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Admiral Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and the first woman Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. Hopper invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, tackled the original computer bug and helped program the 1944 Harvard Mark 1 computer. Her outspoken support of machine-independent programming languages led to the creation of COBOL, one of the very first high-level computer programming languages. Admiral Grace Hopper’s quote, “You manage things, you lead people,” still exists as a modern leadership mantra.

Youth and Education

Grace Brewster Murray was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, New York, the oldest of three to parents Mary Campbell Van Horne and Walter Fletcher Murray.[1] Her father and her mother’s father, John Van Horne, worked as insurance brokers. Her mother showed great interest in mathematics and often accompanied John Van Horne on surveying trips he did as a New York City senior civil engineer. Although society frowned upon women studying math during the time, he allowed Mary to study geometry, but not trigonometry or algebra, and she learned how to keep the family’s finances in check. Grace Murray grew up reading, playing piano, and playing with her sister Mary and brother Rodger. At seven-years-old, her mother caught her taking apart seven different alarm clocks since she couldn’t figure out how to put the first one back together. Murray enrolled in Vassar College in 1923 at age 17. She hoped to enter one year earlier, but failed the Latin exam and had to attend a boarding school in the meantime.[2] She graduated with a Bachelors in Mathematics in 1928. She then enrolled at Yale University and graduated with a Ph.D. in 1934. She married Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930 and began teaching at Vassar in 1931 while working on her Ph.D. Hopper continued to teach at Vassar until 1943.[3]

World War II Service

After the start of World War II, Grace Hopper requested a leave of absence from her position at Vassar to serve in the military. In 1943, she was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve as a member of the WAVES, or the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service.[4] [5] Since she weighed 15 pounds below the Navy’s minimum weight requirement of 120 pounds, she had to receive an exemption to enlist. In December 1943, Hopper reported to the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School located at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Modern computer users still refer to computer “bugs” after their first description by Admiral Grace Hopper.

In 1944, Hopper graduated first in her class and was immediately assigned as a Junior Lieutenant in Harvard University’s Bureau of Ships Computation Project. She joined Howard H. Aiken, the head of computer programming staff on the Mark I. They co-authored three papers on the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, known as Mark 1. She requested a transfer to the regular navy, but they decided her due to her age at 38. She continued working at the Harvard Computational Lab until 1949. She turned down an off from Vassar for a full professorship to conduct research with the Harvard Navy contract.[6] Before leaving Harvard, Hopper authored a Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. The 500-page manual outlined the fundamental principles for operating computing machines. She also successfully described the first computer bug. Vincent Hopper, her husband, perished serving the U.S. military in 1945.[7]

Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and COBOL

Grace Hopper left Harvard in 1949 for to become a senior mathematician at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. She quickly joined the team of programmers developing the UNIVAC I. [8] The UNIVAC I was the first digital computer that was all-electronic. She also invented the world’s first computer compiler. A compiler is a program that translates written instructions into specific codes that a computer can read directly.[9] Hopper discovered the compiler in 1952 and, in 1954, the company named her the first director of automatic programming. The work she and her department released included a few of the first compiler-based computer programming languages: FLOW-MATIC and MATH-MATIC.[10]

The practicality of the COBOL language created with the help of Grace Hopper makes it the most ubiquitous programming business language thus far.

Hopper joined the Conference on Data Systems Languages in spring 1959 and served as the committee’s technical consultant. The short-lived committee combined Hopper with many of her employees and it created the new Common Business-Oriented Language, nicknamed COBOL. COBOL built upon Hopper’s FLOM-MATIC language and the IBM version called COMTRAN. She believed that computer programs should use a language similar to English rather than assembly languages.[11]

Later Career, Retirement, and Death

Grace Hopper retired from the navy in 1966 as she approached the required retirement age of 62.[12] Hopper continued her connection with the Naval Reserve and they promoted her to Commander. She returned to active duty the following year when The Navy Programming Languages Group made her director from 1967 to 1977. She received a promotion to Captain in 1973. She worked on validation software for COBOL and a compiler to make COBOL a standard for the whole Navy.[13] Hopper lectured on computer programming and gave up to 300 lectures every year. She predicted the table top computer and that they would be integrated into the daily lives of non-computer programmers. Grace Hopper received two more promotions in the Navy, including in 1983 to Commodore, and as the first woman Rear Admiral in 1985. Admiral Grace Hopper died in 1992, and the USS Hopper is named in honor of her service. She was buried on January 7, 1992, at Arlington National Cemetery with full Naval honors. Her legacy lives on in that modern computer scientists still use the word “bug” after the first computer bug described by Admiral Hopper.[14] Her recorded statement, “You manage things, you lead people,” still circulates as an inspirational quote in modern leadership teachings.[15]

References

Bibliography


Bellis, M. (2016, August 23). The Younger Years of Grace Murray Hopper. Inventors: About.com.[2]

National Women’s History Museum. (2010, February 5). Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992). National Women’s History Museum.[3]

Ogilvie, M. (2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. New York: Routledge.

PBS. (1998). Grace Murray Hopper 1906-1992. A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries.[4]

Williams, K. B. (2003). Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U. S. Navy in World War II. United States: Naval Institute Press.


Footnotes

  1. Williams, 2003
  2. Bellis, 2016
  3. National Women’s History Museum, 2010
  4. Williams, 2003
  5. National Women’s History Museum, 2010
  6. Williams, 2003
  7. National Women’s History Museum, 2010
  8. Ogilvie, 2000
  9. National Women’s History Museum, 2010
  10. Ogilvie, 2000
  11. Beyer, K. W. (2009). Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  12. PBS, 1998
  13. Williams, 2003
  14. National Women’s History Museum, 2010
  15. Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. (1994). Grace Murray Hopper. Computer Science - Yale University.[1]

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