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What is the Bit Bucket?

Robert Grimmick
Robert Grimmick

The bit bucket is an imaginary container where lost or discarded computer data is said to have gone. It is commonly used as a humorous explanation for disappeared e-mails or misplaced documents. The term may have been inspired by a physical container used to collect bits of paper from punch cards on early data processing machines. Dead-end network routes and special files designed to discard data are also sometimes known as bit buckets.

Bits are the smallest and most basic unit of digital information and serve as building blocks for larger files. Even a one-page text document can be comprised of hundreds of thousands of individual bits. As these bits are modified, copied, and transferred across network links, things can occasionally go wrong and data can be lost. When a bit is lost, discarded, destroyed, or otherwise inaccessible, it is sometimes said to have gone to the bit bucket.

Data lost to computer crashes is said to have gone to the bit bucket.
Data lost to computer crashes is said to have gone to the bit bucket.

The bit bucket, sometimes touted as the Great Bit Bucket in The Sky (GBBITS), is an imaginary construct, a sort of black hole that can be blamed for damaged or lost computerized data. Although the term is part of computer jargon, it is almost always used lightheartedly. An e-mail that mysteriously disappeared between sender and receiver might be blamed on the bit bucket, much like the "gremlins" that are sometimes blamed for puzzling mechanical problems on aircraft. Data lost to a computer crash, corrupt disk, or even operator error can be blamed on this mythical container.

Ordinary users and technology columnists alike have invented new names for this legendary home of last data. The terms Write Only Memory (WOM), First In Out Never (FINO), and Write Once Read Never (WORN) are all very similar to the bit bucket. Some technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs have capitalized on the term’s popularity. Blogs, computer stores, technology panels, and a code hosting service for programmers have all used the bit bucket name.

In a modern computing context, the bit bucket is nothing more than a piece of digital folklore, but the term may have originated with a real piece of equipment known as a chad box. In the era of unit record equipment, i.e., mechanical precursors to the electronic computer, these metal boxes were responsible for catching the tiny bits of paper from every punch card and were sometimes called bit buckets. This may have provided inspiration for later usage of the term.

Although there is no actual bit bucket, the term is sometimes used to refer to actual issues in computing involving discarded or lost data. In networking, the term is sometimes meant to refer to a “null route,” i.e., a network route that leads nowhere. Unix-like computer systems have a similar concept called “/dev/null,” which is a file designed to discard any data written to it. Even the recycle bin or trash folder on a computer is occasionally referred to as a bit bucket.

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    • Data lost to computer crashes is said to have gone to the bit bucket.
      Data lost to computer crashes is said to have gone to the bit bucket.