones

SURELY NO MOTH has attracted more attention from historians and scientists than the one caught in a computer relay in 1947, thereby becoming the first computer "bug."

In last week's column, I detailed the origins of this tale and its connections to the Navy base at Dahlgren. I also noted, thanks to accounts from Dahlgren retiree Ray Hughey, how the telling of that story has evolved over the years.

Indeed, some sources indicate that the term "bug," as it relates to electronic malfunctions, predates Dahlgren's moth. But there's still enough truth to this story to make it one of the most fascinating footnotes in Dahlgren history.

Last week's column ended with Dahlgren's formal partnership with Harvard University in 1945 to develop an early, gigantic computer known as the Mark II, or Aiken Relay Calculator. The base needed the machine to handle the computational work related to its testing of the Navy's guns, unguided rockets and bombs.

As Hughey notes, Dr. H.H. Aiken of Harvard not only put together a team of engineers to design the machine, but also a group of mathematicians to develop programing and coding capabilities.

One of these mathematicians was Ralph A. Niemann, who came to Dahlgren with the machine in 1947 and, later, headed up the computation and mathematics effort on the base for almost 25 years before retiring in 1979.

Some of the technicians from the Boston area who worked on the computer also ended up at Dahlgren for decades.

Though Hughey's 35-year career at Dahlgren began 12 years after the 1947 discovery of the "bug," his boss, Niemann, made sure that he knew the facts about the "bug."

It was shortly before the MARK II was completed, disassembled and shipped to Dahlgren that the story of the "bug" occurred. Bill Burke, one of the Harvard technicians, was searching for the cause of a computation error in the machine on the afternoon of Sept. 9, 1947. Let's let Hughey tell the story:

"He finally traced the error to a moth caught in one of the relays. Mr. Burke removed the moth, checked to determine that the computer then worked properly, and taped the moth into the daily computer maintenance log with an annotation of the repair, 'relay 70 Frame F moth in relay.'


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This is the second of two columns on the first computer "bug" and its connection to Dahlgren.