Category Archives: Paul Ehrlich

To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

Paul Ehrlich? Alexander Pope? Senator Soaper? Bill Vaughan? Anonymous?

compute07Dear Quote Investigator: I am reading your blog and that shows I am not a Luddite, but computers can be very exasperating. One of my favorite quotations on this topic is the following:

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.

When I tried to find out who said this originally I came across the name of biologist Paul Ehrlich. He wrote an influential and controversial book “The Population Bomb” in 1968. But I cannot figure out where or when Ehrlich said this quotation. Would you delve into this and determine the specifics? I suspect that it is another anonymously authored witty remark.

Quote Investigator: The popularity of this funny maxim is indicated by its appearance in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OEC], the Yale Book of Quotations [YEC], and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [CEC]. In each of these three references the adage is presented as anonymous. The Yale Book of Quotations gives the earliest cite dated October 3, 1969.

Paul Ehrlich is credited with the quote in some places, e.g., in a listing of “101 Great Computer Programming Quotes” [HGC]. But the earliest examples of the phrase attributed to Ehrlich were published many years after the words originally appeared in print.

A comical personage is credited with the maxim in the first cite discovered by QI which is dated April 2, 1969. ‘Senator Soaper’ was the fictional alter ego of the newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan, and the words initially appeared under that name in a Virginia paper [FVEC]:

To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.

Current evidence suggests that William E. Vaughan crafted this phrase though it is possible he was simply repeating it. Here are selected citations in chronological order starting with the poet Alexander Pope.

Continue reading