Grace Hopper Computer Pioneer. From the Mark I to Laptops, “Amazing Grace” Was On the Scene. In the 1940s Grace Hopper “got into” computers in a big way. The Mark I was 51 feet long, eight feet high and eight feet deep. She entered (got into) the computer.
Grace Hopper entered Vassar at the age of 17, started teaching at Vassar in 1931, received her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale in 1934, and had reached the position of associate professor at Vassar by 1941.
Grace Hopper and the Navy
Her family had a long association with the military so it was no surprise in 1943 when she resigned her post at Vassar and joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). She was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade and assigned to Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There she worked with computer legend Howard Aiken. As she walked through the door on her first day, Aiken greeted her with, “Where the hell have you been? Here, compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday.” And so began Grace Hopper’s work with computers.
- 1943: Entered the Navy WAVES.
- 1945: Request to transfer to regular Navy after war denied because she was too old (38). Remained in Naval Reserves.
- 1966: Forced to retire.
- 1967: Recalled to active duty for “six months” that lasted until 1971 (2nd retirement).
- 1972: Was asked to return to active duty.
- 1973: Promoted to Captain.
- 1983: Promoted to Commodore.
- 1985: Promoted to Rear Admiral.
- 1986: Final retirement from the Navy. At the time she was the oldest active duty officer in the United States (80) and the retirement took place on the oldest ship in the Navy (USS Constitution “Old Ironsides”).
Shortly after her last sojourn in the Navy she was asked about her accomplishments and she said: “I sure seem to do a lot of retiring.”
Grace Hopper and Computers
The nickname of “Amazing Grace” was assigned to Grace Hopper early in her career. There was never any challenge too big for her to tackle. Instead of fighting change she embraced it. For those who said, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” her response was verbal and visual. “In the computer industry, with changes coming as fast as they do, you just can’t afford to have people saying that.” The visual was the clock in her office. It ran counter clockwise.
- While in the Naval Reserves she mastered the Mark I, II, and III.
- Wrote a 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator that described the basic principles of computers.
- In 1947, while troubleshooting a problem in the Mark II she found a moth stuck in a relay and listed the activity as “debugging the computer.” She taped the insect into her log book. That first computer bug can be viewed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum at Dahlgren, Virginia. (See photo.)
- In 1951, while at Sperry-Rand, she invented the compiler, a mainstay in computers that allows them to use high-end computing languages (English-type commands instead of machine—binary 0s and 1s—code.
- In 1959 she and her team completed work on COBOL, a high-end business language. It was estimated in 2009 that COBOL accounts for over 70% of computer code used in computers.
- In the early 1960s she worked as a consultant and lecturer for the United States Naval Reserve.
- From 1971-1978 she lectured at George Washington University.
- She was a consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation from 1986-1988.
Awards and Honors for Grace Hopper
There was no shortage of praise and accolades for this “grandmother of COBOL.” Private, Public, and Military all provided her with awards and honors.
- 1969: “Man of the Year” from Data Processing Management Association (1st recipient).
- 1973: Legion of Merit; Distinguished Fellow, British Computer Society (1st American so honored).
- 1986: Awarded Defense Distinguished Service Medal, highest award possible from Department of Defense.
- 1991: National Medal of Technology awarded by President George Bush.
- 1994: Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- 1997: Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer commissioned as the USS Hopper, “Amazing Grace.” (See photo). Only a very small number of Navy ships have ever been named after women.
- She held an amazing 47 honorary degrees in her lifetime.
Grace Hopper was well-suited to her nickname of “Amazing Grace.” She approached tasks with an open mind. “We’ve always done it that way,” was not a part of her vocabulary. Perhaps the motto on the crest of the USS Hopper (See photo) sums up her life philosophy best. “Aude et Effice.” Translation: “Dare and Do.” Grace Hopper died January 1, 1992.