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Who Was Grace Hopper?

Short answer: a pretty amazing woman who furthered the field of computer science.

By A Little Birdie | Posted on December 6, 2018 in Coding


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January 20, 1984: Commodore Grace Hopper.

January 20, 1984: Commodore Grace Hopper.
Naval History and Heritage Command

This coming Sunday would have been Grace Hopper’s 112th birthday. Born on December 9, 1906, she was a lady who lived through some pretty interesting times and accomplished a heck of a lot in her 85 years, including major contributions to the field of computing. She was a woman of great intelligence and, from what we have gathered from interviews and video clips, a woman too with a good sense of humor and a keen wit.

Because we’re coders as well as gift givers around here, we thought that, as we did for Ada Lovelace on Ada Lovelace Day, this would be a timely moment to share a few highlights from Grace Hopper’s long and distinguished career, as well as links to several online locations where you can read more about her and/or hear from her in her own words.

Without further ado, here’s a little bit about this digital pioneer:

  • Born in New York City as Grace Brewster Murray, Hopper had a fondness for gadgets from an early age, starting with disassembling alarm clocks.

  • Hopper attended Vassar College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1928 and earning degrees in both math and physics. She then went on to earn both a masters (1930) and PhD (1934) in mathematics from Yale University, completing the latter while simultaneously teaching at Vassar.

  • Following Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into World War II, she endeavored to enlist in the Navy but her application was initially denied. Eventually, she was permitted to join the U.S. Naval Reserve and began training in December, 1943 to serve in the WAVES. She was given a commission of lieutenant junior grade and assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There, she began working on Mark I, the first electromechanical computer in the United States.

The first actual computer bug.

The first actual computer bug.
© Little Birdie Me

  • Hopper made significant and serious contributions to the Harvard-based team. It was one of her more lighthearted contributions though that gave us a bit of a chuckle when we learned about it from a display we happened upon in Harvard’s Science Center, a moment that showcases Hopper’s sense of humor. Check out the above page from the Mark I team’s log book - the computer had started acting up and Hopper, in her efforts to repair the machine, discovered a moth had gotten stuck in one of the relays. She taped the moth into the log book and wrote, “First actual case of bug being found.” Perhaps this is the origin of the phrase used so ubiquitously these days?

  • At the conclusion of the war, Hopper requested a regular commission in the Navy. Her request was denied (due to her age) but she remained a reservist. Turning down a full professorship at Vassar, she continued to working in Cambridge under a three year Navy contract.

  • At the end of the three years, she moved to Philadelphia, accepting a job at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There, in 1952, she developed the first compiler. Compilers play an important role in computer programming - essentially they allow programmers to write code in words as opposed to symbols or numbers, a much more human-friendly way to work and one that opened the field to folks who were not necessarily math or engineering experts. While at Eckert-Mauchly, Hopper was also a key player in the development of the COBOL language, the most widely used computer language at the dawn of the 1970s.



  • Ultimately, “Amazing Grace” Hopper served in the Navy for forty three and a half years and was on active duty for nineteen of them, retiring as a rear admiral at the age of 79 in 1986. At the time, she was the oldest serving officer in the U.S. armed forces. Following her retirement, Hopper worked at Digital Equipment Corporation until her death on January 1, 1992.

  • Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.


SOURCES:

Biography of Grace Murray Hopper.” Office of the President. Yale University. Web. 19 July 2018.

USS Hopper (DDG 70): Named for Rear Admiral ‘Amazing’ Grace Hopper.” U.S. Navy. Web. 19 July 2018.


Tags: computers, computer science, history, history of computing, women who code


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