Grace Hopper’s accomplishments revolutionized the computing world for decades, but her wit and foresight continue to inspire innovators today.
Grace Hopper’s office was fairly typical, except perhaps for the pirate flag and the clock that ran backwards.
“The most dangerous phrase is, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’” Hopper was famous for saying.
That reversing timepiece and Jolly Roger flag were reminders that challenges could often be overcome by approaching them in novel ways, sometimes by bucking the system.
“Amazing Grace” Hopper — also known as The Queen of Computing, The Queen of Coding, Admiral Grace, Grandma COBOL, and The Grand Old Lady of Software — is recognized worldwide for her pioneering work in programming the first large-scale digital computer and for creating the first compiler. The latter paved the way for the first programming language that didn’t require a PhD in mathematics.
“Grace Hopper was a trailblazer for women like me to follow,” said Rahima Mohammed, a principal engineer in Intel’s Platform Engineering Group, who has five patents and more than 100 papers in her name. “She broke through gender and corporate barriers and inspired a new generation of technology developers and entrepreneurs to follow their own paths to bring new important concepts and products to market.”
Defying the odds
Born December 6, 1906, in New York City, Grace Brewster Murray came of age during the 1920s. Smart and level-headed, Hopper studied math and physics at Vassar College, then went on to earn a master’s degree and PhD in mathematics from Yale, becoming one of the first women to do so.
Along the way, she married Vincent Foster Hopper, becoming Grace Hopper (a name she kept even after the couple divorced), and landed a job as a math professor at Vassar.
She might have stayed there her entire career if not for an historic event.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hopper said in a speech recorded in the documentary, “The world was in a very, very critical state. Everybody in the country tried to do something for that war effort.”
Though Hopper was 37 and considered too old for the military, she convinced a recruiter to accept her as a reservist in the U.S. Navy WAVES program and graduated first in her class.
Lieutenant Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation team at Harvard tasked with developing a machine that could make fast, scientific calculations to understand such wartime things as the trajectories of warheads. This work gave birth to one of the first digital computers.
The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or the “Mark I”, was huge, measuring 81 feet in length, eight feet high, eight feet wide and weighing some 10,000 pounds.
Hopper’s job was to program it.
This involved translating mathematical problems into a numeric language the computer could understand. Though Hopper knew nothing about programming at the start, she learned quickly on the job.
“Grace is well known for ‘seeking forgiveness, not permission,’” said Jeni Panhorst, a computer engineer who serves as chief of staff for Intel’s Network Platforms Group. “She used to say ‘If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it because it’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.’”
Panhorst has seen this principle firsthand in her group’s work to transform the network infrastructure industry.
“This spirit of taking risks, coloring outside the lines, and changing the game is what truly makes a difference,” said Panhorst.
The most complicated problem Hopper and her team were asked to solve came in the fall of 1944 from John von Neumann, a mathematician and physicist working on the Manhattan Project. The challenge was to find a way to make a ball collapse in on itself, to mathematically calculate where force points should be positioned on a sphere to cause it to implode.
The Mark I ran calculations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months, until Hopper and team came through with a solution that was then applied to the designs of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered less than a week later, ending WWII.
Incidentally, when the Mark II (successor to the Mark I) encountered a glitch one day, it turned out that a moth had been drawn by the glow of vacuum tubes, fluttered in and got stuck in one of the electrical switches inside the machine. Hopper remarked that they had to “debug” the computer. The phrase stuck, becoming popular terminology in the computer science field.
A new chapter
After the war, Hopper accepted a position with Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and helped develop the “UNIVAC,” a name that became synonymous with “computer”.
She also created the first compiler, a program that translates human readable language into computer executable machine language. This was a revolutionary concept that greatly reduced the cost of translating computer programs to run on different hardware.
“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” she once famously said. “They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
Hopper joined a consortium called Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), tasked with developing a standard programming language for all computer. The group created Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), which is still used in some industries today.
Return to the Navy
In 1967, the Navy invited Hopper to return to active duty to help standardize communication between different computer languages. She was 60 at the time, and the assignment was supposed to be a six-month gig. It lasted 19 years.
During that time, Hopper became a spokesperson for the Navy, giving hundreds of talks about her experience in early days of computing and challenging the next generation to pick up the baton and carry it forward.
“Grace was simultaneously brilliant, spunky, irreverent and caring,” said Panhorst. “She used her brilliance for good. She knew how to make and take a joke. She knew when the best decision was to break the rules. She knew that people, more specifically young people, were the most important place to focus.”
One of the things that made Hopper such a popular teacher was her use of clever illustrations and analogies to help her audience make connections. During many of her speaking engagements, she distributed pieces of wire which were exactly 11.8 inches long, explaining that the length represented a nanosecond, the maximum distance that light or electricity could travel in a billionth of a second.
“When an admiral asks you why it takes so damn long to send a message via satellite,” Hopper told talk-show host David Letterman in 1986, while explaining the concept of a nanosecond. “You point out to him that, between here and the satellite, there are a very large number of nanoseconds.”
Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN (covered).
When Hopper retired from the Navy in 1986, she was 79 and the oldest active officer in service. After her retirement, Hopper served as a goodwill ambassador and lecturer for Digital Equipment Corporation.
She died in 1992 at the age of 85, but during her lifetime, Hopper received many prestigious awards.
She received the first ever Computer Science “Man of the Year” Award from the Data Processing Management Association, became the first woman and first American to be named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, and was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded by the Department of Defense. She was presented with the National Medal of Technology in 1991, becoming the first female individual recipient of the honor.
Everything from computer centers, scholarships, a Navy destroyer and a Google Doodle have been named for her, but the honor Hopper might have liked best is the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Considered the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, the annual event was established in 1992 by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI).
“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people,” Hopper once told biographer Lynn Gilbert. “I keep track of them as they get older, and I stir them up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
This year’s GHC event held in Houston on October 14 to 16, is expected to draw more than 12,000 attendees from around the world.
“This event is truly a celebration of the breadth and depth of women in computing fields, with over 500 presenters speaking on topics ranging from new applications of artificial intelligence to the latest research on human-computer interactions,” said Mon Sabet, director of GHC.
“Grace Hopper was not only an incredible mathematician and computer scientist during a time which was particularly challenging to be a woman in this role, she was also passionate about mentoring young people,” says Gabriela Gonzalez, a STEM strategist at Intel.
“Her legacy as a technology pioneer and woman of vision will continue to pave the way for the broader inclusion of women across all technology sectors for generations to come.”