In this edition of Pioneering Women in Technology, look at the life of Grace Hopper – or to give her full title, Rear Admiral (United States Navy) Grace Brewster Murray Hopper.
Hopper was born Grace Brewster Murray in New York City in 1906. Identified quite early on as a bright, curious and driven young woman, Hopper attended Vassar college where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics before earning her master’s degree and PhD in Mathematics and Physics from Yale in 1930 and 1934 respectively.
In 1931, Hopper began teaching Mathematics at Vassar. She taught there for over 10 years and was promoted to associate professor. However, the outbreak of World War II would change the trajectory of Hopper’s life and the development of computer programming forever.
The Naval officer
In 1944, Hopper obtained a leave of absence from Vassar and joined the United States Navy Reserves. On enlistment, she trained at the Naval Reserves Midshipmen’s School in Massachusetts and graduated first in her class. Due to her intelligence and background Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University where she served on the Mark 1 computer programming staff, headed up by Howard A Aiken.
Mark 1 was a general purpose electro-mechanical computer that was used by the US Military in the war effort. Capable of performing enormous calculations, it was purposed by the Manhattan project to perform the calculations needed in the development of the atomic bomb. Hopper remained working at the Harvard Computer Lab until 1949 and it was during this time she co-authored several papers with Aiken on the Mark 1.
The computer programmer
In 1949, Hopper left Harvard and became an employee of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician and part of the team which developed UNIVAC, the world’s first commercial computer. It was during this time that Hopper invented the first compiler for a computer programming language.
Simply explained, a complier takes high-level programming language and translates it into ‘machine code’ or ‘assembly language’. This concept enabled the development of computer programmes that are independent of the machines.
The programming language developer
On the back of this ground-breaking work Hopper was appointed as Eckert-Mauchly’s Director of Automatic Programming and under her they released some of the very first compiler-based programming languages, including MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC.
The work that Hopper and her team pioneered lead to the development of machine-independent programming languages, in part based on Hopper’s belief that they should be written in a language which was as close to English as possible. From this idea, COBOL was developed as one of the first high-level programming languages.
COBOL went on to be one of the most ubiquitous business languages: In 1997 Gartner Group estimated that there were close to 200 billion lines of COBOL in existence. It is still widely used today in legacy applications, primarily for batch and transactions processing jobs.
Now, the above achievements may have been enough for most people, but not Hopper. She also developed the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and their components. These standards now form the basis of The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Hopper spent the rest of her life and career dedicated to education and lecturing. On being asked what she felt her most important accomplishment was, Hopper stated:
”The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it’. And I back ‘em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ‘em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
Hopper died in 1992, aged 85, and was interned with full military honours in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1996, in honour of her life and achievements, the USS Hopper—nicknamed Amazing Grace—was launched. It one of the few very U.S. Military vessel named after a woman
Grace Hopper was—and still is—an inspiration for women in technology the world over. The above summary only skims her accomplishments and achievements and quite rightly a number of awards, departments and talks are named in her honour, including the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – a series of conferences designed to bring the research and interest of women in computing together.
Pioneering Women in Technology is a series of blog posts (written and researched by the team) celebrating women who have made an impact in the technological sector across the decades. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.