The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

December 22, 2007

Derivation of "Bug," telegraphy code, etc.

"Bug" has been traced vis-a-vis computer folklore to early programming/
hardware/software/etc. as far back as the 1950s I believe. But recently
I've come across a much earlier source. In The Telegraph Instructor, 4th
and revised edition, 1908, G.M. Dodge gives a list of telegraph terms.

"Bug-in-the-wire -- A slang phrase frequently used when a wire is in

This relates to "buggy," "he's bugged," "stop bugging me," and so forth;
what's interesting is the noun related to communications technology. In
relation to computers, this might be a case of convergent evolution, but
it's more likely to have moved through telegraphy - telephony - radio -
and so forth, into the habitus of information theory and cybernetics.

Another early term relates to the origins of "ham" in "ham radio" -
although the exact source of this remains unknown:

"'Ham' or 'Plug' -- A telegraph operator, who is not proficient."

[A number of phrases we take for granted are older than they appear. For
example, "so long"; from A. Wallace, Popular Sayings Dissected, 1895: "So
long! a leave-taking, a piece of colonial terseness is equivalent to 'au
revoir, saluons!' of which latter word it may be a direct corruption, or
again of 'salaam,' a bow, or 'salem,' 'peace be with you.' The phrase may
be paraphrased into 'Goodbye, so long as we do not meet.'"]

On another related topic, early Morse code was somewhat different; there
were all sorts of variations - Navy Codes, European Codes, Morse American
codes, etc. The same book gives for example, "The Morse code of signals as
applied to the telegraph is used exclusively in the United States." The
code as given has three dash-lengths; for example,

t is -
l is --
0 is ----
In addition,
c is .. .
that is, some letters have small breaks within them; while
i is ..
o is . .
y is .. ..
and Further, there are some longer strings; ending parentheses
) is .....  .. ..
capitalized letters are indicated by .. . .-..
- so it goes. (Oddly this has been difficult to type, since I wanted to
eliminate meta/diacritical marks which might have been taken as part of
the code itself!)

The actual telegraph (semantic) code on top of the Morse results in
messages such as

Wr r ty gg r 9
Es r ty cn
and addresses/headers can read as obscurely as
Hr tru pink No 38 VO HW "HX" ck 12 collect N P R

The code, like international signals codes, is heuristic, ideographic, and
was simply memorized by the telegraph operator. It was just as complicated
for railroad telegraphy, where the difference between 19 and 31 - both
meaning "train order" - was complex.

Note that this is triple-coding - Morse to telegraphic code to ordinary
language, and that, while natural language is fond of redundancy (re:
Shannon/Weaver), telegraphy is dominated by economic considerations.
Thus word counts, and what constitutes a word, are critical. For example:

Van Dorne - 1 word
Queen Anne County - 3 words
44.12 - 5 words
No. 185 22nd St - 8 words
North Carolina - 1 word
10 000 000 - 8 words
and so forth.

The telegraph operator also had to understand railroad Engine Steam
Whistle Signals; here are a few (o - short sound and --- long sound):

o Stop. Apply breaks.
--- --- Release Breaks.
--- o o o Flagman go back and protect rear of train.
--- --- --- --- Flagman return from west or south.
--- --- --- --- --- Flagman return from east or north.
--- --- --- When running, train parted; to be repeated until answered.
o o Answer to any signal not otherwise provided for.
--- --- o o Approaching public crossings at grade.
o o o o Call for signals.

Air whistles are different, as are torpedo signals, light signals,
semaphore, etc.

Service Message Code:

N S N - No such number.
G B A - Give better address.
G S A - Give some address.
DFS - Disregard former service.
92 - Deliver.
Deld (or) 92d - Delivered.

There is also Phillips Press Code - an example:

"A dsx rain es wind storm psd tru t nt end o ta county tsm dsyg a gt deal
o prpy, roofs wr bln off a no o sma blgs es nux trees wr uprtd. A barn
blng to James Sampson ws stru by lghtg kig 3 horses es burng svl tons o
hay stored trin." This is standardized, but formed, it seems, primarily by
the elimination of redundancy. The header for the same example, however,
is another thing:

Hr tru No 39 VO HW "HX" ck 63 collect N P R"
and so forth.


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