Female Role Models: Grace Hopper, the “Queen of Software”

‘If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it because it’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.’

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper

This is the story of a woman whose list of achievements is endless. Grace Hopper, or “Amazing Grace”, was a United States Navy Rear Admiral, an outstanding mathematician and a pioneering computer scientist.

She is the person who has popularized the term “computer bug” and is also known as the “Queen of Code” for creating the first machine-independent programming language. Here is the story of this inspirational woman:

To put things in context:

New York in 1900s

The US, the 1900’s: large cities, such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago and Boston are attracting people from all over the place. New York, is already becoming the buzzing city it is now and the centre of trade, communications and culture. Brooklyn (earlier an independent city) joins Manhattan, and Bronx, Queens and Richmond are established as Boroughs. New York is growing and attracting businesses to open their headquarters there.

Originally, Grace Brewster Murray, Grace Hopper was born in 1906 in New York. Her parents were of Dutch and Scottish descent and she had two younger siblings. Grace has always been curious, she needed to know what things are made out of and loved disassembling things. For example, when she was seven years old, she wanted to see how an alarm clock worked – and dismantled seven of them before her mother even noticed.

Grace studied mathematics and physics at Vassar College and earned a master’s degree and a PhD from Yale University before returning to Vassar for good to pursue a career in academics.

In 1930 she married Vincent Foster Hopper, a professor from New York University, who gave her a new surname. The couple never had children and divorced in 1945.

Life changing decisions:

Grace Hopper was in charge of programming one of the first digital computers

As World War II shook the world, Grace Hopper felt like it was her duty to contribute. She took a leave of absence and decided to sign up for the United States Navy, however, was declined due to her age (she was 37 at the time).

However, she was accepted into the United States Navy Reserve and joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program.

Due to her mathematical past, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation team at Harvard, which was working on the IBM Mark I computer, which was essentially a giant calculator, whose main purpose was to help understanding trajectories of missiles. It was one of the first digital computers.

Hopper didn’t know how to program, but she picked it up pretty quickly. She was one of the first three people to program Mark I.

A visionary and the “Queen of Software”:

When the war ended, Grace Hopper turned down a full professorship offer from Vassar and resumed her research at Harvard. She soon started working at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, developing the UNIVAC I, which stands for UNIVersal Automatic Computer.

Admiral Hopper believed in change and always tried to do things differently. She had a pirate flag in her office (Grace sometimes called herself a “pirate”) and a clock that was going backwards. One of her famous quotes is:

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

Grace Hopper

Programming at the time consisted of entering complicated numerical sequences to do mathematical calculations. Grace Hopper believed that the process could be simplified in order to appeal to a much wider audience as well as to add more functions. In 1952 her team developed the first compiler – a program that translates human commands into computer language:

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. … they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.”

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC

Grace Hopper didn’t stop here, she led the team that developed COBOL – not only the first language that could be used across different devices but also one of the first languages to use English words as commands. COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language and it is still used in some industries.

COBOL opened up a new world, now programmers didn’t require PhDs in mathematics in order to write code and also the same code could be used across different computers. Just like Grace Hopper envisioned it, computers became more widely used in business applications.

“But Grace, then anyone will be able to write programs!”

Unsourced quote around the time of COBOL development

Retirement? There’s no time for that:

Admiral Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper retired at the age of 60 in 1966 but was recalled to active duty less than a year later. Her help was needed to standardize communication between different computer languages. Hopper was meant to stay on the project for 6 months but ended up staying for another 19 years in the Navy. When she retired she was 79 and reached a title of rear admiral and was the oldest serving officer at the office.

Grace Hopper couldn’t sit at home at the age of 79 and ended up taking on another job after her retirement from the Navy. She worked as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation until she died at the age of 85 on January 1, 1992. She was laid to rest at the Arlington National Ceremony with full military honours.

Amazing Grace:

The first computer bug

Grace Hopper was a visionary, she always thought outside of the box, to see if things can be done differently. This is probably why she has achieved so much in her lifetime.

Admiral Hopper was passionate about programming and encouraged young people to learn how to do it. She had a great sense of humour and always knew when and how to make a joke. As I’ve already mentioned, the term “debugging” was popularized by Hopper: when she was at Harvard, working on Mark II (Mark I’s successor), the computer wasn’t functioning properly. As it turned out, there was a moth stuck in some mechanism and when it was removed, the computer resumed to work properly. Grace commented on it, saying that they have “debugged” the computer and the saying stuck:

“From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”

Grace Hopper

She was also famous for always bringing props in order to explain what is a nanosecond. You can watch part of that explanation during her interview with David Letterman at his Late Night Show in October 1986:

After watching this video I fell in love with Grace, she is truly amazing and an inspirational example of how a woman can go against all odds and achieve great things. Grace Hopper has won an endless amount of awards, including some of the first technology awards ever given to a woman. Along with many things, a navy destroyer (USS Hopper) is named after her and she keeps inspiring people with the annual event organized by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

I’m so inspired by this fantastic woman, by her spirit and her determination to change the way things are done. Grace Hopper is the third woman I write about in the Female Role Model series and I’m so excited to continue researching and writing. These women are incredible, strong and great examples of why we should never give up

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