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2018.11.16

Debugging had to be discovered!

I start my Communications of the ACM article titled Modern debugging techniques: The art of finding a needle in a haystack (accessible from this page without a paywall) with the following remarkable quote. "As soon as we started programming, [...] we found to our surprise that it wasn't as easy to get programs right as we had thought it would be. [...] Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant [...] when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs." A Google search for this phrase returns close to 3000 results, but most of them are cryptically attributed as "Maurice Wilkes, discovers debugging, 1949". For a scholarly article I knew I had to do better than that.

By methodically going through the search results, I found the quote in a document titled Highlights from Digital Computer Museum Report 1/1982. According to the report, Maurice Wilkes gave a talk titled "The Design and Use of the EDSAC" at the inauguration of the first exhibits of The Computer Museum on September 23rd, 1979; the quote was a highlight from his speech. Even better, the report stated that the lectures were recorded on video-tape for the Museum's archives. However, to complicate matters, Boston's Computer Museum closed in 2000, and much of its collection was sent to the Computer History Museum in California.

I searched the Computer History Museum's catalog and went through the Computer History Museum's YouTube channel for a talk with the title given in the TCM report, but couldn't locate it. Having found some videos, such as this one on the development of Z1 through Z4 by Konrad Zuse that were "unlisted" on YouTube, I feared the specific video might also be hidden. In desperation I wrote to the museum's curators with the faint hope they would be able to locate the video tape and upload it to YouTube or send me the URL of the unlisted video.

Then, a couple of weeks later, still waiting for a reply from the Computer History Museum, I noticed that one of the available Wilkes's talks had a title and date somewhat similar to the one I was looking for: "The Birth and Growth of the Digital Computer", 1979. In desperation, I started watching it. The quality was fine for a forty-year old video and the content proved to be quite interesting, though not directly relevant to debugging. And then, 25 minutes into the video I heard Wilkes utter his famous quote! I immediately updated my manuscript with the correct primary source so that, for the first time, it would be correctly cited in print.

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Unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material on this page created by Diomidis Spinellis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Greece License.