The first computer bug?

first computer bug
Computer pioneer Grace Hopper’s entry in the Harvard Mark II log (Wikimedia commons)

On the night of September 9th, 1945, pioneering computer programmer Grace Hopper was at work on the Mark II version of the now legendary Harvard computer. She couldn’t understand why the machine wasn’t working. She and her team began inspecting the computer methodically, trying to establish the cause of the problem so that they could eliminate it and get the thing working again.

Following this process, they eventually found a moth that had somehow become caught inside. Hopper extracted the dead insect and decided to stick it in the team’s log book with the aid of a strip of Scotch tape, preserving it for posterity. With her ink pen she annotated the entry with the words: “Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.”

A new computer programming term had been coined.

Thereafter all computer glitches were known as ‘bugs’ and the process of ironing out such glitches as ‘debugging’.

Grace Hopper’s picking out of the moth from the Harvard Mark II had been history’s first instance of debugging.

(Sources: The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster: p94);

Mum, two years on

mum and dad
My parents on their wedding day in 1967

TODAY is two years since my Mum died. My tears might have dried but the pain lingers.

Her passing was completely unexpected and in an instant my family’s lives were turned upside down. Within an hour of her passing I found myself in my parents’ home, dazed and my eyes raw from crying, my arm around my stunned dad.

Everywhere I looked in their home I saw my mum. Her winter coat hanging in the hall. Her walking sticks leaning against the wall. Her glasses, necklace and watch by the bed where she’d put them the night before she died.

Next to the sofa were boxes of unopened Christmas cards, ready for one of her marathon signing sessions. She always undertook this task weeks before December.

Wanting to get paperwork in order, I searched through cupboards and wardrobes, becoming tearful when I was suddenly confronted by her clothes, each item triggering a fresh memory. I found boxes of photographs. Pride of place was her wedding album.

Fresh tears tumbled as I opened the decades-old pages. Staring back at me were mum and dad, a young, happy couple, life’s exciting journey ahead of them.

Mum was 22, and I was struck by how beautiful she looked. My dad stood next to her, aged 31, looking like a young Tony Curtis. That was August 1967. The last time I saw my mum she was excitedly planning their golden wedding celebrations.

The book she had been reading was by the side of the sofa. It was a family saga, the sort Catherine Cookson used to write. Her bookmark was tucked inside, 30 pages from the end. It would have irritated her to not know how the story ended.

That’s what’s struck me since she died. There are so many unresolved stories. So many loose ends never to be tied up. But life isn’t a novel or a Hollywood film. There are no happy or sad endings. Just an unceasing flow of experiences and interlaced lives.

Sadly, there are no more moments. Just memories.

Something like this pulls you up short. Makes you take stock. It is time to pull those we love close and tell them we love them.

Because, as my mum used to say, you never know what’s round the corner.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Warrington Guardian in November 2016.)

Age shall not weary them


In September 1914, Laurence Binyon was visiting Cornwall. His trip had been overshadowed by what was happening in Europe. The Great War (as the First World War was known at the time) had only recently broken out. The first casualties had been suffered after the British Expeditionary Force clashed with the Imperial German Army at the Battle of Mons on August 23, followed by the First Battle of the Marne in early September when the British fought with the French Army against the Germans.

These were early days. The horrors of the Battle of the Somme, where tens of thousands of young men were slaughtered amid mud and bullets on the Western Front, were two years away.

Binyon, like millions of others, must have wondered if the world had gone mad. He, though, was about to do something extraordinary in response. This act did not hasten the end of the war nor did it directly save lives, yet it had an impact that is still felt today.

NPG 3185; Laurence Binyon by William Strang

Above: Laurence Binyon, painted by Walter Strang, 1901 (Creative commons)

That autumn, Binyon was 45 and a man of serious nature and intent. He was from the north (born in Lancaster in 1869) and was educated at St Paul’s School, London, before studying Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. He worked as Assistant Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. In his free time he was a talented poet. His name had been mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield as contenders for the newly-available post of Poet Laureate (following the death of incumbent Alfred Austin).

One day that September he was walking along the north Cornwall coastline, his thoughts no doubt heavy with what was happening in Europe. He sat down on a cliff-top and, gazing out to sea, began composing a poem.

The first lines he wrote on that fateful day were:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They became the fourth of seven stanzas in the poem For The Fallen. It was published in The Times on September 21, 1914. Binyon could not have known the significance these lines would take on. They would become synonymous not only with the Great War but all wars and would resonate down the ages. The Royal British Legion adopted them and they emblazon countless War Memorials across the nation.

At 45, Binyon was too old to fight in the war. Nevertheless, he worked as a medical orderly with the Red Cross and suffered the loss of a number of close friends and also his brother-in-law.

He went on to write much more poetry as well as drama and died in 1943 aged 73, but he was forever known as the author of For The Fallen.

And so he is still.

(Sources: The Scotsman, March 11, 1943; Illustrated London News, August 31, 1907; The Scotsman, January 16, 1936; [Accessed: November 5, 2018]; [Accessed: November 5, 2018])

It was 55 years ago today

beatles free domain

On Monday, November 4th, 1963, The Beatles were to all intents and purposes imprisoned. 

They were inside the Prince of Wales Theatre near Leicester Square in London preparing to perform at that evening’s Royal Variety Performance in front of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Their manager Brian Epstein refused to let them outside for fear of causing a riot.

In a few heady months the band had gone from playing in the bowels of a Liverpool cellar to become a teenage national craze that had been labelled ‘Beatlemania’ by the nonplussed headline writers of Fleet Street.

So many newspaper column inches had been dedicated to the Fab Four already in 1963 that readers could at last see beyond the uniformity of their strange hairstyles and identify the members individually. The names John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were on the tips of everybody’s tongues. Teenage fans were drunk on the glorious alchemy of their harmonies and melodies, while their parents had been won over by the Beatles’ charm, wit and cheek.

Their hit singles Please Please Me, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand had made them British stars. America beckoned (their triumph with US audiences was three months away and was at this stage by no means assured; remember, all British stars had failed to crack the States). But for tonight, they were focusing on their greatest accolade so far: the invitation to play in front of royalty.

Epstein was worried as the show approached. Lennon had threatened to do something rebellious. Rumour has it he intended to use the F-word. To Brian, keen to impress the Establishment, this was madness.

The Royal Variety Performance line-up included family-favourite singer Max Bygraves, movie legend Marlene Dietrich, comedian Charlie Drake and the stars of sitcom Steptoe and Son. It was the entertainment event of the year in the grey, buttoned-up world of 1960s Britain.

In the hour before the show, more than 3,000 Beatles fans were crammed outside the theatre. More than 500 police officers had to be called upon to keep the crowds in order for the arrival of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon.

It must have been a strange experience for the Liverpool lads. They were used to screaming fans drowning out their performances. But for once the theatre wasn’t full of their adoring teenage fans. It was filled with mostly middle aged people with enough money to afford the price of a Royal Variety Performance ticket.

When they took to the stage, The Beatles were welcomed by polite applause before they launched into their set. Epstein must have been biting his fingernails backstage. How were they going to be received? More importantly, was John Lennon about to send The Beatles’ career into a spectacular nosedive?

The band started with two of their self-penned hits: From Me To You and She Loves You, complete with the now-famous ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain and the hair-shaking ‘whoos’. Then Paul McCartney introduced the show tune Till There Was You, perfect for the older audience. His introduction was polite and respectful and he later told a Liverpool Echo reporter he had fluffed it, although he doubted that anyone had noticed.

Applause greeted the band as they finished the song. They did their famous bow in unison, which they did after every song, a touch of old-style showbusiness that Epstein had convinced the boys to adopt.

Now John Lennon stepped up to the microphone. Perhaps Epstein was unable to watch what happened next. 

“For our last number we’d like your help,” Lennon invited the audience. “Those of you in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” An impish smile, a bob of the head, and the rebellion was over. 

All eyes were on the royal box. How had the comments gone down? The Queen Mother was smiling; she offered a polite wave of approval.

The Beatles exploded into the opening chords of Twist and Shout.

The Sixties had arrived.

(Sources: Liverpool Echo & Evening Express, Tuesday, November 5, 1963; The Illustrated London News, November 16, 1963; The Press and Journal, October 11, 1963)