Female Role Models: Grace Hopper, the “Queen of Software”
Grace Hopper's list of achievements is endless. "Amazing Grace” was a United States Navy Rear Admiral, a mathematician, and a computer scientist. She also popularized the term "computer bug". She was known as the “Queen of Code” for creating the first machine-independent programming language! Here is the story of this inspirational woman.
"If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it, because it’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission." -Grace Hopper
To put things into context:
New York in 1900s
Imagine being in a big city like San Francisco or New York City in the 1900s. New York was already becoming the center of trade, communications, and culture. Brooklyn joined Manhattan, and Bronx, Queens and Richmond as an establish borough. New York was the place to open a new business!
Grace Hopper was born as Grace Brewster Murray in 1906 in New York. She was Dutch and Scottish, and had two younger siblings. Grace had always been curious: she always wanted to disassemble things to understand what they were made of. At seven years old, she dismantled a bunch of alarm clocks to understand how they worked, all before her mom even noticed!
Grace went on to earn her master's in math and physics at Vassar College, and later a PhD from Yale. She then returned back to Vassar to become a professor.
In 1930 she married Vincent Foster Hopper, a professor from New York University. The couple never had children and divorced in 1945.
Grace's life changing decisions:
Grace Hopper was in charge of programming one of the first digital computers
Flash forward to World War II. Grace Hopper felt like she had to contribute somehow. She took a leave of absence and decided to sign up for the United States Navy. Sadly, she was declined due to her age (she was 37).
However, she was accepted into the United States Navy Reserve. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program.
She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation team at Harvard. They were working on the IBM Mark I computer, which was essentially a giant calculator. The main purpose of this computer was to understand the trajectories of missiles. It was one of the first digital computers.
Hopper didn’t know how to program, but picked it up pretty quickly. She was one of the first three people to program Mark I.
Grace Hopper the visionary and “Queen of Software”:
When the war ended, Grace Hopper turned down a full professorship offer from Vassar. Instead, she resumed her research at Harvard. She soon started working at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, developing the UNIVAC I, which stands for UNIVersal Automatic Computer.
Grace Hopper believed in change and liked to be different. She had a pirate flag in her office (she sometimes called herself a “pirate”). She also had a clock that was ticking backwards!
“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 that runs counter-clockwise.” -Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper thought of things differently, including programming. She believed it could be simplified to appeal to a much wider audience, and add more functions. In 1952 her team developed the first compiler – a program that translates human commands into computer language.
“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. … they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.” -Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC
Grace Hopper didn’t stop there! She led the team that developed COBOL – the first language to be used across different devices, and the first to use English! COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language and it is still used in some industries.
COBOL opened up a new world. Now, programmers didn’t need PhDs in mathematics to write code. The same code could be used across different computers. Just like Grace Hopper envisioned it, computers became more widely used in business applications.
Admiral Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper, relax? No way!
Grace Hopper retired at 60 in 1966. Less than a year later, she was recalled to active duty. They needed her help standardizing communication between different computer languages. Hopper was meant to stay on the project for 6 months, but ended up staying for another 19 years! She retired again at 79, after reaching the the title of rear admiral. She was also the oldest serving officer at the office!
But of course, Grace Hopper relax even after her second retirement. She was a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation until she died at the age of 85 on January 1, 1992. She was laid to rest at the Arlington National Ceremony with full military honours.
The first computer bug
Amazing Grace Hopper:
Grace Hopper was a true visionary. She always thought outside of the box, which is probably how she achieved so much in her life!
Admiral Hopper was passionate about programming and encouraged young people to learn the subject. She had a great sense of humour and always knew when and how to make a joke.
The term “debugging” was popularized by Hopper: when she was at Harvard, working on Mark II (Mark I’s successor), the computer wasn’t functioning properly. As it turned out, there was a moth stuck in some part. When it was removed, the computer resumed to work properly. Grace commented on it, saying that they have “debugged” the computer and the saying stuck:
“From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”
She was also famous for always bringing props in order to explain what is a nanosecond. You can watch part of that explanation during her interview with David Letterman at his Late Night Show in October 1986:
After watching this video I fell in love with Grace, she is truly amazing and an inspirational example of how a woman can go against all odds and achieve great things. Grace Hopper has won an endless amount of awards, including some of the first technology awards ever given to a woman. Along with many things, a navy destroyer (USS Hopper) is named after her and she keeps inspiring people with the annual event organized by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
I’m so inspired by this fantastic woman, by her spirit and her determination to change the way things are done. Grace Hopper is the third woman I write about in the Female Role Model series and I’m so excited to continue researching and writing. These women are incredible, strong and great examples of why we should never give up