Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Grace Murray Hopper

(1906-1992)

The programming pioneer Grace Murray Hopper was born December 9, 1906 in New York, New York, USA. Grace enjoyed playing with machines when she was a young girl. She took apart several alarm clocks owned by her family to see how they were put together inside and she spent lots of time building strange vehicles with her Structiron kit. Her grandfather, John Van Horne, was a surveyor for New York City and Grace sometimes helped him hold his surveyor's pole when he was planning new streets. She learned about angles, curves and intersections. She was a very good student in school and was accustomed to be at the head of her class. When asked about influences in her life, she said, "My mother's very great interest in mathematics and my father's, a house full of books, a constant interest in reading, and insatiable curiosity... these were a primary influence all the way along."

In 1924, Grace enrolled in Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She majored in math and physics. In her senior year in college, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, an honorary society for students with top grades. She won Vassar College Fellowship which provided money for further education. After graduating in 1928, she enrolled in Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut to earn a master's degree in mathematics. After receiving her degree in 1930, she married Vincent Hopper, an English instructor at New York University, whom she had dated for a couple of years.

After returning from her honeymoon in Europe, Hopper accepted a position at Vassar as a math instructor. Her teaching methods were rather unusual. She tried to show the role mathematics played in real life by showing concrete examples. In her probability course, she required her students to play bridge and to play dice games. She then had them predict the results. In another course, she had them plan a city, figure out the expense of running it and where to get the money to cover those expenses. She sometimes gave out final test exams at the beginning of the course, so that her students would know what they were expected to learn. Hopper continued her own education as well and, in 1934, she earned a Ph.D degree in mathematics from Yale.

Hopper's great-grandfather, Alexander Russell, and her personal hero had been a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. So when the United States became involved in World War II, she hoped to join the Navy as well. However, at that time, the Navy did not accept women candidates. By 1943, when there was a shortage of men who could serve, the Navy started accepting women into WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). The recruiting posters said, "Enlist in the WAVES- Release a Man to Fight at Sea." Hopper was eager to join, but she was turned down. They said that at 36, she was too old, she didn't weigh enough and being a teacher, she was needed elsewhere to teach future soldiers and sailors. Hopper, therefore, took a leave of absence from Vassar and returned to the recruitment office. She convinced them to accept her. She was sworn in in 1943 and started officer training. She graduated at the top of her class from Midshipman's School in 1944 as Leutenant JG (Junior Grade) Grace Murray Hopper. She was immediately assigned to work at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project. She was going to work with computers at Harvard University under the direction of Howard Aiken.

Her first computer was the Mark I. Hopper was to use it to compute firing tables for weapons. She obtained mathematical formulas for firing tables, then wrote them as a series of instructions for the computer to follow. Those instructions were then translated into binary code (a system which uses only two digits, 0 and 1) that the computer can understand. These were delivered as punched holes in reels of paper. Punched holes were 1's and were read as switch ON, allowing the current to flow through. Zeros were covered and were read as switch OFF and the current would not flow. Although this was laborious work, once the computer was programmed, it could perform the same computations quickly and many times over, saving time in the long run. In 1946 Grace Hopper published a book A Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.

In 1945 Grace and Vincent divorced. They had no children. Grace continued her work with the Mark II and Mark III. She hoped to write computer programs that would allow other scientists and eventually non-scientists to use computers directly, instead of having to depend on computer specialists to do this for them. Her colleagues told her it wouldn't happen, because only scientists had the necessary knowledge to use computers. Hopper was determined to make computers accessible to many other people in the future. In 1949 she left Harvard and started working at Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She joined the team working on construction of the Universal Automatic Computer, Univac I. It used vacuum tubes instead of electromechanical relay switches and was to be twenty times faster than the Mark III. It also had internal memory.

Her original staff comprised four men and four women. Hopper liked hiring women. She said, "Women turn out to be very good programmers for one very good reason. They tend to finish up things, and men don't very often finish." Her next goal was to get the computer to translate its own codes and call on preprogrammed subroutines when needed. She finished the program in 1952 and called it the A-0 compiler. That same year the Navy promoted her to lieutenant commander. She then started working on a program that would be used for business-oriented tasks. By 1955 she finished the code with twenty business commands, such as "count" and "display". Her program named FLOW-MATIC became a model for a new program COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language), which was developed by a team of programmers while Grace Hopper was one of the advisors for the team. She was later referred to as Grandmother of COBOL.

In 1966 Hopper was promoted by the Navy to commander, but she had reached the legal limit of twenty years for serving as a reservist and on December 31, 1966, she retired. Within six months the Navy officials decided they needed her back to work with COBOL, so they asked her to come back on temporary duty, which was later changed to "indefinite". Her new job was to combine various versions of COBOL into USA Standard COBOL. She was known among her coworkers as "Amazing Grace", or "a little old lady who talks to computers." Her office had a skull-and-crossbones flag and a wall clock that ran backwards. This was to remind people to be flexible in their thinking.

She was one of two women named fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and in 1979 she won IEEE's McDowell Award. In 1985, Grace Hopper was appointed Rear Admiral by President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, she retired again from the Navy, this time for good. She was the nation's oldest military officer on active duty. After her retirement from the Navy she accepted a position with Digital Equipment Corporation as senior consultant, where she remained until her death. In 1991 President George Bush awarded her the National Medal of Technology. She was the first individual to receive it.

Grace Hopper died in her sleep on January 1, 1992, at the age of eighty-five. She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia with a full Navy funeral. She kept on receiving honors even after her death. In 1994 she was inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame and the Navy announced that they would name a guided missile destroyer USS Hopper.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1998.

Bibliography:
1. Grace Hopper. Programming Pioneer by Nancy Whitelaw. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1995
2. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992

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