‘garbage in, garbage out’: meaning and origin

Used of computer data, the phrase garbage in, garbage out, and its abbreviation GIGO, mean: incorrect or poor-quality input will produce faulty output.

This phrase and its abbreviation have come to be also applied to processes likened to computerised data processing. The following, for example, is from a letter to the Editor, by one Mary Lee Berger, “a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother”, published in the Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas, USA) of Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th September 2022:

How will any of our youth become an independent thinker, a productive and righteous citizen of our wonderful Nation without the proper and truthful education? Remember feeding “garbage in/garbage out” or is it “good in/good out” being poured into your child’s mind.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase garbage in, garbage out, and of its abbreviation GIGO, are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Hammond Times (Hammond, Indiana, USA) of Sunday 10th November 1957:

Work With New Electronic ‘Brains’ Opens Field for Army Math Experts

WASHINGTON—BIZMAC, UNIVAC, GARBAGE IN-GARBAGE OUT—all new terms in the Army.
They haven’t replaced GOVERNMENT ISSUE or BY THE NUMBERS, and probably won’t, but in a small, select circle they’re heard more frequently than the old expressions used by millions of veterans of World War II and Korea.
For these colorful expressions are part of the workday vocabulary of the military mathematicians who man the Army’s electronic computors [sic], the “brains” that, fed the right figures by the men who know how, come up with the right answers in a matter of split seconds.
Specialist 3-C William D. Mellin of Gardner, Mass., is a master of one of these machines, some of which are as big as four basketball courts.
MELLIN, a man of unusual occupation, has an unusual title. He’s an “electronic computer programmer,” one of a group performing as highly specialized soldiers in this unique military field.
In his Signal Corps work with the computer Mellin might be given a problem to solve in connection with radio frequency data. Done the old-fashioned way, it might have taken 50 girls with hand calculating machines a week to come up with the answer.
One man, however, in this case Mellin, “programs” the problem, a pre-planning task that may take a few hours or a couple of days of figuring out the step-by-step process to be taken by the electronic “brain.”
When this is completed, the information is fed—often as mathematical formulae—into the maw of the machine and, depending on the magnitude of the problem, the answer is obtained in seconds or minutes.
NEXT STEP is “debugging,” or checking the accuracy of the work. Did the results meet the original requirements or should the problem be rerun with corrections? That’s where “Garbage in-Garbage out” (GIGO) enters the vocabulary.
Mellin explains, “If the problem has been sloppily programmed the answer will be just as incorrect. If the programmer made mistakes the machine will make mistakes. It can’t correct them because it can’t do one thing. It can’t think for itself.”

2-: From The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia, USA) of Sunday 15th October 1961:

Electronics Helps Center

An electronic monster is in service at the Naval Supply Center to digest, read and print a lengthy report.
[…]
This maze of electronic wizardry costs the government about $10,000 a month. It has been in operation since last April and is known to manufacturer and customer as an electronic data processing machine.
The reliability of the monster depends on the quality of information fed into it.
Personnel who work with digital computers have their own way of expressing this: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

3-: From a letter to the Editor, by one W. E. Patton, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA) of Monday 11th December 1961:

In my opinion, data processing people fail too often to look beyond the walls of the machine room in designing a system to produce a certain result. As a matter of fact, they have coined a word, “Gigo” (garbage in, garbage out), to defend their position. A proper system should include input, processing and output, and provide controls for securing the proper results in each case. Until the industry has developed sufficient capable systems engineers with imagination and experience I feel certain that computers and other data processing equipment will continue to be ridiculed for this type [of] performance.

An expanded form of the phrase occurred in World’s Newest Problem—Just Too Much Information, by Jack Smith, Enquirer Science Writer, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of Sunday 9th February 1964—the author mentioned “a new word in information work”:

a word that describes the ineffectiveness of a question to a computer in gaining specific, desired information.
The word is GIGOAMS and it stands for Garbage In—Garbage Out—At Machine Speed.

The phrase garbage in, garbage out, and its abbreviation GIGO, soon came to be also applied to processes likened to computerised data processing. The earliest occurrences of this transferred use that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Market Is a Computer, by Leonard Edward Read (1898-1983), published in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (New York: Published by the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.) of March 1964:

WHEREVER there are people, there will be a market of some sort. The market can no more be eliminated than can its primary components—production and exchange.
Further, the market, be it rigged or free, is an enormously complex computer. It receives the data fed into it and gives off signals in the form of prices. Keep in mind, however, that a computer cannot exercise judgment; its answers merely reflect the data it receives; feed it wrong data and its pricing signals will be misleading or, as they say in the computer profession, “GIGO!”: Garbage In. Garbage Out.
Consider, first, the free market computer, as if it existed. […]
[…]
[…] The term GIGO is never applicable to the free market computer; the complex data are truthful, unrigged expressions of the universal economic situation in its continuous ebb and flow, and the price signals, ever changing, are accurate responses thereto.
Consider, second, something quite different, the U.S.A. market computer as it presently exists. […]
[…]
[…] Many of the data of the U.S.A. market computer are erroneous; the price signals, as stop and go signs, are and must be to some extent misleading; there is a generous portion of GIGO!
[…]
Consider, third, something very much different, the Russian market computer as it now exists. It is out of kilter and noninstructive simply because practically all data are rigged, riggers being in control over there. Free choice is at a minimum. What can be produced and what consumed is politically dictated by the riggers. Prices, too, are rigged; for in a command economy it is not possible for prices to be set in any other manner. Thus the Russian market computer is fed “garbage in” on so grand a scale that price signals are quite useless as production guides!

2-: From an article on instructional television, by G. K. Hodenfield, Associated-Press Education Writer, published in several newspapers on Monday 27th April 1964—for example in the Del Rio News-Herald (Del Rio, Texas, USA):

Charles Hettinger, field representative of the National Instructional Television Library, said […]:
“The use of television is somewhat like the use of a computer: if poor information is fed into a computer, poor programs are fed into a television system, poor programs are available instantaneously on unlimited numbers of television receivers.
“In the computer world, this phenomenon is termed ‘GIGO,’ for ‘garbage in, garbage out.’
“Instructional television is too difficult to initiate, too costly to maintain, and has too valuable a potential for education to risk ‘GIGO.’”

3-: From a letter to the Editor, by Martin Piribek, Executive Vice President of the First National Bank, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA) of Thursday 8th October 1964:

In business accounting, accountants use “FIFO” (first in first out) and “LIFO” (last in first out). In the new electronic computers jargon, a new phrase has been coined called “GIGO” (garbage in garbage out). I now look upon the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “GIGO.” With the exception of your financial section my personal feeling is that the Post-Gazette in its reporting and editing has reached an unprecedented low.
Please tell me what happened to the Grand Old Newspaper.

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