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Oct. 24, 2008

Moth sculpture

"The Moth," commissioned for the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building and sculpted by Mac Adams, has a special meaning for those who work with bits and bytes. Photo by Bob Elbert.

New sculpture is the stuff of legends

by Diana Pounds

If you've been wondering about that new white marble sculpture on the lawn west of Coover Hall, your curiosity is about to be satisfied.

But first, a story. On Sept. 9, 1947, a team at Harvard University was having trouble with the primitive computer it had built. After some exploration, someone found the culprit -- a moth stuck between metal points on a relay. The computer was "debugged." And the new phrase "computer bug" appeared on the scene just in time for the advent of the Information Age.

Some might quibble that "bug" was used to define troublesome technical problems well before the Harvard team found a dead moth, but there's no doubt about the authenticity of the story. The bug, taped to an ancient log book, resides today in a museum. And there's no doubt that computer programmers enjoy the legend of the first computer bug.

Members of Iowa State's electrical and computer engineering department relayed the tale to sculptor Mac Adams when he came to campus to scout out the art site and find out more about the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building and the people who'd work there. Adams' subsequent proposal -- three slabs of elegantly sculpted Vermont marble that line up to form the image of a moth -- won over the art selection committee.

Adams is an internationally known sculptor, said Lynette Pohlman, director of university museums. His Iowa State creation, "The Moth," is typical of his work, she said, in that it's abstract and impressionistic and makes strong use of light and shadow.

She added that on two days of each year, the moth will be perfectly reflected on the ground. What days? "I don't know or want to know," Pohlman replied. "I want to look each day and be delighted when it happens."

The sculpture was funded through the Iowa Art in State Buildings Project, which designates one-half of one percent of the cost of construction projects to works of public art.


A marble sculpture interprets early computing history outside the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building.