Stranger Fruit

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.


  1. #1 Miguel
    January 18, 2009

    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. #2 Romeo Vitelli
    January 18, 2009

    Forget these newfangled gadgets. You can’t go wrong with an abacus.

  3. #3 Thony C.
    January 18, 2009

    You can’t go wrong with an abacus.

    I’ve got modern, I use a slide rule.

  4. #4 Mike
    January 18, 2009

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

  5. #5 DLC
    January 18, 2009

    Hm. I am reminded of the movie “Collosus: The Forbin Project.”
    ( )
    but hey, Univac only took up a middling-small building.
    I wonder how long it too Univac to come up with “you are trying to divide by zero” ?

  6. #6 Anon
    January 18, 2009

    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.

  7. #7 Richard Simons
    January 18, 2009

    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.’

  8. #8 Barry
    January 18, 2009

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

  9. #9 mrcreosote
    January 18, 2009

    “I can’t let you do that, Dave”

  10. #10 ...tom...
    January 19, 2009


    I too was struck by the ‘simple business English’ thought.

    … and I still play with my slide rule occasionally, just for old times’ sake.


  11. #11 Murray Bowles
    January 19, 2009

    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.

  12. #12 yogi-one
    January 20, 2009

    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….

  13. #13 Dave Wisker
    January 23, 2009

    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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