Posted in American History, essay, history

Women of History: Admiral Grace Hopper

For this week’s edition of Historical Women, we travel a bit closer to our own time.  Our subject today is Grace Hopper, an American Admiral and computer scientist.  I have talked about her before, as she is one of those people I’ve always wanted to know more about.  She is one of the pioneers in computer engineering, and is the one said to have coined the term “Bug” for a computer problem.

She was born Grace Brewster Murray on December 9, 1906 in New York City, the eldest daughter of Walter & Mary Murray.  She was known for having an early interest in how things worked, taking apart things and putting them back together.  This followed her into her career.  

She was admitted into Vassar at 17 where she earned  a bachelor’s in Mathematics and physics in 1928.  She had tried to get into the college at 16, but didn’t have high enough latin scores.  However, she didn’t just stop at Vassar.  She earned her master’s degree and Doctorate at Yale University, where she had been part of a small program including three other women and 6 men. After graduating, she soon became a professor at her alma Mater of Vassar.  While studying at Yale for her doctorate, she married Vincent Hopper, an English Professor in 1930.  Most sources say they divorced, although the Yale page I added at the end claims he died during WWII in 1945.  I am more ampt to believe that it was divorce, as most sources claimed they divorced, and that he died in 1976.  They had no children, and Admiral Hopper never remarried or changed her name.

During World War II, She attempted to enlist in the Navy.  The first time she was denied for being too old (34), and because her job as an educator was considered too important for her to be removed from.  However, she took a leave of absence and joined the Naval Reserves.  She graduated first in her class, and was assigned to work on a computer project at Harvard University.

This program included the creation of the Mark I computer.  The Mark I was an ASCC computer created to help the war effort.  It was a combination of efforts from various countries.  It was used to develop mathematical tables, and various other calculations.  It started work in 1944, and was over 10,000 pounds. It was 50 feet long, 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide according to military Officer (2014)   Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers to work with the computer.  At the time, the computer received instructions from punch cards put together to form loops that would be in binary.  It was dismantled in 1959 (having been succeeded by several updated versions created by Howard Aiken, one of the initial engineers).  Hopper called this coding, although that would later be replaced by the term ‘programming’.  HOwever you can still see the lingering impact of her use of the term of coding, since programming is still often called ‘code’. She also created small snippets of code that could be reused called sub-routines and was eventually asked to create a manual for the Mark I.

It was during this time she discovered a moth in the computer disrupting the system.  While the term was already in use, she’s often given credit for the term debugging because of this incident.

She once again asked to be transferred into the regular Navy, but was declined because of her age.  However, she continued to serve the Navy as a reservist. SHe worked at Harvard till 1949.

She also worked on the UNIVAC Project  UNIVAC was the first large-scale electronic computer on the market and an advancement on the Mark I computer she had worked on earlier.  It was during this project that she created the idea of compiler languages, although it was a few years before the idea of using words instead of numbers was accepted as a possibility.  She developed her own compilers known as MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC which would later become  part of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language).  Her team would later come out with different languages.  She has since been nicknamed the ‘Grandmother of Computing” for her efforts in computer languages.

Initially her idea of compiler languages was wasn’t seen as viable method.  However, she eventually created her own compiler and wrote several papers on the subject.  By 1954 she was made the Director of Automatic programing at company she was working at, and COBOL itself was defined in 1959.

During the 1970s, she helped the Navy produce the standards for Navy’s use of computer systems.  She developed software and compiler languages for the Navy.  She also advocated for computer networks with less centralized computers.

During the 1980s, she was promoted to Commodore, which was later renamed Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1985.

She retired involuntarily in August of 1986 with the rank of Rear Admiral, and was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.  SHe was 79 years old at the time of her retirement, making her one of the oldest active-duty officers in Naval History.  She continued to be a computer consultant, and educator until her death in 1992 at 85.

There is the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference each year. This year they will be holding a conference in Orlando Florida in October.  I’ve included their website and twitter account below.

Since her death, she has had ships, schools, computers, and organizations  named after her as well many other honorary titles.

This is just a brief summary of her life, I do suggest investigating and finding more about her yourself.  There are plenty of audio and video links online of her in her teaching engagements as well as articles about her life as a computer programmer/coder for the US Navy.

Further Reading:

Grace Hopper (Wikipedia)

Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing
Website     Twitter Account

Biography.Com: Grace Hopper

Yale: Grace Murray Hopper

Harvard Mark I (Wikipedia)

Amazing Grace (Military Officer, March 2014) by Mark Cantrell


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A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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