Moth is saving grace, keeps glitches from being known as rats
The Navy has been long overdue in honoring the queen of all computer hackers. And it's
simple poetic justice to name an Aegis-equipped missile destroyer-one of the largest
collections of computer code afloat-after the creator of the first compiler.
Some might demur. Adm. Hopper was, after all, partially responsible for Cobol and thus
partially to blame for the year 2000 code problems. But the fact that Cobol code is still
running after all these years-some of it probably written by Grace herself-proves how
supreme the language and its applications really are.
Besides, the Rat feels sure that Grace would have boxed the ears of any coder who
persisted in using two-digit date fields past 1985.
Grace also was the inventor of code reuse. She did it back in the 1940s, when
hand-coded really meant something. She kept a notebook full of sections of code that
seemed to work well.
And there's more to Grace Hopper's contribution than just coding. She created the
lexicon for programmers, help desk jockeys and techies everywhere. Grace was, in fact, one
of government's original tech support staff members.
Her initiation: programming and maintaining the Mark I and Mark II computers at the
Bureau of Ordnance Computation at Harvard University during World War II.
It was Grace who coined the term "bug." For this the Rat will be eternally
grateful. The term has saved him from squeaking many a potential profanity during his long
career behind the keyboard.
Most people think Grace came up with the term after finding a moth stuck inside a
computer. But there's more to the bug story than they know. And the time has come for the
Rat to tell all.
It was 1952. No bit buckets to hang around back then, and telephones didn't even have
Touch-Tone dialing yet, so there weren't a whole lot of places where an electronically
inclined rodent could while away his idle hours.
Not being much of a motorhead, the whiskered one gravitated toward Eckert-Mauchly
Computer Corp.'s digs in Philadelphia. He decided to take an unauthorized tour of the
Univac I facility, where Grace and her hacker crew were developing Flow-Matic, the
precursor to Cobol.
As the crew argued the finer points of compilers, the furry one relaxed in the warmth
of the vacuum tubes and, before he knew it, was snoring away. A short time later, he was
rudely awakened by a Univac technician who had discovered him while making rounds.
It was only because of his highly charged reflexes that the Rat managed to avoid the
broom handle that came smashing down on his roost.
As he scurried to safety, he heard the sound of a vacuum tube popping.
So did the technician. Obviously aware there would be hell to pay, he frantically
looked around for something on which to pin the rap for the broken bits of vacuum RAM.
The technician soon spotted a moth flying outside a nearby window, attracted by the
lab's bright lights. He threw open the window, snatched the moth, stuffed it into the
broken tube, hid the broom and walked away whistling.
So that's why the Rat has good reason to salute Grace Hopper and that noble moth. After
all, if it hadn't been for the insect's unfortunate demise, we might all be
"de-ratting" our code today.
The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad
packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at email@example.com.