To Err Is Human, But a Human Error Is Nothing To What a Computer Can Do If It Tries

Agatha Christie? Bill Vaughan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Previously you examined a humorous statement from columnist Bill Vaughan about the electronic beasts that control so much of our lives:

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

I think that the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie said something very similar. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1969 Agatha Christie published “Hallowe’en Party” featuring her masterful Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The character Mrs. Oliver tells Poirot that he is acting like a computer by programming himself with data about the crime that occurred. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“It is certainly an idea you have there,” said Poirot, with some interest. “Yes, yes, I play the part of the computer. One feeds in the information—”

“And supposing you come up with all the wrong answers?” said Mrs. Oliver.

“That would be impossible,” said Hercule Poirot. “Computers do not do that sort of thing.”

“They’re not supposed to.” said Mrs. Oliver, “but you’d be surprised at the things that happen sometimes. My last electric light bill, for instance. I know there’s a proverb which says, ‘To err is human’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

The quip by Bill Vaughan is discussed here. It appeared in April 1969, 2 and Christie’s book was published the same year, but writing a book is often a lengthy endeavor, and QI does not know precisely when Christie composed her computer remark. Thus, the chronology is uncertain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading To Err Is Human, But a Human Error Is Nothing To What a Computer Can Do If It Tries

Notes:

  1. 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)
  2. 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)

Youth Is When You’re Allowed to Stay Up Late on New Year’s Eve. Middle Age Is When You’re Forced To

Bill Vaughan? Anonymous?

newyears01

Dear Quote Investigator: I once read a humorous comment about New Year’s Eve that contrasted the experiences of the young and the middle aged. The young were joyful because they were “allowed to stay up late” while the older people held a different opinion. Are you familiar with this joke and its origin?

Quote Investigator: A long running syndicated newspaper column in the U.S. presented the remarks of a fictional politician named ‘Senator Soaper’. The author of the column changed during the decades it was published. The following quip appeared in 1958 and was written by Bill Vaughan whose full name was William Edward Vaughan: 1

Senator Soaper Says …
Youth is when you are allowed to stay up late on New Year’s Eve. Middle age is when you are forced to.

Senator Soaper’s remark was printed in multiple newspapers in 1958. In 1959 the same statement was printed in an Ohio newspaper together with miscellaneous comical items under the title “As We Were Saying”. However, no attribution was given. 2

Here is one additional selected citation.

Continue reading Youth Is When You’re Allowed to Stay Up Late on New Year’s Eve. Middle Age Is When You’re Forced To

Notes:

  1. 1958 December 31, Oregonian, “Senator Soaper Says …”, (Column of Bill Vaughan), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1959 January 10, Findlay Republican Courier, As We Were Saying, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Findlay, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

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

Paul Ehrlich? Alexander Pope? Senator Soaper? Bill Vaughan? Agatha Christie? 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, 1 the Yale Book of Quotations, 2 and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. 3 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”. 4 But the earliest examples of the phrase attributed to Ehrlich were published many years after the words originally appeared in print.

In 1969 a thematically similar remark appeared in the book “Hallowe’en Party” by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie: 5

I know there’s a proverb which says, ‘To err is human’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

A separate article about the Christie quotation is available here.

The first close match located by QI appeared on April 2, 1969 and was credited to a comical personage named ‘Senator Soaper’ who was the fictional alter ego of the newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan. The words initially appeared under that name in a Virginia paper: 6

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

Current evidence suggests that William E. Vaughan crafted this phrase although it is possible he was influenced by the Agatha Christie passage.
Continue reading To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

Notes:

  1. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Sayings 49”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 October 6)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 670, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [Inside title Columbia Book of Quotations], Page 171, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link
  4. 2008 January 1, Website: devtopics.com, DevTopics: Software Development Topics, 101 Great Computer Programming Quotes. (Accessed December 5, 2010) link
  5. 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)
  6. 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)