You’re trying to divide by zero


A scientist, testing a formula on Univac recently, was amazed to see the computing system stop, then automatically type the reproof: “You’re trying to divide by zero.” A quick check proved that Univac, as always, was right.

Click to image to read more. 1956 … good times.


13 thoughts on “You’re trying to divide by zero

  1. Dang! I was sold on it (and even had my checkbook out ready!) until I got to the line “So don’t wait until 1957 … 1958 … or 1959”. I guess there’s no point now: They’re probably all sold out…

  2. Those canned messages took up quite a bit of very precious space. I wonder how many “business english” phrases it stored?

  3. The first canned message I got from a computer really freaked me out. It was Bowling Green State University, the computer was the size of a Greyhound Bus, kept in its separate room where we could watch it through windows; the teletype monitors could not keep up with our typing speed (since we had learned on first-generation IBM Selectric typewriters, after all), so we had to wait after each line.
    It felt like magic to enter a bit of code (BASIC, naturally) and see the teletype chug away. Of course, the laptop I am on now has more computing power than that roomful of machines, but this is just a laptop. That was a computer.
    Anyway, I was toying around, trying to figure out something else to do, and for whatever reason–none that I could see then or now–the monitor paused, then typed:
    …Rotwang saw some blood last night…
    That was it. Scared the shit out of me.
    Of course, that was close to 20 years after the UNIVAC, so near as I can tell, computers had advanced to the point of sentience by then, and we had entered the brave new world of carbon-based second-class status to our silicon masters.

  4. I heard a story of a computer repair person who was poking around in the guts of a machine when the printer suddenly chattered. It had printed ‘If you touch me there again, I’ll scream.’

  5. Does anyone know what “It can now carry out commands given in simple business English” refers to? This was a few years before COBOL…

  6. …smalllol…
    I too was struck by the ‘simple business English’ thought.
    … and I still play with my slide rule occasionally, just for old times’ sake.

  7. The “simple business English” language would have been FLOW-MATIC, developed by Grace Hopper at Univac (and originally called just called B-0).
    IBM and Honeywell had similar business languages, though FLOW-MATIC was the first. DOD sponsored a standardization project which resulted in COBOL.

  8. Never forget: Univac is always right.
    Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
    The Revolution has begun….

  9. One of the best COBOL compiler errors/warnings I ever got in my past life as a mainframe programmer was:
    “Use of parentheses accepted but with doubts as to meaning”

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