If Builders Built Buildings the Way Programmers Wrote Programs, Then the First Woodpecker That Came Along Would Destroy Civilization

Gerald Weinberg? Conrad Schneiker? Arthur Bloch? Clifford Stoll? Dennis Hall? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Computer programs are not resilient. Small errors can cause a program to malfunction. In the 1960s a spacecraft bound for Venus quickly veered off course because a single character in the guidance program was accidentally omitted. This dangerous situation necessitated a self-destruct command and a multi-million dollar mission failure.

A vaguely remembered statement of exasperation reflects situations like this: A single woodpecker could destroy a vast wooden building if architects used the same design principles as computer programmers. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The CoEvolution Quarterly” in 1975. Conrad Schneiker compiled and published “An Abridged Collection of Interdisciplinary Laws” which included the following three items. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Weiler’s Law
Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.

Weinberg’s Law
If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

Westheimer’s Rule
To estimate the time it takes to do a task: estimate the time you think it should take, multiply by 2, and change the unit of measure to the next highest unit. Thus we allocate 2 days for a one hour task.

The 1978 citation presented further below identified the creator as Gerald Weinberg, an early computer scientist who had worked at the University of Nebraska.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1977 the saying was included in the book “Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!” compiled by Arthur Bloch: 2

WEINBERG’S SECOND LAW:
If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

In 1978 Paul Dickson included the statement in his book “The Official Rules”: 3

Weinberg’s Law. If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization. Corollary: An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.
(Gerald Weinberg, computer scientist, University of Nebraska. JE.)

The annotation “JE” meant that the information above had been supplied by John Erhman who had obtained it from a “computerized collection housed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center”.

In 1979 a slightly different version omitting the word “then” appeared in “1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles” compiled by John Peers: 4

Weinberg’s Law :
If builders built buildings the way the programmers wrote programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

In 1984 “Aircraft 2000: The Future of Aerospace Technology by Bill Sweetman” employed a variant using “architects” instead of “builders”: 5

In the words of a conventional engineer’s cynical adage: ‘If architects built houses the way programmers write software, one woodpecker could bring about the collapse of civilisation’.

In 1989 Clifford Stoll published “The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage”. Stoll had been working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when he discovered that a spy had broken into the organization’s computer network. Dennis Hall, Stoll’s colleague, employed another variant of the saying: 6

“Our software is fragile as well—if people built houses the way we write programs, the first woodpecker would wipe out civilization.”

In 1992 a book of computer cartoons printed an instance using “carpenters” instead of “builders”: 7

“If carpenters built buildings the way programmers write programs, then civilization would be destroyed by the first woodpecker to come along.”

In conclusion, Gerald Weinberg is the leading candidate for creator of this saying. He was the author of “The Psychology of Computer Programming”, “Introduction to General Systems Thinking”, and several other books.

Image Notes: Picture of computer code displayed on a screen from Pexels at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Ben Aveling whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Aveling identified the 1989 citation. He also located a picture of a mug with the slogan that had been posted on reddit with a description stating that the mug was from 1982. Special thanks to Ivan Van Laningham who accessed the 1975 citation and sent scans to QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1975 Winter, The CoEvolution Quarterly, Issue 8, An Abridged Collection of Interdisciplinary Laws by Conrad Schneiker, Start Page 138, Quote Page 139, Published by Point, Sausalito, California. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1977, Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! by Arthur Bloch, Chapter Expertsmanship, Quote Page 81, Price Stern Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1978, The Official Rules by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 184 and 197, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 45, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1984 Copyright, Aircraft 2000: The Future of Aerospace Technology by Bill Sweetman, Chapter: Computers, Quote Page 33, Column 1, The Military Press, New York; distributed by Crown Publishers. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1989, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage by Clifford Stoll, Chapter 15, Quote Page 75 and 76, Doubleday, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1992 Copyright, Computers by Herbert I. Kavet, Unnumbered Page (10), Ivory Tower Publishing Company, Watertown, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)