Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992)
You may not know Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper by name, but the technology you’re (likely) using to read this might not exist without her.
Hopper was a mathematician by training, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. She taught math at Vassar College — where she’d received her bachelor’s degree — for ten years. During World War 2, she took a leave of absence to join the United States Navy Reserve and worked with early computer systems at Harvard.
After the war, she began to work for the corporation developing the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer in America. As part of Hopper’s work, she pioneered the development of the “compiler” — a program which translates one computer language into another, thus making a programmer’s job easier. (One writer dryly notes “she did this, she said, because she was lazy, and hoped that the ‘programmer may return to being a mathematician.'”)
Hopper was also instrumental in creating the computer languages COBOL and FORTRAN. She even helped popularize the computer term “debugging” –meaning to fix a computer glitch — after an actual moth found in a Navy computer.
But Grace Murray Hopper was also funny, and capable of instantly quotable observations like “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall which runs counter-clockwise.”
She really did have that clock in her office, and a skull-and-crossbones flag as well.
Hopper was a memorable (and popular) teacher and lecturer:
In her speeches Admiral Hopper often used analogies and examples that have become legendary. Once she presented a piece of wire about a foot long, and explained that it represented a nanosecond, since it was the maximum distance electricity could travel in wire in one-billionth of a second. She often contrasted this nanosecond with a microsecond – a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long – as she encouraged programmers not to waste even a microsecond.
Colorful details like that meant that after her (involuntary) retirement from the Navy at the age of 80, she became a star of popular media–interviewed on 60 Minutes, and even making an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
After she described her work on early computers, Dave asked her, “How did you know so much about computers then?”
“I didn’t, it was the first one,” she told him.
Grace Murray Hopper learned by doing, and was the antidote to “We’ve always done it this way” thinking.
We’re all in her debt.
Portions of this “Nevertheless, She Persisted” entry are based on my 2012 blog post “Amazing Grace.”
Backus, John. “Difference Engines: Bridging the Language Gap.” Computerworld, May 1, 2006.
Finley, Klint. “Tech Time Warp of the Week: Watch Grace Hopper, The Queen of Software, Crack Jokes With Letterman.” Wired, October 10, 2014.
Pearson, Gwen. “Google Honors Grace Hopper … And A ‘Bug.’” Wired. December 9, 2013.
United States Navy. “USS Hopper (DDG 70).”
Yale University Computer Science. “Grace Murray Hopper.”
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