Saturday, October 31, 2015

IT Failures? Or Gremlins?

Since today is Halloween, I'm going to talk about the gremlins who actually cause those mysterious failures of IT tech that my fellow Whores have been discussing all week. No, not the Gremlins of movie fame and much adorableness (unless fed after midnight...), but the original gremlins the RAF pilots started blaming for airplane failures in the 1920's.

These annoying, wire-cutting imps were first mentioned in a poem in 1929, but had been complained of in aviation circles for quite a few years prior. When you're flying a biplane, you don't want the wires cut! One writer claimed the name derived from an Old English word gremian, defined as "to vex". Someone else gives the gremlin a less lofty origin, inferring that some inebriated pilots might have combined the word Grimm from Grimm's Fairytales with Fremlin Beer. (I kinda like that theory.) Another source proposed that these were Scottish elves or fairies who'd developed an interest in technology along with the rest of the modern world. (And now they've moved on to tinkering with laptops and computers mwahahahahaha!)

Roald Dahl, who'd been in the RAF, wrote a children's novel about gremlins in the early 1940's, which was published and attracted Walt Disney's attention. The story was optioned for a movie, which then became a proposal for a short feature, which then eventually got cancelled over rights issues. I guess the gremlins were at work there too!

Others wrote about gremlins, and there were radio programs, and even a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And of course William Shatner's encounter with a gremlin in the "Twilight Zone" episode entitled "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" remains a classic.

Interestingly to me, the theories about the "why" of gremlin stories in wartime focused on aviation being so new, with many failures of equipment. Mechanical problems were so common, with no obvious explanation, that psychologists proposed the airmen made up these stories as a coping mechanism. Add in the fact that many of these failures occurred during combat, which is stressful in and of itself. Considering the crews often flew at great altitude with early oxygen mask technology, there may have been an element of hallucination at work as well. Combat historian Marlan Bressi even credited the legend of the gremlin with helping win the Battle of Britain by keeping morale up because pilots didn't have to blame each other or their ground crews for the problems - no fingerpointing. Blame the gremlins!

I leave you with Mr. Shatner and his gremlin:

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